|Next steps for the IDPs in Vavuniya|
|Thursday, 19 February 2009|
More than 30,000 people have escaped from the Vanni in recent days, despite the best efforts of the LTTE to keep them back as a human shield. Last weekend, the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services the Hon. Rishad Bathiudeen led a delegation of Government and United Nations officials and representatives from the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies to visit the welfare centres in Vavuniya to both assess the current situation and discuss plans to look after these IDPs until they can go home.
The IDPs are being provided with their basic needs. On arrival, they are checked by doctors so that any people with medical problems can be treated or sent to hospital, if necessary. They get a special energy pack, given the exhausting journey they will have made from the Vanni, plus a hot meal, drinks, fruit and other snacks. Special categories of IDPs such as old people are also taken care of at this early stage, being allowed to move into homes for the elderly, while priests and any orphans are moved to churches.
All the other IDPs are then taken to the transit sites, where they are expected to stay for up to a couple of weeks. Many of these are in schools. The Government is already working to augment the water and sanitation facilities, and IOM has provided additional shelters for those who cannot be accommodated within the premises. Ample food and other necessary supplies such as soap, sarongs and so on are provided to all the IDPs as well.
There are some problems, but these are in the process of being addressed, and on an urgent footing. The main issues highlighted during last weekend’s visit were the quality of the food and the question of locating family members in other transit sites.
To ensure that food quality is of the appropriate standard, those supplying the meals are being urged to also handle distribution, so that concerns can be dealt with immediately. Further, the Government is this week trialling a system of the IDPs cooking their own meals on site.
While there aren't many people who have become separated from their families during the journey out of the Vanni, this is clearly a very disturbing situation when it happens, and everything possible must be done to resolve it. The Government Agent has been collecting data from all the transit sites, but this is proving a rather slow process. One proposal made during the visit last weekend was to adopt a more personal approach, appointing a group in each location to go around and check if the IDPs were looking for somebody. Meanwhile, the Software Association has been working on a special database that will facilitate the collation of what will eventually be a large amount of data, so that even friends and relatives from abroad could locate people easily.
More important than these few areas in which steps are already being taken to resolve problems, there is a system in place. A committee of the relevant ministries and other agencies has been set up, and there is coordination with both the United Nations and NGOs. On the ground, there are daily meetings between Government officials and the Army staff responsible for the management of the transit sites.
The transit sites are currently full, but one of the activities during the trip was to look for a plot of land for UNHCR to put up more substantial temporary shelters that could house people for a somewhat longer period, thus giving people more space and allowing the schools to get back to work quickly.
The idea is to arrange these, as with the welfare villages that have already been put up by the Government, along a more community oriented format than standard IDP centres. This is inspired by what H.E. the President saw in China for victims of the earthquake. It means that the welfare villages should include plenty of open spaces and many of the facilities that would be available in the IDPs’ own homes. For example, each location will have a school, playground, community centre, health centre, bank, post office, IT centre and so on. People are also being organised into groups according to their district of origin to encourage the community spirit.
Critics have attacked the dependence on the military, suggesting who knows what untoward intentions on the part of the Government. But the fact is that the military is both efficient and well motivated to ensure that the gains made at heavy cost to them in terms of blood, sweat and tears, particularly the lives of their fallen comrades, are not in vain. That soldiers have been able to establish a rapport with the people is obvious from the media coverage of the transit sites, and this was in evidence during last weekend’s visit. Further, people who have for so long been living under the control of the LTTE naturally look to the military for assistance. While civilian staff are also present in numbers, it is usually to soldiers that the IDPs turn.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that there is a need for security. The LTTE has made it clear that everything possible will be done to dissuade civilians from leaving the Vanni. As well as directly shooting at people as they attempt to leave, the LTTE is determined to instil fear in them of being caught up in a suicide bombing or other attacks in the Government controlled areas. The LTTE’s brutal killing of several dozen people at an IDP centre recently shows as much.
The other concern being expressed by some critics is about the length of time people will have to spend in the welfare villages before they can go home. Some imaginative activists seem to think that there are plans to keep them in camps for the rest of their lives. While the situation of old IDPs in other areas has remained unresolved for much too long, it should be remembered that many of these people could not return home because of the continuing occupation of their land by the LTTE. Pretty much all of the IDPs displaced by the fighting in the East returned to their homes very quickly once the area came under the full control of the Government.
Delays are the result of the mines set by the LTTE. While many of the surface mines were cleared by the Army as they advanced, or can be quickly, civilians cannot return until the area has been checked for deep mines. The United Nations requires exploration down to several feet, to ensure that farmers would not be at risk when ploughing, for example. The LTTE had not laid many deep mines in the East, which is why this process did not take very long there, but the Army anticipates finding many more in the Vanni.
While this is going on, other preparatory work for the return of the IDPs is already underway. The Government is working on the reconstruction of the A9 and A32. Meanwhile, the World Bank has agreed to lend money for the rehabilitation and expansion of the power grid in the Vanni, and negotiations are underway with other agencies for funds to repair the irrigation systems destroyed by the LTTE and upgrade them to the necessary standard.
The Government is also offering training in the welfare villages so that people will go back with enhanced skills and therefore better opportunities for a livelihood. The Agriculture Department is running courses, and a plot of land has been set aside for a farm, which is hoped will contribute to the feeding of the residents as well as helping in these teaching efforts. A Vocational Training Centre is being constructed, and work has already started on carpentry, masonry and sewing programmes, while there are plans to offer training in food processing, driving and IT as well.
In short, while the IDPs have clearly undergone a very traumatic experience, and the presence of over 30,000 people does lead to some problems, the Government is providing the IDPs with their basic needs and more, and prospects for the near future are good. The Government is determined to get the IDPs back to their homes as quickly as possible, while not compromising on their safety, and meanwhile is making the best of a very unfortunate situation. It should be remembered that the LTTE is responsible for the problems of the IDPs, while the Government is looking after them, as usual.
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
|Last Updated ( Friday, 09 October 2009 )|
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