Sunday, 24 May 2009

Sri Lanka - a glimpse of the disaster

The outside world has been given its first glimpse of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Sri Lanka after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, as journalists, who have been kept out of the way by the government, were able to accompany UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on his visit. From a helicopter they saw the utter devastation of the area where the Tigers made their last stand.

The UN says 7,000 civilians have been killed since January. The Sri Lankan government denies the figure, but says the Tigers were using civilians as human shields.

Ban Ki-moon’s visit also meant that for the first time, journalists got to see the “refugee” camps in which Tamil civilians are being held. The main one holds 220,000. It is surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers. There is desperate overcrowding, but the government says it will not let people leave until it has made sure there are no Tigers among them, which may take six months. The UN says people should be allowed to rejoin their families.

Aid agencies claim that their access to the Tamils has been restricted, and Mr Ban saw elderly, malnourished patients lying on cot beds in the open air with flies buzzing around them. There is also anxiety that unless there is a political settlement that offers reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and minorities like the Tamils, trouble could soon flare up again.

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