Sri Lanka: Clear the Way

Journalists have been barred from covering the war in Sri Lanka's battered northern region, and now aid workers are out of the picture. As government forces aggressively advance toward the Tamil Tiger capital, Kilinochchi, tens of thousands of displaced Tamils have lost the only bulwark between them and two sides with grim human rights records.

After the government ordered aid workers last week to leave the rebel-held Vanni area, saying it could not guarantee their safety, hundreds of civilians protested against their departure. Scores blocked roads to prevent UN vehicles from leaving the conflict zone. They knew it could only spell worse.


By Tuesday, nearly all UN personnel had cleared out. Spokesman Gordon Weiss said some relief operations to distribute food, clean water and medicine would continue near exit points, but warned that a "vacuum needs to be filled."

The UN had earlier announced that aid supplies were running "dangerously low", adding that many of the estimated 160,000 people displaced so far by fighting had to relocate repeatedly to stay out of harm's way.

Government officials maintain the military will step in and take care of those who have fled the violence, though a relief strategy is vague. At this juncture, the overriding objective is to push deeper into Tiger territory. President Mahinda Rajapakse said this week he thinks the rebels will be crushed by December, and that ceasefire talks are out of the question.

The government also wants to avoid a repeat of the August 2006 massacre of 17 local employees of the French aid agency Action Against Hunger in the eastern province, a former Tiger stronghold that was the scene of heavy fighting. Several human rights groups have implicated the military in the execution-style killings, and claim such attacks are used to intimidate anyone who challenge the state's policies.

Aid workers, journalists and rights activists are frequent targets of government-linked groups behind a wave of killings, abductions, arrests and detentions in recent years. The Tamil Tigers have also been accused of gunning down politicians and journalists who oppose them.

In August 2007, the United Nations' relief chief in Sri Lanka, John Holmes, said the country was one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers, on par with Iraq and Afghanistan. The government shot back that Holmes was a "terrorist," a move emblematic of the tense relationship it has with aid agencies to this day.

Some colleagues working for ngos based in Sri Lanka tell me it's getting "more and more dirty" as fighting intensifies in the north. Military forces smell victory, and Tamil civilians standing between them and Kilinochchi are unlikely to diminish their zeal. The Tigers, meanwhile, are inclined to use every tool at their disposal, including a human buffer zone should they have to fall back on their capital.

The days ahead look terribly bleak for those stuck between the warring sides. It's less certain where a helping hand will come from, or how news of their plight will even get out. Vanni_sep081