U.N.’s Ban in Sri Lanka: Victory dance or somber visit?
Small children dressed in dark blue pants and light blue shirts clutched U.N. and Sri Lankan flags as they sang a song in honor of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s arrival at the Manik Farm refugee camp. This is the temporary home to some 220,000 people who fled the final battle between Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces. The camp, Sri Lanka’s biggest, was plastered with posters of a smiling Ban and Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa that said, “Welcome Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to our motherland.”U.N. officials traveling with Ban had voiced concern that his visit could be exploited for propaganda purposes in a kind of victory dance for the Sri Lankan government. The secretary-general was the first major international figure to visit the island nation since the government won a 25-year-old war against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) earlier this month. The officials said Ban would stay on message, demanding full and immediate access to some 290,000 refugees in camps in northern Sri Lanka and urging President Rajapaksa to reach out to the country’s Tamil minority to prevent a renewal of violence.During his visit to Manik Farm, Ban went to a small field hospital, where he saw severely emaciated elderly people attached to saline drips and children with shrapnel wounds. The picture could have been uglier. U.N. officials said the most severely injured – amputees, victims of mine explosions or heavy artillery blasts – were at other hospitals the delegation was not shown.A group of refugees at the Manik Farm camp, the country’s biggest displaced persons camp with over 210,000 residents, said they were outside the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka but were rounded up by the government in April and brought to the camp. Asked in New York about the refugees’ unverified comments, U.N. humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said he had no details about any such round-ups. However, he said it was possible that some people outside what was once called the “no-fire” zone were moved by the government into the camps. He noted that all of northeastern Sri Lanka was a war zone in a sense since it had previously been controlled by the Tamil Tigers.Ban and his delegation also flew over the former conflict zone in a tiny strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka where U.N. officials have accused the LTTE of using hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields as they struggled to fight off government forces. During the low-altitude helicopter flight, U.N. officials and reporters saw thousands of empty tents, piles of bicycles and other personal items abandoned in a hurry when the masses of starving civilians were fled for their lives. The burnt-out buses and cars, uprooted and smashed trees and craters filled with water appeared to provide evidence that heavy weapons were despite denials from the government and Tamil Tigers.At the end of the trip, Ban met for an hour with the president to press his demands. Afterwards Ban and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogllagama spoke to reporters. Ban was asked if he saw evidence of “massive bombing” during the flight over the former battle zone. His answer was that “the fighting must have been severe.” Bogllagama was more direct when asked if he was confident Sri Lanka had committed no war crimes as human rights groups have said. His answer: “Absolutely.”Was Ban’s trip a success? One senior U.N. official told Reuters that Bogllagama repeatedly said “yes, yes, yes” in response to Ban’s demand for immediate and unimpeded access to the camps, though it was not clear when the access would come. A ban on the use of motor vehicles by U.N. or other aid agency personnel, however, remained in place for several more days as the government tried to prevent the escape of any Tigers hiding in the camps. (A few days after Ban left Sri Lanka, the government agreed to allow aid agencies to use cars and trucks at Manik Farm, though without flags and not in convoys.) Aid officials continue to complain that restrictions are crippling aid distribution in the camps.