No one is safe as Tigers fight to the death

Humanitarian crisis War zone traps 150,000 Civilians - including 50,000 children - endure daily shelling and hunger trapped in the rebels' last enclave
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The Independent Online

Some stare, others frown. Some smile at the camera, though there is remarkably little for them to smile about. As these youngsters trapped in Sri Lanka's war zone stand in line with their bowls and cups, waiting patiently for soup, there are reports that food is running low and that children are dying almost every day from sickness and injury. All the while the fighting continues. Shells explode, gunfire rattles.

These children are just some of the victims of a conflict that is all but hidden from view of the outside world. Unofficial UN estimates suggest 150,000 people are still trapped in the battle zone, confined to a tiny strip of land measuring no more than 7.7 square miles that, with all the terrible Orwellian irony of war, has become known as the "no-fire zone". In truth, but for a brief two-day pause over the Sri Lankan new year, there is shelling and artillery fire every day. Of these civilians, an estimated 50,000 are children.

These photographs and others, taken inside the war zone and passed to The Independent on Sunday, give just the barest insight into the misery being endured by the trapped civilians in what would otherwise be a tropical paradise. Seemingly used as human shields by the rebel fighters and unable to leave, they are caught between two unyielding forces. Other, more gruesome photographs taken inside the zone's basic medical facilities appear to confirm reports that civilians are regularly being killed and injured. The UN says 4,500 civilians have been killed in the past three months. A senior envoy who recently visited Sri Lanka said that figure was rising daily.

A swelling chorus of international voices has called on the rebels to release the civilians and on the government to enact a longer ceasefire. Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last night that he was "gravely concerned" by the continuing conflict. "The British Government maintains its calls for an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka," he said. It is the 50,000 children trapped in the war zone for whom concern is greatest. Many mothers are too weak and enfeebled to produce breast-milk. Diarrhoea, always the affliction of the weakest, is taking lives almost every day. Health officials inside the war zone have said that malnutrition is an increasing danger for the children - though their claims are denied by the government.

The international aid community, parts of which have until now preferred to express their concerns privately rather than seek a head-on confrontation with the government, is increasingly speaking out. Paul Castello, head of the Red Cross in Sri Lanka, said last night: "We have 100 staff trapped in there. These people are exposed in the middle of a battlefield, so every day people are dying from bullets and shells. There are no medical supplies, very little food and hardly any drinking water. There is no soap and no toilets. The only shelter is from tarpaulins or tents. The children have diarrhoea, chicken pox, respiratory infections. The Red Cross has evacuated 10,000 people from the conflict zone since February."

The civilians are caught in the bloody endgame of one of the world's longest-running conflicts. After three decades of civil war between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year undertook to crush the rebels, who are seeking an independent homeland for the Tamil community to escape what they say is widespread discrimination.

Since January 2008, when a faltering, internationally brokered ceasefire agreement officially ended, the rebel Tamil fighters - waging a brutal war using suicide attacks against civilian and military targets - have been pushed back. Late last year, the de facto LTTE capital, Kilinochchi, fell, and the rebels have been increasingly squeezed by government troops. The rebel army, which once controlled the entire north of Sri Lanka and parts of the east, is now confined to a small strip of land on the coast at Mullaittivu in the country's far north-east.

It is in Mullaittivu that the civilians are trapped - and the rebels are refusing to release them. Having once promoted themselves as the legitimate and sole defenders of the Tamil population, the fighters are now using those same civilians to protect themselves against what would otherwise most probably be a final, crushing onslaught by the government troops. The UN said it learned that during the two-day ceasefire earlier this week, LTTE fighters shot six civilians trying to leave the war zone. Other civilians may be too afraid to leave.

Some of the beleaguered civilians are living inside concrete buildings, but many others find themselves confined to squatter camps on the beach and in the jungle. They hide from the blistering daytime sun under plastic sheets and tarpaulins. When the tropical rains come, as they have done recently, the zone is turned into a filthy, flooded quagmire. In a land that has suffered months of war, they are dependent on food shipments from the government and the UN. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the only aid group with regular access to the area, all others having been forced to withdraw last September. "There is a lack of food. Sanitation is abysmal," said one despairing aid worker based in Colombo.

The most compelling evidence has come from two government health officials working in the area who stayed on after the fighting intensified - a rare source of first-hand information about the situation inside the war zone.

Speaking yesterday by phone from the area's makeshift hospital, one of them, Dr T Sathyamurthy, said he believed as many as 300,000 people were trapped and that the fighting was continuing. "Today we can hear the gunfire and shelling. Yesterday, another 80 civilian casualties were brought to the hospital. Today at around 5.30am we heard the sound of artillery fire. We don't know who is firing," he said.

He said there was a lack of food and that government shipments were insufficient, something that represented a particularly pressing danger to the war zone's children. "The small children are dependent on their mothers' milk. They cannot eat rice or dahl," he said. "In this area mothers usually feed their children up to two years, but they are saying they do not have enough breast-milk."

Asked about government claims that he was unable to tell the truth because he was living under the threat of the LTTE, he responded: "I am a government official. We are the eyewitnesses. We are talking about the situation that the government is not accepting ... The main problem is that the Tamils are voiceless." He said that while some in the government may not approve of the doctors speaking out, they decided they had no choice. "We want to talk about the situation. We saw that thousands died and more were injured. There is no free media. That is why we decided to talk about the situation," he said.

The government rejects the reports of malnutrition. Athula Kahandaliyanage, the Health Secretary, said the claims were "scientifically" not credible. He referred to a report quoting Dr Sathyamurthy saying that 69 per cent of children below the age of five in the war zone were malnourished, and said that previously the highest recorded rate of child malnutrition in Sri Lanka was 24 per cent. "Malnutrition is not something that can happen overnight," he said.

Asked about the plight of the children and the calls for a ceasefire, Dr Kahandaliyanage said: "We are very much concerned about their safety, their nutrition and health ... The whole international community should just call on the LTTE to allow these people out." Yet journalists are banned from visiting except on a handful of military-organised tours, and the ICRC is the sole aid organisation allowed to operate there.

On Friday, with no sign of any let-up in the fighting, Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International called for a ceasefire and for the LTTE not to allow civilians to be used as a buffer. He said: "The government of Sri Lanka needs to allow independent monitors to ensure that civilians feel safe to come out of the Tamil Tiger-controlled areas."

Meanwhile, the thousands of children of the war zone stand in line for their bowls of kanchichi, a traditional soup made from rice, coconut milk and a pinch of salt. It doesn't seem like very much.


Three decades of bloody conflict

For more than three decades, Sri Lanka has been beset by the violence of a savage civil war that has pitched the troops of the government against the rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), sometimes called the Tamil Tigers.

Having suffered what they say have been years of discrimination against the Tamil community by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, the LTTE and its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, have fought for an autonomous homeland in the north. For many years they achieved just that, heading a parallel administration in the north and east of the country. Both sides engaged in peace talks several times, but all attempts to reach agreement failed.

Last year, the government decided it would seek to crush the rebels within 12 months, and launched a series of major operations that have pushed and squeezed the LTTE. Now the last 600 to 1,000 fighters are holed up in a small strip of land in the north-east, surrounded by government troops. But as many as 150,000 civilians are trapped there too, unable or unwilling to leave.