16 May 2007
“The Future. Today.” boasts a rusty billboard pushing mobile phone service in Batticaloa, a coastal town in Sri Lanka’s troubled eastern province.
Batticaloa is at the center of a renewed military campaign to drive out the separatist forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. From bases around the district and from the town itself, government artillery bombards suspected Tiger positions day and night. For every new area leveled by the artillery, an influx of refugees arrives in the town with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The heavy military presence has done nothing to stop the killings and abductions of civilians that occur with terrorizing frequency. The streets are dead quiet after dark, punctuated only by the pounding of artillery and the roar of rocket launchers. The cell phone service advertised by the rusty billboard has been shut down as a security risk. With the 2002 ceasefire now broken in everything but name, the future is not here today, and many Sri Lankans fear that it will not come tomorrow.
In the past two months, the military’s push to control the east of the country has forced an estimated 70,000 civilians to flee towards a tiny strip of land along the coast, joining 90,000 refugees who were already displaced by earlier offensives. This massive influx into an already overcrowded region has swamped nongovernmental organizations and pushed infrastructure beyond its limits.
For now, the refugees are happy to be here, or anywhere, as long as it is away from the fighting. In one camp, nearly a hundred refugees take shelter from the scorching sun under the only two trees in sight. An old woman and her family watch over their sick infant as he sleeps inside the tent they share with four other families – 17 people in all.
Twelve days earlier, their village was shelled without warning. “There was no time to collect anything,” says the old woman, “only the children.”
Life in the camps is virtual imprisonment. Men and women sit aimlessly from one day to the next, wondering if they will ever be able to resume what is left of their old lives. But one small island of normalcy could be found: Less than two weeks after their arrival, still living in tents and with the most basic of amenities, the children were going to school again in a testament to the value of education in Sri Lankan life.
Education has been the most unlikely survivor of the civil war. Despite nearly a quarter-century of bloody conflict that has claimed over 68,000 lives, Sri Lanka still has a literacy rate of 92% – one of the highest among developing nations. Even deep in the Vanni, the heavily-militarized region controlled by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government continues to fund and operate public schools.
The way in which education transcends the bitter divisions in Sri Lanka is noble, yet bizarre. In Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the LTTE, bombing runs by government fighter jets are common. Despite being a civil servant on the government payroll, the principal of one school there asked UNICEF to help them reinforce their school bunker to protect the students from government bombings.
The importance of education for Sri Lankans is such that, even as the refugees flee across the country, the thought of schooling is not far behind. When the fighting started last August, local education directors expected children from 15 schools to be displaced and they appealed to UNICEF for makeshift school buildings. Even before the refugees arrived, schools were being set up for their children.
A veteran of these displacements, known only by the pseudonym Kanthasamy to protect his identity, now works as an emergency education consultant for UNICEF. During his time as a government education director in the northern city of Jaffna, the LTTE-held city fell to government forces. When the LTTE forced a massive exodus, leading more than 350,000 civilians into areas that the LTTE still controlled, he went to work with his colleagues and established over a hundred new schools within three weeks.
In the effort, principals lost their lives retrieving books, documents and even furniture from their old schools. “It’s a committed life,” says Kanthasamy, “you need a bit of sacrifice to be a teacher here.”
Aside from the cultural importance of education, schools take on a special role in the chaos of refugee life. “With the movements of people, concerns over security in the communities and in the camps, the school should be an oasis for these children,” says Rachel McKinney, the coordinator for UNICEF’s Emergency Education Program.
“Physically, it provides them with basic shelter. Emotionally, it provides them with support that they don’t necessarily get in the camps and in the communities, because everyone around them is stressed. Their parents might not be able to provide the same support as they used to. Their friends might have been displaced to another area. Tensions are high all around, and so the school should really be a place where they can just be a child again.”
UNICEF’s emergency educational programs help provide study material and supplies for the children, as well as assistance to get the schools up and running. It also provides additional support for children who have missed a significant part of their education to prevent them from falling through the cracks.
“In some areas [in Vaharai], teachers could not get in for up to six months,” says McKinney. “For the last two terms, children there did not attend school. They can’t perform at grade-level. They can’t compete. And there’s a cultural barrier against children repeating grades, because they have age-specific grades and age-specific examinations.”
The catch-up education program has been working to produce a condensed curriculum to for these children. However, the renewed violence and massive displacements is throwing the education system – along with everything else in the Batticaloa district – into chaos once again. Many classrooms are now filled to the brim with refugee families and their few possessions. Nineteen schools in the district have been converted into makeshift camps by the desperate refugees.
There is no place to teach the 13,000 students from these schools, much less the 30,000 new students that have poured into the district. Some of the students from Vaharai are being returned to their homes, whiles others are being mixed with the new arrivals.
“[The new influx] drew on resources that were already stretched,” says McKinney. “We were under the assumption that [the catch-up education program] would have access to these children in the same places of displacement … for up to six months. Now you have everyone lumped on top of each other, with many different types of problems, and an incredibly stressed education system.”
For many of the refugees, in the area, this is not the first time they have had to flee their homes. One fisherman from the Vaharai region was made a refugee when the Boxing Day tsunami struck his village in 2004. His home, rebuilt with international aid, has been destroyed again by the fighting. This time, many people from his village were killed by shelling and crossfire as they fled down the coast. Weary and bitter, he says that he will not go back until he is sure it is safe.
The refugees also understand their political value. In LTTE territory, they are human shields. If the government tries to avoid killing them, that gives the rebels a tactical advantage. If the government doesn’t, their deaths become a propaganda victory. In government territory, their flight is trumpeted as an escape from the clutches of the LTTE and a vote of confidence in the government. Their return will be confirmation that the government is in control.
They trust neither side and give away little. Refugees confirm that the Tigers were operating near their homes. But they do not come into the village, they are quick to add. An identical, practiced response is found in every camp: The LTTE operates close to villages, but they do not harass the villagers, and the villagers do not give them support.
For now, they feel safe in Batticaloa. The artillery pounds away in the background, but they are unconcerned: The shells are landing somewhere else, after all. More importantly, they are under the watchful eyes of the UN and dozens of NGOs, and they are keenly aware of the difference that international pressure can make.
“Help us stay here,” one woman pleas when she sees a camera and notepad, “we are depending on the international people.”
Even as aid workers, teachers and planners struggle to maintain education standards, the harsh realities of the Sri Lankan civil war are never far away. In areas where the government jets drop their bombs, parents keep their children home — for a short time at least, Kanthasamy says. After a few weeks, people get used to it and run out only to see where the bombs are going fall.
The most terrifying threat of all is forced conscription. The LTTE has long been accused of recruiting child soldiers, but in the east of the country, where it is weakened and in retreat, another threat has emerged. A breakaway Tiger faction, led by former-LTTE commander Colonel Karuna, is now operating openly in Batticaloa.
Allan Rock, a special adviser to the UN who visited last year, claimed that the Karuna faction was responsible for the forced recruitment of children, and that the Sri Lankan army was guilty of complicity and even participation. Despite Karuna’s assurance that his group would work to stop child recruitment, reports of abduction and recruitment of children in the region are increasing.
Back in the center of Batticaloa, a multi-barrel rocket launcher has been positioned in the military camp close to a cluster of the town’s best schools. As the rockets blast off with a long series of deafening roars, students quake with fright. Cracks are beginning to show on the school’s walls, as well as on the teachers’ and students’ nerves.
One teacher gives a weary, resigned smile. “We have to go on,” he sighs.