SRI LANKA: New archbishop warns of land mine risk to returning refugees
By John Pontifex
1 December 2009
Sri Lanka’s most senior Church leader has warned that thousands of Tamils returning from displacement camps are at risk of serious injury unless action is taken to clear the area of land mines.
Newly appointed Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo has called on the international community to provide critical support to de-mine an area close to the famous A9 Elephant’s Pass in the far north of the country, which he says is covered with unexploded ordnance.
Speaking in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Ranjith, who was installed in August, said: “Some of the places where the Tamils are returning are heavily land-mined. They may get injured or worse.
“The international community will scold us for sending them to their deaths so we must ensure that there are no land mines there.”
The archbishop’s warning comes after the Sri Lankan government announced that as of Tuesday, 1st December it would release the remaining 136,000 Tamils held in camps described as squalid and overcrowded.
At their peak, the government-run camps held up to 300,000 refugees following the Colombo-based administration’s successful military campaign in the spring to overwhelm the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
But with fears that the remaining displaced people are likely to travel through or return to booby-trapped areas in northern Sri Lanka, Archbishop Ranjith said the pressure was on for the government to act fast to ensure their safety.
“The international community should help Sri Lanka to de-mine the area as quickly as they can and help rebuild the infrastructure – rebuild the roads, repair the railways and get things back to normal.”
Archbishop Ranjith went on to insist that the returning Tamils be allowed to develop a political voice of their own.
While underlining that political separation for Tamils in the north and east was “impossible”, he said: “Through local politics they should be able to represent their own areas.
“Perhaps the government should give them more than just a provincial council so that they can have more of a say in their own areas.”
He went on to appeal for special support to be shown to 10,000 or more former child soldiers and other young military recruited by the LTTE and in severe need of therapy and reconciliation work.
The archbishop said: “We must ensure that those people – former child soldiers – are rehabilitated and healed. They are now being trained to go back to normal life but it will take time.”
Archbishop Ranjith said that for the country to move on from “a dark period in its history” both the majority Sinhalese community and the Tamils needed to accept that during the war dating back to 1983, there was serious wrongdoing on both sides.
“This is not a situation where you can say one side is a sinner and another side is a saint. Both are sinners. Both have made mistakes.
“What religious leaders need to do is to encourage the government in Sri Lanka to solve this through a political solution. We cannot go back to violence.”
The archbishop said all religious leaders should join in condemning violence and working for peace, stressing that the way of non-violence had the support of all but “a few exclusivist-minded elements” within some faith groups.
He went on: “In order to create a new Sri Lanka, all religious leaders must get people to live their religious values as nobly as possible. If people believed in their religions as they should, we would never have had so much violence and death.”
Archbishop Ranjith said the war could have been avoided if both Tamils and Sinhalese had refused to concede ground to radical forces within their own communities.
The archbishop said: “A little bit of readiness to compromise on entrenched positions could have made a lot of difference. Even we [the Church] tried to bring the two sides to some kind of sanity but they would not listen to us.
“This was a problem that could have been solved long ago.”
Last winter, at the height of the humanitarian crisis sparked by the climax of the civil war, Aid to the Church in Need provided emergency aid to homeless people through Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna.