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U.N. Ambassador Kohona: Sri Lanka Refugee Situation Improving

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Fourteen years after the civil war in Rwanda, refugees are still living in mud huts.  In Bosnia, following Balkanization, people lacked heat and electricity for years.

On the Afghani-Pakistani border, millions today are living in squalor.

In all of these refugee populations, disease was and often remains endemic.  Food and water scarce.

In contrast, last spring a government moved mountains to help its people.

I witnessed the end of three decades of violence in Sri Lanka, as the government finally overcame the world's largest terrorist organization, restoring peace in to the island.

The enemy had been formidable.  Known as LTTE, referred to as the Tamil Tigers, it has its own army, navy, air force, and suicide commando units (see my HuffPost story, Explaining the Tamil Tigers).

The Tamil Tigers used child soldiers and women suicide bombers to wage their violence but unsuccessful battle against the Sri Lankan people.

The Tigers used 300,000 of their own people as human shields to protect themselves from the advancing government troops.  Over 100,000 people died in the conflict, the majority of them non-Tamils.

The Tigers mined their own farms, fields, temples, roads – and fired upon Tamils trying to escape to the government forces.

At the end of the conflict, 250,000 Tamils were left – many of them near the beach where the final defeat occurred.  These refugees became the responsibility of the Sri Lankan government.

The government began immediately to house them, lay water pipes, build sch ools and health clinics.  But the Sri Lankan government cannot solve this situation alone.

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Interviewing the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.N., then the Foreign Secretary, last spring in Colombo.  I also met the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington who was also in Colombo (right).

According to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Palitha Kohona, who granted me an exclusive interview for the Huffington Post last week in his New York office, 54 NGO’s are now operating within the camps. 

I have known Palitha for years and have spoken with him on these issues repeatedly.

“The problem is that we refuse to permit IDP tourism,” Palitha told me.  “These internally displaced people (IDPs) deserve dignity.”  They are not, so to speak, a museum exhibition or animals at the zoo.  “We flatly say ‘No’ to refugee camp tourism.”

“We need help.  All legitimate NGOs, with adequate funding, are welcomed to assist us help these people,” the Ambassador said.

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U.N. Security General Ban-Ki Moon visited the refugee camp shortly after the conflict ended.

The International Red Cross (IRC), which assisted during the conflict by providing food and medicine and visiting prisoners, is negotiating now with the government on how best to help at this stage of resettlement.

“There is a new mandate being worked out with the IRC to assist with medical facilities and improving conditions throughout the camps,” Palitha said.  He noted that currently 130 Sri Lankan physicians are operating within the camps.

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Currently 130 Sri Lankan physicians are operating within the camps.

Major problems stand in the way of simply releasing all of the internally displaced people (IDPs).

The areas around the camps and in indeed much of the North has been mined by the LTTE.  The de-mining process, as Princess Diana reminded us, is excruciatingly difficult, lengthy, and when it fails, leaves dead or maimed civilians. 

The international community is helping remove them, but far more help is needed.  Over one million mines remain.

Thousands of Tamil Tigers tried to blend into the civilian population to escape war crime charges, and to attempt to reconstruct the Tiger cause, continuing Sri Lanka’s conflict. 

According to government, 12,700 IDP’s self-identified themselves as combatants, and an estimated 8 to 10,000 more remain hiding in the camps.  Of the 250,000 IDPs, 167,000 have now been cleared and are ready to return to their homes as soon as possible.

The Tigers buried weapons throughout their former territory.  Every day the government discovers buried guns throughout the north and eastern provinces where the Tigers had controlled.

The Tigers removed much of the roofing of the civilian population’s homes before the end of the conflict, both to force Tamils from their homes and to steal materials to create ad-hoc camps.  The government is trying to repair the damages so that Tamils can return to their homes.

The Tigers destroyed water and electrical connections throughout their territory, which is now being replaced by the government.

Although the government has built some housing, the majority of the quarter million refugees live in tents provided by the U.N.

The monsoon rains that sweep Sri Lanka are not seen by the government as an insurmountable problem for the camps.  “We have known these rains for thousands of years.  They come every season.  To Sri Lankans, they are normal and we know how to live with them,” says the U.N. Ambassador.

The U.S. and E.U. are assisting the U.N. in reconstruction.  India, Australia, and Japan provide assistance directly to the Sri Lankan government.

The Ambassador welcomes assistance from the international community to help his government deal with this humanitarian crisis brought about by the Tamil Tigers.  Sri Lanka has never been an affluent nation, and the global economic crisis has hurt it as much as any other country.

I personally have been saddened to witness too many unknowing people give the Sri Lankan people advice.  Talk is cheap.  Talk based on ignorance or prejudice is dangerous.

What the people of Sri Lanka need now is concrete assistance.  Anyone can criticize.  The questions remain: Who is willing to help?  And how?

Edited by Ethel Grodzins Romm.