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The Refugee Camp at the Eastern University, Vantharumoolai


. The Refugee camp at the Eastern University

   4.1   The beginnings

   4.2   From the records of Eastern University   

   4.3   How the people benefited from the camp

   4.4   The LTTE and the camp     

   4.5   The disappearance of 159 inmates    

   4.6   The General arrives

   4.7   The last days   

   4.8   Refuge in the jungle      

   4.9   The significance of the closure of the

             Eastern University

    4.10 A postscript

4.1 The Beginnings

The army moved from Valaichenai through Eravur to Batticaloa on 23 rd   June, abandoning the areas through which they had moved. The LTTE launched a looting spree around Chenkaladi and Ervur between 23 rd and 27 th June, emptying the shops and food stores. On 25 th July, the army came to the Eastern University refugee camp about 5 p.m. 10,000 refugees were in the camp at that time. The army left after taking 5 persons with the help of TELO infor­mants. With the army establishing a campt at Kommathurai, those going south to Batticaloa had to bypass Kommathurai as the army did not permit passage. This became established practice.

On 8th August, the LTTE placed a mine in the residential area in Eravur ‑ Chenkaladi. But nothing happened. Another mine was planted on 11th August (See Report No.6, 4.5). The army did not suffer any harm, but killed a few people around the place. One person was shot at point blank range. A cinema, two garages and several houses were burnt by the army.

Following the massacre at Eravur on the 11th night, the Tamils killed by the army and mobs included 18 massacred and burnt at the Eravur sawmill. The number registered at the univer­sity rose fourfold to 46,000. There was a floating population of about 10,000 who lived in outlying villages, but collected provi­sions at the university. The camp had to function amidst difficu­lties caused by both sides to the conflict. Once the LTTE planted a landmine in front. The refugees protested strongly and almost physically forced its removal. The army camp at Kommathurai, half a mile from the university, was among the nastiest. There were several instances of people (including the AGA’s peon) being detained, and upon inquiry the matter was simply denied. Once a shell fell into the refugee camp killing one person. When a complaint was made, the Captain in charge simply replied that they ought to ask Prabhakaran. The area came under the command of the Brigadier at Valaichenai, noted for his draconian approach.

Given this situation, the camp, and the university dons and the administration who gave it  leadership, had an important role to play. Because the university was an important institution, it attracted international attention. Journalists and NGO’s which included the ICRC and the MSF were frequent visitors. The camp, apart from being an information centre, was also a hospital and a food distribution centre for a vast isolated region. Probably responding to pressure, some officals in the administration at Batticaloa expressed anxiety about the large number of persons registered. The camp authorities pointed out that if the adminis­tration in Batticaloa had the means to distribute food to the remote villages that consisted the floating population, they were welcome to take over. But since they sorely lacked the means, they would do well to allow the present arrangement to continue. The camp was developing a capacity to create a new social leader­ship.  [Top]

4.2 From the records of Eastern University:

 In functioning as an information centre, the staff maintained meticulous records of violations reported by the inmates of the camp. The emotional strain involved in sifting through hundreds of individual trage­dies can hardly be imagined. The records are also very informa­tive about what was happening. We learn that at least 8 Tamils were murdered in the Eravur‑Chenkalady area on 25th August, soon after Muslim home guards were trained and deployed. It records at least 40 persons killed and 30 missing during the aftermath of the Eravur incident. 119 persons are recorded missing in a sepa­rate list. Those detained in the camp in two roundups by the army (5/9 and 23/9) total 175, nearly all of whom are missing.

We give some samples from the records:


(25/8) K. T. David (60) of Eravur 4 ‑ Killed by the forces

(25/8) Mrs. Kanapathipillai Santhanam of Eravur 5,

killed by unknown persons.

       F.R. Joseph (58), Dental Technician ‑ Assaulted to death   while on duty in Eravur hospital.

(16/8) Kasipillai Thuraisamy (85) was at home in Kudiyiruppu    (south of Eravur) when he was killed and burnt by a Muslim    mob in the company of the forces.

(23/9) Mrs. Thuraisamy Parvathy, wife of the above had witnessed   her husband being killed and burnt by the forces. She then   came to reside at the University. On seeing the forces    again, she fell down and died of shock.

(12/8) K.A. Arasakone (78). Shot dead while taking refuge at the         house of Mr. Razak, Chairman (Eravur). Reported by wife   Manonmany.

(25/7) Chinniah Thambiraja (42), died in the Eravur market of    helicopter firing. (This was the army’s second exercise in   entering Eravur).

(25/8) S. Ganeshamoorthy (37), died of gunshots and partly burnt    with tyre.

  Balasundaram, fishmonger. Shot dead while returning from    Kaluankerny.


(16/9) Ramasamy Ranjan (24). Arrested while answering a call of    nature just outside the university campus.

(12/8) Kandiah Alagathurai (37). Went to work int he field for    Muslims. Did not return.

(15/8) Douglas Silva Gunasiri (34). Went on request to purchase    cigarettes at Eravur. Reported missing by wife V.Susheela.

27/7) V Thevarasa (12). Taken by forces on way back to camp with    father, after a bath.

(5/6)  S. Krishnapillai (45) of Eravur. Went to Welikande to   bring firewood. Did not return.  [Top]

4.3 How the people benefited from the Camp:

It was perhaps too early for the camp to make an impact on curbing the army’s exces­ses. The ICRC which regularly visited the camp was able to help little in this respect. According to camp officials, the ICRC and the MSF did help them a lot, not so much in bringing food and medicine, but by pressing government officials in Batticaloa to do more efficiently what they should have normally done.

They clarified that the epidemic of diarrhoea in the camp together with a number of deaths as reported in the press is not quite accurate. Many of these people had already fallen sick in the surrounding region and were brought to the camp hospital. If not for the camp, many more would have died and would have gone unrecorded. [Top]

4.4 The LTTE and the camp:

The camp officials are firm that the LTTE never demanded food and medicines from them and did not to their knowledge take anything out in large quantities. With the people having largely fled the surrounding villages, LTTE cadre in need of food came to their relatives in the camp. The LTTE had requested some university equipment. The staff refused, telling them that if they were removing things as an armed force, they could not stop them. The Chemistry laboratory was forced open and some chemicals were removed. The pick up truck belonging to the university was also taken away. This was reported to the army as a formality.

The LTTE was also irritated by losing its civilian cover in the surrounding areas. Instead of being sympathetic to the refu­gees who had suffered much, it became angry with them, accusing them of eating sufficiently, having electricity and watching television, while they were in difficulties outside. Towards the end of August the transformers supplying electricity to the university were blasted. This act was an indication that the LTTE did not approve of the camp and was feeling around for means to make it uninviting.

For the university as an institution catering for the deve­lopment of the region, the loss of electric supply meant a signi­ficant loss. The university’s Department of Agriculture was in­volved in a project to find organic alternatives to weedicides. They had been collecting and storing varieties of fungi with the aim of culturing ones that would attack weeds in rice fields while not harming the rice. Equipment had been provided by Bri­tish Overseas Development Aid worth 10,000 pounds. Without elec­tricity all this effort of storing went waste. This project has been suspen [Top]

4.5   The disappearance of 159 inmates

Early morning on 5th Sep­tember, the army surrounded the camp and wanted the men and women to line up separately in the grounds. These inmates were then paraded before informers. While the parade was taking place there was an explosion in the auditorium. It was later learnt that some LTTE cadre were hiding under the stage and a grenade of theirs had exploded. Three died and three others were taken away by the army. Of those who were paraded, 159 were taken away. There was much anger over this. A senior member of the university staff said: “The Muslim informers brought by the army simply pointed at anyone they knew. A young boy I knew well and who was taken away, was timid and would not even have so much as spoken to the Tigers.” A Christian clergyman who ministered to a number of army officers said:”The whole thing was a sham. My sister’s neighbour was a fishmonger whom I knew well. He had no connection with the Tigers. Someone must have been trying to get rid of a business competitor. As soon as I heard about it, I used my influence to try to get him out. I failed. Perhaps I was late.” Going through the list of those taken, it turns out significantly that most of them had Eravur addresses. The ages of those detained ranged from 11 to 51.

Everyone felt depressed, helpless and listless. That evening a lorry from Save the Children Fund arrived with relief supplies. A senior don asked for help to unload the supplies and hoped that it would distract their minds. Immediately there was an uproar. People started shouting,”We do not want the supplies. We want our children. Send the lorry back.” They wanted the camp leaders to go to the Kommathurai army camp and talk to them. The don ex­plained, “I was here when they took people away. I am not an outsider who had just arrived to go to the camp to verify that this actually happened. The camp officials going is of no use. If you can persuade 36,000 people, we will all go. I will lead you. That will have some effect.”

After the initial surprise, people started consulting with each other. The don reflected,”Had we all gone, the army may have opened fire. Some of us may have got killed. But we would have built something. I was waiting, thinking that on the balance they may decide to march. At length a spokesman asked me, “Can you go with the families of those taken?” They were obviously crestfal­len. I told them that going with just the families would not have any effect. We then silently unloaded the lorry.”  [Top]

4.6. The General arrives:

One of the advantages of the camp was the publicity it had received. On 8 th September General Gerry Silva, who commanded the East, arrived with the ministerial delegation of political party representatives. During the talks, the camp officials raised with the general the release of those detained. the general declined to release them, saying words to the effect that those detained were all guilty. It was then asked whether, since those left in the camp had been screened, he could issue passes to them for their future protection. The general said that this would not be possible as they might tomorrow receive information about a person which they did not have today. The general’s evasiveness made people uneasy. Someone asked why not have the army permanently surrounding the camp so that accu­sations about harbouring the LTTE need not be made. This was thought unfeasible.  [Top]

4.7 The last days:

 The army made a similar raid on the camp on 23rd September. On this day fighting had taken place between the army and the Tigers at kaluwankerny, a fishing village 3 miles east. Following this, 500 people from the village came to the refugee camp. Not relishing being alone in the village the Tigers ordered the villagers to get back, threatening penalties. A camp official on hearing this inquired of the Tigers the following day. They completely denied making such an order and said that the villagers could stay on.

On 27th September the Tigers abducted the university regis­trar for a so called inquiry (later released) and about the same time told the inmates of the camp that they must vacate by the 1st October. There was no public announcement. The word was passed on to groups of people. Perhaps to avoid questions, the matter was never taken up or discussed with the camp leadership. The latter came to know this from refugees who also told them,”If you ask us to stay, we will stay.” A leader explained, “By asking them to stay, we would have got into a confrontation with the LTTE. It may not have done any good to us or to them. I told them that it must be their decision. I was hoping that they would decide to stay. Some said they would stay. On the 28th, I noticed that the number in camp had declined. There was the atmosphere of a sinking ship. I knew we were going. We asked for the remaining provisions to be distributed.”

The discipline that had held all this time suddenly broke down. The community that was coming together disintegrated. The people, together with the LTTE, started stripping the university. The LTTE brought bullock carts. People took away things which meant nothing to them ‑ chemical balances, micro computers, video screens etc. These gadgets and university furniture started ap­pearing all over the surrounding area. Much of these were later dumped in places and the university is still receiving messages about things found. By 1 st October the anarchy and panic came to an end. The home of 40,000 persons stood empty. Some of the people found their way to Batticaloa. But the larger number had headed for starvation and perils, natural and man made, in the surrounding jungles.  [Top]

4.8 Refuge in the jungle:

The following experience related by a 34 year old labourer who left the university camp and took refuge in the jungle, is typical of thousands. He now lives in a refugee camp situated in a school in Batticaloa : “I together with my  family were living in the jungle at Mylavedduvan. Apart from the rains, our immediate concern was about being bitten by snakes. (Batticaloa hospital then reported an average of 5 snake bite patients a day). Drinking water was also hard to come by. Food was in very short supply. Some of the farmers in the surrounding area gave us some sacks of paddy. Several people took to trade, particularly those old enough to look harmless and yet fit enough, going to Batticaloa, bringing things and selling them in the jungle. We had to sell a few things we had to survive. When children fell ill, it was a nightmare. It sometimes took 3 days to locate and buy one Disprin tablet. The army later restricted trade by allowing only 10 coconuts and 4 Disprins per person.

“The ICRC used to come at all hours and be of great service. The LTTE used to    sometimes bring medicines.

“As the rains advanced things became nigh impossible. We used to be subject to bombing and helicopter straffing by the air force. I saw 7 or 8 persons who had been killed by helicopter fire. A number of people who ran into flood waters during the bombing were carried away. By the end of October we came to Batticaloa town.”  [Top]

 4.9 The significance of the closure of the Eastern University


One of the versions given out by the Tigers regarding the closure of the camp is that the army was causing persons to disappear, and thus they had to close the camp to prevent more people from disappearing. Since this claim received international publicity, it needs to be examined. The facts we have presented point to the patent truth.

Many more persons were taken away by the forces during round ups of several refugee camps in the East, usually after informa­tion leaked to the foreces about Tiger infilitration. This hap­pened for instance in Veeramunai and Sorikalmunai. 250 persons disappeared from the much smaller camp at Veeramunai. There was no university at Veeramunai. The camp elders had repeatedly asked the Tigers to keep away from the camp. There was never talk of closing the camp and leading the people into the jungle. The camp was closed on 12 th August by the forces setting Muslim homeguards on a massacre. That too remained little known. (See Report No.3, October 1990).

Such behaviour by the forces in refugee camps which receive sanctity in international law needed to be exposed. As a libera­tion group the obligation of the Tigers was to strengthen the people to fight against such things. The two major sets of disap­pearances from the Eastern University camp were serious matters which apart from the loss, affected the morale of the people and caused much insecurity.

Following the army action on 5th September many parents became afraid for their sons and sent them into the surrounding jungles. These youngsters then paid brief visits to the camp, or food was taken out to them. Some of these young in anger, frus­tration and hopelessness even joined the Tigers. (“Our government would not even let us sit in one place and starve in peace!”).

But the camp also had its strengths because of its interna­tional standing. Apart from the services it was providing, it was, through experience, developing a leadership with the will and capacity to fight back. The people were becoming organised and the camp had the ability to draw on some international machi­nery for its protection. It was because of this that everything that happened at the Eastern University received publicity. It was the obligation of the Tigers as a liberation group to discuss with the people and the leadership how the camp’s standing could be protected. They should have asked themselves in this situa­tion, whether they ought to maintain a presence in the camp, and whether they should ask those who wished to feed them to do it outside. If the camp leadership could say that there was no Tiger presence in the camp, it would have strengthened their case. If this assurance were possible even the ICRC could have been asked to co‑operate in running the camp. Maintaining the camp was the best defence the people had.

Never once did the Tigers talk to the camp leadership about the welfare of the camp or how the people could be helped to fight against the army menace.

If it is claimed that the people were asked to abandon the camp for their protection, it should be asked what alternative protection the Tigers provided for them? Did they provide food, medicines, shelter, protection from snakes and aerial attacks by the government? Using the people as pawns they conducted a mas­sive international campaign appealing for help, for people shel­tering in the jungles from the oppressive Sri Lankan government.

Going by past experience and from what happened in the camp itself, the Tigers were up to their usual cynicism, killing 4 birds with one stone against the background of crass brutality by Sri Lankan forces: 1. Any organised effort from which the people drew strength and confidence had to be crushed. People ought to be clay in the hands of the Tigers.   2.People dispersed from the camp become civilian cover. 3. Cornered youth are potential recruits. 4. Have an international campaign on the plight of the people.

Campaigning against oppression is a legitimate thing. But it had to be done on responsible premises.

More recently, the LTTE leader Karikalan told a rehabilita­tion official that they are against food handouts because the people are becoming lazy. He said that people should get back to their villages. His reasons are understandable. We have hardly met a refugee who is not anxious to return to work. When people have no hope and no prospect of ever returning to their homes and leading normal lives, they tend to become professional refugees when this situation is prolonged. How can the Tigers expect vulnerable people to return to their villages when they persist in a policy of killing Muslims? This also explains their perverse military strategy. By attacking Muslims and using Tamil‑Muslim enmity for mobilisation, the Tigers also brought about the large scale displacement of Tamils, causing themselves problems in mobility. This would not have arisen if good relations between Tamils and Muslims had been a part of their political approach.  [Top]

4.10 A postscript:

 A number of staff members from the Eastern University felt so dejected that they felt reluctant to talk about their experience. The twisted propaganda about the whole affair was so strong, that a young lecturer sounded as though he would never be believed. For those who had worked hard and shoul­dered much responsibility, the closure of the camp delivered such a blow as to drive them towards apathy and resignation. In compa­rison with the detailed information they had at their finger tips covering their period of activity, they are dimly aware of events in their region since then. One could now hardly find anything in the East that can be called an information centre. People have very vague impressions of what happens outside their town or village. What is the good of knowing when the liberators do not welcome those who care?

This experience of the university dons and administration explains the apathy and loss of confidence one sees everywhere in the East as a consequence of “liberation politics”. Sadly, some international figures pledged to protect the interests of the people, have helped the propagation of myths harmful to their interests. The victims have become voiceless.

Many of the younger inmates of the refugee camp who had much to complain of the conduct of the Tigers from the beginning, have been driven by the impressions left by the experience of the government’s conduct to have some sympathy for the Tigers. Their government not only violated the refugee camp, but in addition to their other miseries, bombed and straffed them in the jungles.

Regarding those who disappeared from the camp, a letter was received much later from Air Chief Marshal Walter Fernando of the Joint Operations Command. He acknowledged that about 30 were detained and that they were soon to be released. None of them appeared. A don commented on this angrily, “This letter is a sham. When we talked to General Silva on 8th September, 3 days after the incident, he never contested our figure of 159 arres­ted. Furthermore, there is an agreed procedure for the release of prisoners which the army has without exception adhered to. Those to be released are usually handed over to a group of senior citizens at some place like the   (Roman Catholic) Bishops House.”

Air Chief Marshal Walter Fernando is a member of the Presi­dential Task Force on Human Rights! [Top]

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