Why has the left neglected the Tamils of Sri Lanka?

Human tragedy on this South Asian island is all but ignored.

Earlier this week, a piece was published by the Daily Telegraph that contained the latest in a powerful body of evidence that indicates the Sri Lankan army committed atrocities during the final phase of the country's civil war.

It referenced damning allegations of war crimes committed by government forces during the conflict's conclusion. These were sourced from an affidavit containing the testimony of a former member of the military who held a very senior position during the war, and had access to the flow of orders from the highest levels of the military command. The source asserted that government-sanctioned "hit squads" operated during the war to kill civilians; that the army killed surrendering enemy combatants and civilians in contravention of international law; and, most crucially, included the assertion that these were ordered by the Defence Minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

But yet, as the Sri Lankan government publishes its anaemic in-house "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" report (politely described by Amnesty International on Monday as "ignoring serious evidence of war crimes") and Tamil asylum seekers get deported from this country to face the risk of intimidation -- even death -- at home, the left appears not to be paying the sort of attention the issue deserves.

Why? Not only do human rights organisations suspect that tens of thousands of civilians were intentionally shelled into annihilation by the Sri Lankan army's unilaterally declared "no fire zone" in the North East of the Island nation in 2009, it appears that the survivors are being kept in camps not dissimilar to internment centres for prisoners of war. Civilians kept in these places are experiencing rape, brutalisation and malnourishment if reports by rights groups and journalists are to be taken seriously.

That hero of the left, Noam Chomsky, described the violence during the endgame of the war as involving a "Rwanda-like atrocity", but as yet there have been no Boycott-Divestment and Sanctions for Sri Lanka, no highly-visible displays of solidarity with the Tamil Sri Lankans, and no mass protests in Britain beyond those organised within the Tamil community.

People may complain about the way dissenting voices are suppressed in Europe and the US; but at least, unlike Lasantha Wickremathunge, outspoken journalists don't get assassinated for their work. Wickremathunge wrote with awesome courage, foreseeing his own murder and directing his last editorial of the Sunday Leader newspaper at his former close friend the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, declaring: "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me . . . For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death."

All of these issues should be of serious concern to British journalists, but there has been little of the moral outrage directed at comparable causes found expressed by the usual standard bearers, despite Channel 4's profoundly harrowing Killing Fields documentary, a series of articles in the Guardian, and this week's Telegraph piece.

The more people willing to raise their voice and call for accountability for the Rajapaksa regime, the more people standing up for the rights of asylum seekers not to be deported home to risk of torture, the greater the possibility that, at the very least, the issue of Sri Lankan Tamil suffering will become more widely known.

It would be a source of disappointment for those who naively assume that it is the province of the left to lead the charge for such causes to discover that this was merely wishful thinking.

Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist.

21 Dec 2011: Sri Lanka's Marxist Peoples Party supporters shout slogans during a demonstration in Colombo, demanding the government take action to find hundreds of people who have disappeared during the island's decades long conflict (Photo: Getty Images)
Show Hide image

What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”