Feature Article

Why are children kept in concentration camps, asks Prof. Peter Schalk

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 28 October 2009, 14:24 GMT]
Stating that a list of details of children ranging from 1 month to 18 years, within the internment camps in Vavuniyaa, was being composed by concerned western academics and rights activists, Prof. Peter Schalk, of Uppsala University, Sweden, on Tuesday said out of 1,200 names they have composed 1,082 were orphans. The information is documented by human rights’ organisations in the field in August/September 2009. "The list gives unfortunately only a part of the total number of children in all concentration camps," he said adding that the list could be ordered from him. "The list makes it possible to follow up the fate of each child over time and makes denials by the Government of killings through neglect of children impossible," he said in a note sent to TamilNet.

Peter Schalk
Professor Peter Schalk
"More than 250,000 humans are kept in concentration camps for 'screening' by the Government of Sri Lanka, allegedly to discover 'terrorists'. The question arises why children are kept there, even babies."

Professor Peter Schalk is long connected to Sri Lankan affairs, Buddhism and Tamil Studies and has contributed a number of scholarly publications.

Full text of the note follows:

Children in Sri Lanka’s Concentration Camps

More than 250 000 humans are kept in concentration camps for “screening” by the Government of Sri Lanka, allegedly to discover “terrorists”. The question arises why children are kept there, even babies. These Concentration camps are called “welfare camps” by the Sri Lankan Government.

I refer to the latest report by Human Rights Watch from October 10, 2009:

http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/10/09/sri-lanka-tensions-mount-camp-conditions-deteriorate. It is in agreement with other international human rights organisations’ reports. In addition, I refer to the EU Commission’s report with an evaluation of Sri Lanka on 19 October 2009: http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2009/october/tradoc_145141.pdf

The following information is documented by human rights’ organisations in the field in August/September 2009. Names of the children have been left out here. The list makes it possible to follow up the fate of each child over time and makes denials by the Government of killings through neglect of children impossible. The list can be ordered from me. The world has an eye on every child listed. The list gives unfortunately only a part of the total number of children in all concentration camps.

  1. Total number of children on the list: 1200
  2. Names of the concentration camps and the number of children:
    1. Vavuniya Anantha Kumarasami Camp: 118
    2. Vavuniya Arunachchala Camp: 65
    3. Vavuniya Kathirkamar Camp: 8
    4. Vavuniya Sheriliana: 50
    5. Vavuniya Ulukkulam Camp: 959
  3. Age of the children: Youngest: 1month. Oldest: 18 years.
  4. Number under 5 years: 308
  5. Girls: 536 Boys: 664
  6. Orphans: 1082

The following is an eye witness report with special regard to children from a prisoner in a concentration camp. The prisoners managed to get free in August 2009. The whole report was published in October 2009 (http://www.tamilnet.com/img/publish/2009/10/Living_in_Menik_Farm.pdf), but the section on children was slightly revised for this message by the former prisoner who rightly prefers to be anonymous.

"I was interned in the ---- camp of Menik Farm----. During those four months in the camp, it is the condition of the children at the camp that I found most depressing. I was too timid to go around collecting statistics though it would have been easy to collect statistics because of the proximity of the people crowded within a small area. However, I observed carefully and was overwhelmed by the wasting away of the children.

"Newborn babies are sent to the camp conditions, which are unsuitable for adults, just few days after being born. Toddlers play in the filthy area right in front of the toilets. I have never seen flies and mosquitoes in such numbers in my life. While eating, one hand is fully occupied with chasing the flies; a practice that children will not adopt thus consuming food contaminated by flies that come straight from the toilets very nearby. Children of well off families who appeared well cared for on arrival at the camp were visibly wasting away during the stay in the camp. The contributory factors were poor diet, the hostile weather, and continuous illness.

"Majority of the children including infants did not have milk (powder) except an occasional packet handed out by some charity. Once a father of a seven month old baby came begging for some sugar to put in the plain tea (black tea) to be given to his seven month old baby because the mother did not have enough breast milk and the baby was hungry. Plain tea had become the regular diet for this baby.

"The diet was most definitely inadequate for the children despite some nutritional supplement that were distributed. There was no milk, meat or vegetable in their diet. Sometimes soya bean was given but they were of rotten quality and children would hardly eat them.

"Illness among children was pandemic and it wasted them. Small injuries became infected and caused problems. Vomiting, fever or diarrhea seemed a natural condition in most children. Measures of malnutrition maybe a standard way of measuring worst affected children but it does not capture the general condition of children wasting away. When a child runs a fever most parents worry a lot fearing Hepatitis-A infection.

"The queues are very long at the OPD clinics inside the camp and the doctors work at break neck speed. I have seen a doctor writing a prescription to a 12 year old boy without finding out what is wrong with the boy. The medicines that are dispensed are arranged in a table and the total list of medicines consists of around 30 different medicines. The medicine dispensers too work with breakneck speed in dispensing them. Once an educated mother told me that she visited the doctor for treatment for her baby as well as for herself. The medicine dispensers mixed up the medicines and gave the baby what should have been given to the mother. Since the mother had some awareness of the medications she spotted it. Most mothers in the camp who do not have such awareness would have given the adult medicine to the baby. God only knows how many babies, children and even adults died due such medical negligence. Who is there in the camp to watch, monitor and investigate? Deaths are just that, deaths and no investigations are done as to the cause of it.

"Patients often queue up for doctors for hours even before the doctors arrive from outside. No one in the OPD clinic will know when the doctors are likely to arrive. One just waits around taking one’s chances. For all this the level of sickness among inmates is far higher than among the population at large and it is obvious.

"Take the eight tent group where I was staying. Five of the tents out of the eight had children under 10. One child died; one became seriously ill and taken away to Vavuniya hospital and all the other children had frequent fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. The children were wasting away and it was visibly obvious. Some of the children had persistent skin disease despite several visits to the doctors and treatment. Four of the children contracted HepatitisA and the parents were told by the doctors to just take good care of them and give lots of fruits because the hospitals had no medicine. Fruits were very expensive in the camp. There is a native treatment for HepatitisA involving a plant named “Keelkainelli” in Tamil. Even to get this plant was a struggle because it meant someone has to bring it from outside and handover to the inmates at the meeting spot as described later.

"People young and old suddenly dying after a few days of fever is a common occurrence. All of us were left puzzled as to the cause and no one gave any explanation. All of us without exception have suffered diarrhoea at least once and most of us many times.

"I used to keep telling myself during the stay in the camp how lucky I was that I do not have any young children under my care. The unhygienic living, especially the play area and the continuous illness is an ordeal for the young mothers. Even thinking about the condition of newborns and their mothers who are sent back to the camp conditions soon after birth is an ordeal. Perhaps the most telling scenes of the camp conditions and the health service can be found by visiting the OPD clinics and observing young mothers with very sick babies waiting for long time in queues with tears trickling down their face.

"Children went to makeshift schools staffed by teachers who were also interned in the camp. Many teachers have lamented how they can teach while living under such conditions. The school is made up of sheds with uneven floor covered with tarpaulin. The children cannot even place their books on the uneven floor to write. They have to keep the soft cover books on their knees to write.

"Most of the young children have to carry very heavy buckets of water to assist their parents who are also struggling to care for the children often as a single parent. The little bodies bent like a question mark under the weight surely would have done permanent damage.

"If we can tolerate the incarceration of the entire population of young children from a community which is clearly leading to long term damage to their development, how does this measure up in any of the international humanitarian/human rights laws? Can the long term damage done to them be measured and judged?"

Finally, a song for the children in the concentration camps:

- Peter Schalk



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