IDPs can go home by year end

Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe is the man responsible for putting in place arrangements to house thousands of civilians who have fled to government controlled areas from the battle scarred war zones in the north. While asserting that these welfare centers are only temporary measures, and that steps were being taken to expedite their return home, he assures that no one will be forced to return, unless it is on an informed choice of their own decision...

With nowhere else to run, the civilians in the LTTE controlled regions in the Wanni are now in a desperate struggle for survival. While the government blames the LTTE for their predicament, many international organisations and governments have expressed concern over the conduct of the Sri Lankan authorities.

The recent spate of attacks on the media has also received major international media play of late. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe is the man in the thick of it all. He is engaged in a delicate balancing act between serious international concerns, and the real security considerations facing the government. In addition he also has to deal with the heat from Geneva and other parts of the world, with regard to the climate of impunity, and safety of media practitioners in the country.

To discuss these issues and the current humanitarian situation in the Wanni, The Nation caught up with the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, in the middle of an eventful weekÖÖ

Following are excerpts:

By Dharisha Bastians

Q: What would you say is the greatest challenge facing the government in terms of getting civilians out of the battle zones?
The greatest challenge now in terms of what is happening in the Wanni, is to get the civilians out of the control of the LTTE, and then to look after them and resettle them in their original places of habitat. That is the immediate challenge. Of course as the LTTE is taken out of the picture, there are new challenges that need to be faced in a post-conflict scenario. Those are political, economic, cultural, linguistic and development issues that need to be addressed. And of course social issues such as reintegrating ex-combatants into the mainstream of society so that they can start a new life. We are now in the process through this ministry, of preparing for the post conflict phase. Right now the main challenge is to get civilians out of harmís way.

As much as what the government is trying to do to get the civilians out, we call upon our international friends and partners to bring about pressure on the LTTE to release these people immediately. We would also like to call on the Tamil Diaspora as some of them do have a lot of influence even now vis-ŗ-vis the LTTE leadership, since they have been propagating the ideals of the LTTE for many years and have been the organisationís lifeblood. We call on them to look at what is happening in the Wanni realistically: look at the way the bomber blew herself up in the midst of women and children: look at the way the LTTE in cold blood, shot and killed those who were escaping three days ago. Look at all the other civilian deaths occurring inside, and use whatever influence they have on the LTTE, to ask them to let go of these civilians who have no role, and no part, in this conflict. I think the Tamil Diaspora can do this- and that they should do it- if they really have any love for their brothers and sisters in the north.

Q: Can you take us through what happens to these civilians once they enter government controlled territory?
There is a four step process which we are in fact finalising now. When they first come out, they are received by the military who are at the front line. These are not soldiers carrying guns, but doctors in the military for example and other women and male cadres without guns. There is an initial screening process, because you cannot have other suicide bombers blowing themselves up.
Then they are immediately given a nutritional pack consisting of several items, and medical attention is also immediately given to everyone. Subsequently they are given a hot meal, and a further ration pack for them to consume whenever they want.

This process takes between 24-48 hours the most. Then they are immediately handed over to the GA. The GA comes in on the second stage. The GA has now identified government buildings where these IDPs are housed. There we have also ensured there are comfortable surroundings, medical attention by way of a small medical unit in each of the shelters, people who would look at the schooling needs of the children, and special needs to be addressed through a ĎHelp Deskí in each of the stations. If families are separated for example in the process of getting out of the battle zone, people can go to the Help Desk to try and track down their family members. There will be people there with communication facilities who will be able to contact other camps, and look for these people and unite the families.

So these kind of services will be provided, and of course cooked meals are provided along with whatever other pressing needs there may be. Here we are looking at keeping them for only between 4-6 weeks maximum. We are in the process of constructing welfare villages at the moment. These villages will have detached housing where separate families can live, there are separate toilet facilities for women and men, a hospital, a small pre-school and older children will be sent to the closest school. Each of the villages will also have a vocational training centre, so the youth inside the villages can use their time productively by learning a skill. We are also looking at the possibility of teaching them English so that they can improve their employability.

Sporting grounds and a volleyball court are also going to be part of the welfare village system. Those villages will be run by civilians, much like the second stage, where they will be housed in government buildings. In both stages we have decided to invite the UN and its preferred partners to go in there and complement whatever assistance the government is giving. There is no access issue either now, and people from outside can now come and provide whatever facilities are needed.

The idea is that while these people are in the villages, to start the de-mining process as a first step. Then the roads have to be reconstructed and electricity, water and other infrastructure facilities have to be restored. Then the basic government institutions such as the divisional secretariat, the post office, a bank etc will be opened simultaneously. Next we will organise what we call Ďgo and seeí visits. We will organise community leaders to be taken to the villages and see for themselves what development has taken place, and they will then decide whether it is safe for them to go back. These community leaders will come back and tell the others what they have seen, and it will be an informed choice that they will make to go back.

No one is going to be forced to go back. They have to believe that it is safe to return, and only then will they be taken back. All this will be done in the shortest possible time. Weíre looking at, before the end of the year. I donít really think it will take so long. We have a lot of experience in doing this. For instance we resettled 40,000 people in Muttur in 40 days; Vakarai was de-mined, infrastructure was restored and people resettled within 3-4 months. There is no substitute for wanting to resettle them as soon as possible. But at the same time we are not going to take short cuts. We have to ensure that the environment is safe, so that the resettlement is sustainable.
Once they are resettled, we will start addressing their livelihood needs. There is a lot of work to be done.

Q: Do you envisage a huge military presence in the area, once the people are resettled?
Letís be realistic. We canít ask the military to withdraw from these areas. Even after resettlement they have to be given security. We are talking about an end to a 25 year conflict. We also know that there have been LTTE cadres who have been intermingling with the IDPs in the hope of infiltrating. So there is a lot of work to be done in the future.

So I think the people will want the Police and the military to be there. It will not be a military run place of course: we obviously want to have elections soon. Local government elections first, provincial elections next, and there will be a civil and political administration in those areas. But of course given the motives and determination of the LTTE, there is always a threat of another move by them. So the most important thing in my opinion is to win the hearts and minds of the people, and to do that, we must really address their genuine grievances- not by means of a military solution, but through a political settlement.

Q: After the suicide bombing at the beginning of the week, has anything changed in the screening process, when people enter government controlled area?
Well, the unarmed nature of the soldiers will continue, because we are coming into contact with civilians. People who are with the civilians, as soon as they come out, in any case are doctors and medical staff. I canít give you details of the change for security reasons, but there was a change. We donít want information going into the wrong hands, because they will try to circumvent the measures we have put in place. The LTTEís game plan is to create a fear psychosis in the people: to say Ďdonít go, if you go we will kill youí. Itís a tough one, it is not easy. But we have taken certain steps with the intention of maintaining the safety of civilians when they are coming in. It is in the interest of the civilians that whatever step has been taken without inconveniencing the civilians and ensuring their rights. It is being done professionally, learning from the mistake of what happened last Monday, and ensuring that kind of thing doesnít happen in the future.

Q: Since the bombing, have you noticed a drop in the number of civilians escaping the fighting?
On the day of the bombing, we had a figure of about 4000-5000 people coming in. The next day also around the same number came out. But what happened after that was, that the LTTE was forcing people into get into their trucks, and started taking them eastwards outside the safe zone. They could not control the situation in the safe zone because people were just breaking ranks and coming out. People were determined to get out, and they were being led by priests, nuns and other community leaders.

What has happened is that now the bulk of the people in the safe zone have now gone to the newly declared safe zone, on the coast near Mullaitivu, and they are all there. So we are in the process of exploring ways and means of getting them out, either by asking them to come to Mullaitivu, which is not very far from where they are currently, and then the Army will receive them there, and bring them to safety. Or we are exploring possibilities of evacuating them by boat.

Q: When do you foresee journalists and others being given access into say, even Vavuniya, to actually see these processes you have outlined at work as it were?
We donít really want to make this a circus either. These are people who could be highly traumatised as a result of being in the situation they were. These are not animals, they are human beings. Thrusting a microphone in front of them and making them speak, with tears pouring down their faces is a good image for a television station, but what about the well being of these people? What about what they are going through in having to recall and narrate what they faced? From a government perspective, their story of getting out, is excellent propaganda for us. But we donít want to put our citizens through that sort of thing.

We of course want to facilitate the media to capture the situation as it is. We are working on it, and we hope to send the media in shortly. Notwithstanding this, certain foreign and local journalists have been sent to these areas, and they have filed reports from there which have been aired worldwide. We will continue to allow this as well. Very soon we will allow all of you to go there and see for yourself what the government has been doing, and allow you to find out what the peoplesí aspirations are as well. Iím all for the media to be allowed in there, but in a measured manner so that the people are not inconvenienced.

Q: In terms of funding for these welfare villages and the actual resettlement process, how much comes from the government, and how much from foreign agencies and governments?
Quite clearly the bulk of the funding comes from the government. Even the food convoys Ė up to now the GAs and the Ministry of Relief Services, have sent 38,000 metric tonnes of food and non food items. Whereas the World Food Programme and Others in the UN system have sent 8000 metric tonnes into the Wanni. There is a big difference. In the same way, in the running of the camps, the responsibility is taken by us. We give the GAs the resources, and they use those resources to obtain the camp needs.

As I told you, we have started allowing UN agencies and the UNís preferred partners amongst the INGOs and NGOs to go in there, and complement the efforts of the government. For example UNICEF is the focal point in the UN system for providing water and sanitation. UNICEF works through organisations like Oxfam. So we have allowed them to go in there and help us to put up toilets and provide safe drinking water. The UNHCR is the UNís focal point on camp welfare as well as shelter provision. UNHCR has already started providing shelter requirements to the GAs for these camps. So they are handling all this very effectively, but they are only complementing the government. Government takes the major responsibility, and even if the UN and the INGOs and NGOs are not there, we will run the camps to the same standard. But since they have come to Sri Lanka on our invitation, and are here to discharge a mandate in these areas, and they want to get involved and help us, we have said, okay, come and help us. So that relationship will continue.

Q: Given the recent media play the civilian situation in the Wanni has been getting internationally, there have been some negative perceptions created about international organisations, like even the ICRC which has always been a neutral player in our conflict scenarios. Do you, like others in the government, see the ICRCís statements to the press as a real problem? Or are they permitted to make their own observations in a conflict zone?
The ICRC was the only international organisation which was allowed by us to remain in the Wanni because of the special services they provide, such as manning the entry-exit points, exchange of dead bodies etc. We asked them to stay in and they did an excellent job. ICRC is not a flyby night operation. It has been around for a time-tested period. They have been working in Sri Lanka for a long period and doing some solid work. But that does not give them the authority nor the space to make subjective statements. That also does not make the ICRC a perfect organisation Ė and no one is perfect. I acknowledge that they are making a huge contribution, and we will continue to facilitate them and work closely with them. But everyone makes mistakes, and the ICRCís nature is such that it works in a very confidential manner all the time, which is why they are given the access that other organisations are not given in this type of a conflict situation. They have a very professional approach, and they donít play things out through the media. If there is a shortcoming, they seek a time with the government and they deliver their demarches. The same way they do that with the other party to the conflict.

Lately we find that there are very sensational statements being made by some members of the ICRC. Now I donít agree that this is correct. I donít think the ICRC should do this. And some of these statements have been extremely subjective. I hope that the ICRC will correct themselves in the future because they are a very valuable organisation, and we want the ICRC to stay and continue their work in this country. We have not had any major issues, and I hope that they will follow the practice of confidentially when taking up issues with either side, so that they can be constructively addressed and sorted out, rather than trying to play it out through the media.

Q: As Minister of Human Rights, how much flak are you really getting from places like Geneva and New York about the incessant attacks on media personnel in this country?
There is great concern when journalists are attacked and killed. Very real concern is expressed. We have of course been keeping them informed of what the government has been doing in terms of setting up special investigative teams into these killings and incidents of intimidation, and so on. I am not in charge of investigations conducted by the Police. But what I can say is that as Minister for Human Rights and a member of the government, my desire is also to see that the culprits are caught and dealt with, within the laws of this country. We are all waiting for this to happen but it is not an easy thing to do, because in this type of a complex situation it is a very hard challenge to overcome.

When the Defence Secretary was targeted in a bomb explosion, it has taken more than two and half years, and there is still no conclusion reached in investigations. Same goes for the assassination attempt on the Army Commander. But at the same time there have been successes. There was a time we were hearing about abductions and disappearances in Colombo. An MP from the UNP named a certain individual behind it, and the CID moved in to investigate the claim. This person was arrested and almost overnight the abductions stopped. The same thing happened with regard to the spate of investigations in the east. In both these cases what was found was that these abductions were taking place by and large for ransom. This was criminal activity. People were using the tense situation in the country to make money. So there have been some successes. But I would have preferred if there had been more success in bringing the proponents of these attacks to book. I donít mind admitting that I take the flak when I go abroad when these things are thrown at me. I put across whatever the government has done in the most convincing manner I can. But the fact remains that until the culprits are caught, there is that question mark, always. So letís hope that the investigations will render results- so that whatever damage our countryís image has suffered, can be repaired.