Ex-Tamil Tiger fighters held in limbo

By Swaminathan Natarajan
BBC Tamil service

Image caption,
As the war drew to a close, many Tamil civilians fled to camps for the displaced

Many bitter decades of civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end exactly one year ago. But some 10,000 people accused of fighting for the Tamil Tigers are still being detained by the government.

For years, the rebels were instructed to swallow a cyanide capsule rather than surrender to the Sri Lankan army.

But in the final phase of war, many just gave themselves up.

At first fighters mingled with the hundreds of thousands of people who fled the last days of the conflict. But in time, the Sri Lankan government scoured displacement camps and removed suspected Tiger rebels.

They are now kept in high-security facilities.

'Wasting time'

The government has refused to grant access to these camps to international aid agencies, UN organisations and Tamil MPs.

Image caption,
Sri Lankan soldiers will celebrate the anniversary of their victory over rebels

The BBC's Tamil service was able to speak to one former rebel in a detention centre in the northern city of Vavuniya, who wished to remain anonymous.

"There is an acute shortage of water here. We are not able to take a bath every day. But we have no problem with the food," he said in a telephone conversation.

"We hear that the government has made lots of announcements about giving training to us. But nothing much is happening here. We are just wasting our time.

"Since we don't know when we will go out, it is frustrating," he said.

"Now they are allowing family members to come and see us. But I don't want my relatives to come here. They may get into trouble if they meet me."

Senior Tamil Tiger leader-turned-politician Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan - better known as Colonel Karuna - says relatives of the detainees will come to no harm if they visit their loved ones.

He is a former LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) commander who broke away in 2004 and is now the deputy minister for rehabilitation.

The government says it has rehabilitated more than 2,400 former rebels and is in the process of rehabilitating others.


More than 10,000 are still in custody. Of these, 1,350 are classified as "criminals" and the government says they will be "dealt with according to the law".

Expatriate Tamils compare the conditions of this camp with that of Guantanamo Bay - but such accusations are yet to be proven. Nevertheless, activists say there is a lack of transparency.

"It is not right to hold thousands of individuals as suspects. The government needs to charge those involved with specific offences, produce them in court or release them," says Dr Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International.

"There is also a lack of information about the state of the suspects. This raises serious questions about the possibilities of ill treatment. We are calling on the government to release the detainees unless they are charged with internationally recognised offences," she adds.

For the relatives of these former rebels, this is a trying time. A number of them are themselves living in government-run camps for the displaced.

'Ten-minute meetings'

Manjula Devi, a mother of three, has just left the refugee camp to be resettled in Kilinochchi. Her husband is among those detained.

Image caption,
Many rebels surrendered at the end of the war - others were killed.

"He was in the LTTE for three years. He was arrested at the end of the war. I met him a few times in the camp.

"They used to allow 10 minutes for the meeting. We have to stand across barbed wire fence. In the past I used to take cooked food for him. But now they are not allowing home-made food. So I just take biscuits for him."

"He told me he has not had a bath for more than 10 days due to a shortage of water. He says he was not tortured. But the place lacks basic facilities. He has not been given any kind of training," she says.

For months, human rights groups have been calling on the government to publish full details about those in detention.

Wimal says his 22-year-old daughter was forcibly taken by the LTTE and served in the organisation for about two years.

"When we reached the Vavuniya camp from the war zone, they made the announcement asking for those involved with LTTE to come forward and surrender. She heeded that and was taken to a separate camp," he says.

"When we met her she broke down and cried. But what can we do for her? As you can imagine, girls would find it far more difficult to handle those conditions.

"She has not told me anything about sexual abuses. I don't know whether she is hiding these things from me," he says.

Wimal says he is longing for a reunion with his daughter. He says two of his other children were killed in shelling.

Mr Muralitharan blames Tamil Tiger supporters abroad for the delays in rehabilitating former fighters and giving them a new start.

"The Tamil Tiger supporters living in the West are trying to constitute a trans-national government. The Sri Lankan government fears that if these cadres are released they may re-group and take up arms," he says.

The government may allow access to aid agencies in the future, he adds.

But it is yet to set a timetable for releasing those still detained.

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