Maura R. O'Connor, for the Pulitzer Center
During the last two months, over 7,000 wounded civilians have been evacuated to the port city of Trincomalee from the front lines of the ongoing battle between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). Those who have arrived in Trincomalee have been trapped in the north for months with an estimated 150 to 190,000 other civilians in the shrinking conflict zone. They represent the most desperate cases among thousands of people being wounded by mortar attacks exchanged between the two sides.
The situation facing these civilians is desperate. "Many patients need to have a limb amputated because of a shrapnel injury," described a surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who is working in Trincomalee. "We also treat injuries to other parts of the body, sometimes to remove shrapnel. I have seen many patients with heavily infected wounds, sometimes in the area where the amputation is required. Infections set in rapidly when a wound is not treated with antibiotics or a dressing cannot be changed. On some patients arriving here, strips of sarong or tee-shirts have been used instead of dressings. Pieces of wood are often used as splinters to immobilize a fracture and spare the person a lot of pain."
In a letter sent on March 16 to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health Care and Nutrition, medical personnel located in the north said, "As the ongoing battle becomes more and more intense and destructive since the last months of last year, the number of war wounded has been steadily increasing with a proportionate increase in the demand for essential medicines, especially anesthetic, antibiotics, analgesic, and IV fluids."
The letter reported that less than five percent of the quota of drugs for the last six months had been sent to the front lines. "We have been supplied with no antibiotics, no anesthetics and not a single bottle of IV fluid, leaving us in a desperate situation of not being able to provide even lifesaving medical surgery."
When the first wounded patients began arriving at the hospital in Trincomalee by ICRC boats, a call was put out for blood donations from the community. In the past week, several sources have told me that many of those who went to the hospital to donate blood received visits within a day or two from members of the army and intelligence, who demanded to know why they went to the hospital and which patients they were trying to communicate with inside. Some of the blood donors, they said, were arrested and are now missing.
Stories such as these appear to confirm fears among Tamils in the Eastern Province that even when the government wins the military battle in the north, it will not mean an end to hostilities between their community and security forces. Instead, they expect that they will continue to come under suspicion and be targeted as LTTE, that disappearances will carry on unabated with an even greater sense of impunity boosted by military victory. As one young resident of Batticaloa told me, "The LTTE has been hit in the north and the result is now creeping up in our villages... When they hit us it is because they think the LTTE is weak. If the LTTE were strong, they would never dare to touch us."
As a journalist, my instinct when hearing about stories such as the targeted blood donors in Trincomalee is to write about them and hope they receive as much attention as possible. The more media exposure there is of a problem—the general wisdom goes—the more pressure on international bodies to pressure governments, and the more governments will be forced to address the problem. But recent interviews with human rights activists who work on the issue of disappearances, have made me fundamentally question this wisdom.
"Why do you want to write about these things? What will it do for the victims?" some of them asked me. When it comes to disappearances, they said, reporting information would only create serious if not fatal risks for family members and those involved in the cases, all of who would be suspected of having spoken to the press. Furthermore, they argued, there is no indication that media exposure of the tens of thousands of disappearances that have taken place in Sri Lanka over the last decades has done anything to stem the practice. Many international bodies have extensively documented the problem, conducted inquires, and issued appeals, but disappearances continue. The government of Sri Lanka's response to problem has been consistently underwhelming.
Indeed, last March Human Rights Watch stated in a 240 page report called "Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for 'Disappearances' and Abductions in Sri Lanka," that the government has created at least nine special bodies to deal with the issue and "none of them have yielded concrete results… Many observers believe that most of these bodies have been established to give the impression the government is taking seriously reports of widespread 'disappearances' by security forces even as officials dither in initiating investigations into the cases. The government's continuing dismal record in prosecuting perpetrators lends credence to such beliefs."
Reporting these things to international organizations, most said, does so little that some families don't even bother anymore. They know that at most their loved one will become a number in a report that is given to a government that doesn't care. And in the end, they are still missing. One INGO worker told me, "We can't exert much influence right now and that's why there has been this breakdown at the institutional level [in the east], especially around disappearances."
This state of affairs has led to a shift in tactics employed by the families of people who have been abducted and human rights activists who work with them. More and more, they told me, they choose to bypass the traditional avenues of recourse—INGO's, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission (HRC), the police, or the media—and deal with each disappearance on its own by negotiating directly with the suspected perpetrators or those in power. There are high-profile people, some said, who are sitting in jail after being picked up in a dreaded white van but refuse to report their case to the HRC or media for fear that the littlest bit of publicity or pressure will lead to their death.
Instead, they hope that whatever investigation is being conducted against them will simply run its course, or that a well placed phone call made by a friend to the right person will lead to miraculous deliverance. Family members are beginning to fight on an individual basis for their missing relatives by establishing links to a person within STF or TMVP in order to get them back. Some mothers of the abducted are quietly showing up to police stations or army camps day after day, hoping that their continued presence will influence the fate of a son.
It seems that in a country where the culture of impunity has become so deeply entrenched and there exists no collective conscience in which to appeal to in the case of disappearances, the last option is to try and spark an individual's conscience.This kind of tactic won't create system-wide change, but it is one way of managing a terrible reality.