The causeway that links northern Sri Lanka’s mainland to Mannar Island is lined with vast military barracks. They have a nicely settled air about them, with painted flowerpots out front and T-shirts drying on clotheslines.
Between the army camps are red-roofed cottages peeping through coconut groves and forests. There are no paved walkways—just dust, mud, and some scraggly vegetable patches. They are part of a housing project that the Indian government funded to rehabilitate those displaced by Sri Lanka’s devastating civil war, which raged between 1983 to 2009 and saw the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unsuccessfully attempt to forge an independent Tamil nation alongside the Sinhalese majority state.
For many Tamils, the barracks are symbols of the defeat: the mainly Sinhalese military sprawls on land that once belonged to the Tamil community—it had been held by the LTTE for decades—while displaced villagers barely eke out a living nearby. They are also reminders of the terrifying last months of the war.
As the Sri Lankan army advanced on the area in 2008, it pushed the LTTE back into an increasingly small space. Government forces repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, sometimes using heavy artillery. In 2009, as the territory controlled by the LTTE shrank, the government declared several “safe zones,” in which civilians could supposedly seek shelter. But government forces continued attacking these areas, justifying the strategy by claiming that the LTTE had deliberately moved into protected zones. Civilians recall scrambling for shelter and ending up crouched in low trenches on the beach, with just palm fronds for cover.
Thousands of Tamil families—some voluntarily, some against their will—thus found themselves stuck with the dwindling LTTE forces on a narrow strip of land on Sri Lanka's northeastern coast. The LTTE used them as human shields, even shooting some of those who tried to flee from the war zone to government-held territory.
The government's decision in September 2008 to order humanitarian agencies out of the LTTE-controlled area greatly exacerbated their plight. Ongoing fighting, lack of oversight, and the manipulation of aid deliveries by government and LTTE forces contributed to a deepening humanitarian crisis, with major shortages of food, water, shelter, and medicines.
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