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Hope, mistrust among Sri Lankans after UN report


COLOMBO, Sri Lanka >> A United Nations report that gives credence to allegations of human rights abuses during the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war has given some victims’ families hope for justice, while others say the U.N. action comes too late.

The three-member panel of experts says there are credible reports that serious human rights violations — including possible war crimes and crimes against humanity — were committed by both the government and Tamil Tiger rebels in the last months of the decades-long war.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians perished simply from being caught in the fighting, the report says. It urges U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to immediately investigate the claims.

The government has denounced the report, made public Tuesday, as biased and based on “unverified material.” The Tigers, crushed at the end of the war, are virtually nonexistent as an organization now and have no way to respond to such things.

The violent 26-year war, waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils, left up to 100,000 people dead on both sides — including at least 7,000 in the last five months alone, the U.N. has said.

Since the war ended in May 2009, civilians left in former war zones have been forced into silence about what they witnessed. Having faced restrictions even in commemorating their dead since the war, they don’t dare to demand justice. Many refused to speak with The Associated Press altogether for fear of reprisals, while some spoke on condition that only one name be used.

But some ethnic Tamil civilians said this week that the report gives hope that justice for the victims can be served and that the harsh postwar conditions they live under will ease.

“There was nobody to help us during the war. Children died before our eyes,” said one man, who only gave his name as Kanustus. He lost his daughter and several other family members during the war and sustained shrapnel wounds to a hand and leg.

“There must be an investigation, and the truth must be told. We know many countries know the truth but pretend not to know,” he said.

Others said the U.N. move came too late and would amount to little — belying a mistrust that stems from what the report itself says were missed opportunities by U.N. bodies and officials to take steps during the war to save civilian lives.

“I don’t trust the U.N.,” said a Tamil housewife called Rose. “We expected till the end that they will come to our help, but it was not to be.”

Ethnic Tamil lawmaker Suresh Premachandran welcomed the U.N. report while saying the government “has not taken a single step toward reconciliation” with the shell-shocked Tamil community.

Instead, he said, the military has assumed an overwhelming role in civilian life and taken over ethnic Tamil property — allegations the government has denied.

“Whatever is said by the panel must be implemented,” Premachandran said. The government is “dividing the people more by alienating the Tamil people. … The Tamil people are so much suppressed.”

The U.N. panel gave credence to allegations that the government systematically shelled hospitals, food distribution lines and no-fire zones where civilians had been asked to gather in the last months of the war. Beaches near Red Cross ships carrying away wounded evacuees were also bombarded.

On the other side, the Tigers are accused of forcibly recruiting children, using civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to flee their grip.

“We were in a situation where we couldn’t even bury our dead relatives,” said 32-year-old Sujitha. Ten of her relatives were killed in the conflict, she said. “The dead will never return. I don’t know what good (the report) will bring, but the world must know the truth.”

Rebel families also sought an investigation that could bring closure along with justice. Prabhakaran Bobitha, whose husband was in rebel intelligence when he was arrested at the war’s end, said an independent U.N. investigation could help reveal his fate.

“They must tell me what happened to my husband,” she said, two years after she last saw him and two other rebels being loaded into an army jeep.

The U.N. secretary general said Monday he would launch an investigation only if Sri Lanka’s government agreed.

The government, however, has warned against such a probe, saying it would only damage reconciliation efforts between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority that controls government and the armed forces.

The Foreign Ministry said the U.N. report’s release at this stage was “divisive, and disrupts our efforts to reinforce peace, security and stability in Sri Lanka. It feeds into the political agendas of interested parties.”

Among the majority Sinhalese, many feel it’s unfair to investigate a government that defeated a group engaged in a terror campaign for decades.

“A 30-year war ruined this country, and we are the people who witnessed the horror and destruction of that war,” said Jagath Dissanayake, a 37-year-old house builder. “I think these so-called rights protectors want to give a new lease of life for the defeated terrorists.”


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