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Sri Lankan families torn apart by war

While Sri Lanka celebrates its military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels after a quarter-century of warfare, nearly 300,000 ethnic Tamils struggle to come to terms with the scars of the fighting.
APTOPIX Sri Lanka Civil War
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toured Sri Lanka's largest war refugee camp on Tuesday. Pictured here, Manik Farm is home to some 210,000 refugees.David Gray / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lakshmi Rasamy reached through the barbed wire enclosing this displacement camp, grabbed her mother's hand and wept for her four children who were killed in the last spasm of fighting in Sri Lanka's civil war.

Around her, other camp residents searched the crowd outside for their loved ones and spoke of families split apart by the chaos, of sons detained by the military, of illness, injury and death.

While Sri Lanka celebrates its military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels after a quarter-century of warfare, nearly 300,000 ethnic Tamils who were driven from their homes and trapped in the war zone are struggling to come to terms with the scars of the fighting.

Most of them have been corralled into Manik Farm, a 1,400-acre lot of former scrubland that has been turned into what the U.N. describes as the world's largest displacement camp, housing 210,000 people in endless rows of white tents.

Like dozens of other smaller camps in the north, Manik Farm is surrounded by coils of razor wire and rows of barbed wire. Those inside are barred from leaving, a restriction that has generated strong criticism from international rights groups who say the displaced should be free to choose where they want to live.

Movements restricted
"We are holding them here for their own safety," military spokesman Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara said during a military-led tour of the camp Tuesday. "We don't want anyone to come here and set off a bomb."

Sri Lankans celebrate the government’s defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels in a brutal final battle.

Other officials say the war refugees must be screened to weed out any remaining rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who may be hiding among them.

But the restrictions have also kept families apart and left the barbed wire fence between those inside the camps and their relatives who lived outside the war zone.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes called on the government Tuesday for more freedom of movement for those now in camps, family reunifications and rapid resettlement of people forced from their homes. "If that does not happen, then very serious questions will have to start being asked," Holmes told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Rasamy, 45, sat in the dirt with tears pouring down her cheeks as she held hands through the rows of barbed wire with her mother outside the fence. She told her of the final days of the war, her escape from the battle zone five days ago and the death of four of her five children in the violence.

A nun, who gave her name as Sister Madeleine, had received a note that her sister's family was in the camp and came here in hopes of seeing them for the first time in two years. But after five hours and repeated announcements over a camp loudspeaker, she was still waiting.

Nearby, Veluppilla Selvaraj, 39, scanned the crowd for his mother and sister. He was given emergency leave from his job as a security guard in Saudi Arabia to try to find them. "I was here yesterday and the day before and the day before. I am still searching," he said.

Many in the camp said they lost their families in the chaos and violence of the final days of the war and their flight across the front lines. Some held formal family photos taken at wedding celebrations, pointing to those relatives who were missing.

Separated from wife, children
One man said he got separated from his wife and two children last month as they fled the approaching fighting. He doesn't know whether they are alive or dead. Another woman said she thinks her 7-year-old son is with his grandmother in another camp, but she isn't certain.

A mother said her 2-year-old son was shot in the head while they were fleeing the unrelenting shelling and gunfire in the war zone two weeks ago. When she reached Sri Lankan lines, she gave the child to soldiers who promised to take him to the hospital. She's heard nothing of him since.

On Tuesday, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights demanded an independent investigation into atrocities committed in Sri Lanka's civil war.

Navi Pillay recommended to the U.N. Human Rights Council that the government and rebels be investigated for the tens of thousands of civilians killed and wounded since December.

Sri Lankan Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka said it was "outrageous" to suggest the government should be investigated, saying it was like asking the victorious allies of World War II to accept a war crimes tribunal for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

A 29-year-old woman at the camp named Ranjini meanwhile said the army had taken her husband as they escaped the conflict zone on suspicion he was a rebel fighter.

Military officials said they had pulled out 9,100 suspected rebels and sent the bulk of them to rehabilitation camps.

Some of the displaced said the military is suspicious of everyone.

"Most of the Tamils they are calling LTTE," said a man who identified himself as Seevalingam, a former worker at the hospital at Kilinochchi, once the rebel's administrative capital.

Reconciliation stressed
U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe, who visited Sri Lanka on Saturday with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, stressed the importance of political reconciliation.

"The big issue that's going to be out there is who talks for the Tamil side — how broad a group there is involved in the discussion," he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. "These are the kinds of questions that need to be worked on in the near future."

Though the government has said it hopes to resettle the bulk of the displaced by the end of the year, Seevalingam said he feared they would be stuck in the misery of this crowded mini-city for a long time.

Nearby, two dozen people line up with pails and empty bottles to pump water from a well alongside the white tents, which house as many as 15 people each. Hundreds of others — many of them mothers holding small children — waited for a ration of soap, baby formula and aspirin. Others washed their toddlers in plastic basins.

Satgunanathan, who like many Tamils uses one name, said that in the final days of the war there was massive shelling from both sides and nowhere was safe. He bears shrapnel wounds in his head and one leg from a shell that landed outside his family's shelter.

He complained about conditions in the camp, said his wife and two children were in the hospital with diarrhea and expressed fears about the heavy military presence here.

"Everybody is in misery here. We want to go back to our own homes," he said.