Food is latest weapon in Tamil war

Sri Lanka: Both sides threaten thousands of Jaffna refugees with starvation

Vavuniya, Sri Lanka

The government agent of Killinochchi is supposed to be organising food, shelter and medicine for 80,000 Tamils who are fleeing the war between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil rebels. At his disposal, the agent has one lantern, a desk and a bicycle. His telephone is broken.

Two nights ago, when the cloud of insects swirling around his lantern grew too thick for him to see, the agent, S Thillanadarajah, cycled through the monsoon rains to the beach on the lagoon where the refugees, chilled and weary, were landing in small open boats.

"These families had gone four or five days without food. They had been walking and sleeping in the rain, and had difficulty even telling me their names," said the agent, himself dazed from 48 hours of logistical nightmares and no sleep.

When a refugee unwrapped her baby after the long, rainy crossing of the lagoon, she found that the child had died during the voyage. The agent found the woman bent over her dead infant, wailing. "If I'd known the child was going to die. I would've stayed in Jaffna. All I cared about was to save my baby's life," she sobbed.

The woman and her child had fled the siege by government troops of Jaffna, the city controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels, only to find themselves cast into a wave of more than 400,000 refugees who were also trying to escape. The woman thought she was one of the lucky ones to cross over to Killinochchi where food and shelter was a bit less scarce.

"I have 80,000 refugees and only enough food for 10 days. I have very little medicine and only five doctors for all these people: what can I do?" asked Mr Thillanadarajah. Over in the Jaffna peninsula, it is worse.

Killinochchi and the peninsula, further north, are in Tiger-held territory. The agent hitched a lift down to the government front line, crammed in the back of an ambulance with an injured patient. There, on the government side in Vavuniya - 25 miles down the road from where Tamil refugees in thousands are starving - food is plentiful. Bananas hang in ripe bunches outside shops. Bags of rice are piled high, and the chemists' dispensaries and hospitals are stocked with all the medicines needed to protect the Tamils against the fevers, diarrhoea and malaria that are now raging through the refugee camps. But this is war, an ugly, complex little war, in which the government and the rebels are both guilty of withholding supplies from the displaced Tamils.

The Tigers will not let the Tamils cross over into government territory even though families are starving and sick. At the same time, the Colombo government, while promising to send aid to the Tamils, is creating obstacles to that relief. The military is worried that the relief will not go to the suffering civilians but will be grabbed by Tiger rebels and used in their war effort. This paranoia has slowed the arrival of urgently needed food, medicines and shelters to the refugees. That is why the agent went to Vavuniya,so he could plead by phone for Colombo to relax its restrictions.

The government is also playing a numbers' game, insisting that it is not 400,000 or 600,000 Tamils who are in peril, as relief workers suggest, but a mere 100,000.

Even 100,000 is a catastrophe, but this is more than a statistical quibble; the government, which sharply rebuffed a United Nations' offer on Sunday to send emergency help, will probably end up by not sending enough relief to the battle zone.

Some Tamils, suspicious of the government, which is run by a Sinhalese majority, attribute a more sinister motive to Colombo's awkwardness. Nothing would suit the government better, these Tamils say, than to have the Tamil refugees become so starved and desperate that they mutiny against the Tiger gunmen who are stopping them from crossing into government territory for food.