Food is latest weapon in Tamil war

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

TIM McGIRK

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Reimagined: Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma
books
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
Cannes 2015Dheepan, film review
Sport
sport
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine