by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
September 26th 2009 saw an altercation erupting between Internally displaced persons (IDP) “detained” at the Menik Farm IDP camp at Chettikulam and members of the Sri Lanka Army deployed in the area.
While the defence ministry spokesperson Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara and the media center for national security (MCNS) have provided “official” versions of what had supposedly happened independent probing by this writer reveals that the official story is rather inaccurate on key areas. Neither does it provide a clear picture of what had happened.
There was no “escape” attempt by a group of IDP’s as stated by official sources and picked up by sections of the media. It is also incorrect that there was an attempt by the IDP’s to throw a hand grenade at the soldiers.
Speaking to informed sources both official and unofficial this writer was able to glean a rough idea of what had actually happened.
Security arrangements and procedures are comparatively relaxed at the camps situated in zones one, two and three. The IDP’s in these camps are mainly those who fled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) area in the penultimate rather than final stages of the war.
The facilities at these camps are somewhat better than in other camps and are often displayed to visiting dignitaries as “showcases”.
Contrary to reports in the media inmates of the three camps are allowed to move to and from one to another in a “controlled” fashion. There is no total ban on movement. There is in fact a “land corridor” inter-linking all three camps in zone 1,2 & 3.
A limited number of people can move from one camp to another at specific times through authorized entry/ exit points. This allows inmates of one camp to interact with family, relatives and friends in another camp. Some trade and barter is also done.
On Saturday September 26th a group of people in Zone one known as Anandacooomaraswamy welfare village had gone to zone two known as Ramanathan welfare village to sell firewood.
Since authorized access was on a limited scale these “vendors” had moved in through unauthorized entry points to enter the zone two camp. These IDP’s began returning to their camp at dusk.
The IDP firewood vendors who had slipped in through unauthorized routes in singles and pairs and at different times were now returning in one group.
The Army sentries alerted because of the sizable numbers arrived at the spot at about 6. 15 pm. There was a dispute between some of the IDP’s and the soldiers.
While the soldiers maintained that the IDP’s were using unauthorized entry/exit points the IDP’s insisted that their movement was through authorized points.
Also the soldiers had mistakenly thought that some IDP’s were trying to escape clandestinely and wanted to arrest them. This led to a heated argument and some IDP’s proficient in Sinhala had used obsecene language on the soldiers.
More soldiers arrived on the scene in an excited state and surrounded the IDP’s. Seeing the commotion a large number of IDPâ€™s also converged on the spot encircling the soldiers.
Since some of these IDP’s had a few firewood logs in their hands the soldiers assumed wrongly that a mob was going to attack them with wooden poles. They got further excited.
Previously soldiers had been clearly instructed not to use firearms on IDPS and to physically tackle any miscreant if and when the necessity arose. But Soldiers sharing a threat perception began brandishing their firearms.
This aroused angry reactions in the IDP crowd that was fast turning hostile. A few started pelting stones at the soldiers.
At this point one soldier fired into the air to disperse the crowd. This gave the wrong signal to others and a few shots were fired into the crowd.
Panic stricken the IDP’s fled from the scene but at least six people including two children and a woman sustained injuries. Of these three were of a minor nature.
The two children aged three and six received treatment at the Medecins sans frontiers (MSF) hospital at Chettykulam. The six year old girl Nidharshika was later transferred to the accident ward at Vavuniya hospital.
Meanwhile more soldiers arrived at the camps and took away some people suspected of involvement in the incident.
Nineteen of these persons were handed over to the Police on the charges of attempting to escape from the camp, attacking the army with clubs and stones and trying to lob a grenade.
The information available to this writer indicates that there was no attempt to escape and no attempts to assault the soldiers. There was however heated exchange of words and some stone throwing.
The charge of an attempt to throw a grenade appears to be a total fabrication by army officials. It is seen as a ruse to justify the firing upon unarmed civilians by the soldiers.
In a further development on Sunday September 27th a contingent of soldiers swooped down on the Anandacoomaraswamy welfare village in the morning.
All inmates were ordered to remain within their tents while hundreds of soldiers went on a search mission from tent to tent. The operation lasted for eight hours from 8.00 am to 4.00 pm.
The soldiers had told IDP’s that they were searching for grenades and firearms and also for those who had escaped after attacking the army on Sunday.
The people were unable to partake of meals or drink while the eight hour operation was on.
An undisclosed number of persons suspected to have been involved in the incident were taken away for questioning.
This in essence is what transpired at the Menik farm IDP camps as opposed to the official versions trotted out by authorities.
The incident is seen as a flashpoint of simmering tensions between the forcibly detained large IDP population and their guards.
The Sri Lankan government has once again received negative publicity over the incident.
The official version that soldiers fired on those attempting to escape has once again highlighted the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are being held forcibly under armed guard at internment camps and that unarmed civilians are being fired upon by armed soldiers to quell escape attempts.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org