"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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INDICTMENT AGAINST SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka's Genocidal War - '95 to '01

Strangling the Right to Work
- Jesuit Refugee Service Report, 25 January 2001
 

"Is it fair that we are not allowed to fish at night time in our country, but foreign fishermen are allowed to do so?" Fishermen in Pesalai, Mannar Island

Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka's war zones are endangered not only by shelling, landmines and gunfire. They must face human rights violations on a daily basis, some life-threatening, others which subject them to indignities and to economic hardship.

One violation they face is severe restrictions imposed by the Sri Lankan government and army, which incapacitate their potential to work. In no case is this more true than that of fishermen in the north. On Mannar Island, an estimated 78 per cent of the breadwinners are fishermen, but they are hardly allowed to fish. "Fishermen are not catching enough fish. They can just be stopped from fishing, and they cannot refer to anyone else, there is nothing they can do about it," said church workers in Mannar district.

"We are only allowed by the army to fish during very limited hours in the day, between 6.30am and 5pm. We cannot fish at night, which is the best time for fishing," said fishermen in Pesalai (the largest fishing village in Mannar, where 90 per cent are fishermen). "The motors of our boats are kept by the security forces. When we come in from fishing, we must return our motors to the police station and report to them." Prior to 1990, no restrictions were applied to the fishing trade, but now a range of limitations is rigidly imposed. The fishermen said: "Previously, there was no restriction on fuel, now we are only allowed 50 litres. We are not even allowed to do deep sea fishing, and are only allowed to go three and a half kilometres away from the shore, in shallow waters."

Sri Lankan Tamils are not allowed to fish in their own waters, but Indian fishermen are. Very likely by bribing the Navy, they make their way into Sri Lankan waters and fish where they like, when they like. "Indian trawlers are allowed to come and fish in Sri Lankan waters at night. The Indian fishermen have bigger trawlers and nets and they take everything," continued the fishermen. "Sometimes we leave our nets at night and the Indian trawlers tear them. So now, we can only fish on certain days a week if we want to keep our nets. Is it fair that we are not allowed to fish at night time in our country, but foreign fishermen are allowed to do so?"

Getting fishing equipment and spare parts for their boats is another nightmare for the fishermen as many necessary items are restricted - "because the army may suspect we are buying them to construct bombs" - and a pass is needed to get them. "To buy most items for our boats, we need to go to Mannar town, so we need a pass. Some things we need to get from Colombo, and it is so difficult to get there, we need passes and sponsorships," said the fishermen.

Not surprisingly, these imposed controls have led to a drastic drop in the income of the fishermen and their families. "We have all we need to enable us to live a good life here in Mannar, but our income is not enough now because of the restrictions. Before, when we could fish at night time, we would earn an average of 2,000 rupees per day, but now we only get around 500 rupees because of the curfew," they said. "Once some of us were rich, now we have nothing. Our food intake has decreased much, and this has led to an increase in ill health, but then, medication is scarce as it is also restricted."

As if all this were not enough, fishermen are subjected to further indignity and hardship when the army, navy and police take the best of their catch as it is landed. "If we do not allow them to, we will not be allowed to go fishing the next day. Out of seven kilos of prawns, for example, they will take one kilo, always the best quality," the fishermen said. This habitual practice takes a further cut out of the income of the fishermen, and it is an abuse they are powerless to do anything about. In Batticaloa, a fisherman did refuse, and was arrested, tortured and detained for over two years after that (on the customary vague suspicion of being a member of the LTTE). The Mannar Bishop, Rt Rev. Dr Rayappu Joseph, said: "Members of the Navy collect fish for their own consumption and they ill treat and assault the fishermen. They take the best fish for free without asking."

The violations suffered by the fishermen at the hands of the security forces can cost them their lives. The cases of "disappearances" of fishermen shot dead by the Navy while at sea - because they are taken for Tigers - are legion. One woman from Pesalai said: "My husband has been missing since August 1998, when he was arrested while fishing. I heard he is in Kalatura prison, and I wrote to the government asking after him. The reply I received was... thousands of people disappear, how can we trace him? I have spent all my money to try to find him, all for nothing, the children do not know their father at all." Another woman explained tearfully how her husband and her son were shot at when they went out fishing with another man in 1994.

Under the guidance of the Church, however, a number of steps have been taken, which have led to a decrease in such incidents. Cases of disappearances are usually reported to the Citizens' Committee, which follows them up.

It is not only fishermen who face problems in working. The cultivation of land is also fraught with difficulties. In the cleared areas, cultivation of many areas is simply forbidden, while in the uncleared areas, it is very difficult to cultivate due to restrictions on kerosene and a ban on fertilisers.

continued 

 

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