NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - More than three years after Sri Lanka's bloody conflict ended, authorities have closed a controversial displacement camp which once housed tens of thousands of war-hit civilians. The United Nations has welcomed the move, but warned that many people still need support to rebuild their lives.
Once the world's largest refuge for the internally displaced, the sprawling Manik Farm camp accommodated up to 225,000 people who fled in the cataclysmic final months of the war after being trapped in a small area as separatist fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought the army.
Many Tamil civilians spent years at Manik Farm - spread over 700 hectares in Sri Lanka's northern Vavuniya region - in temporary shelters with little freedom of movement, dependent on handouts from the Sri Lankan government and humanitarian agencies.
Aid workers often criticised the squalid conditions where diseases spread rapidly during heavy rains, and complained of sporadic denial of access to the war-hit communities inside the camp by President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government for security reasons.
"This is a milestone event towards ending a chapter of displacement in Sri Lanka some three years after the civil war which ended in May 2009," Subinay Nandy, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka, said in a statement on Tuesday.
"But there are still some people who are unable to return to their homes and a solution urgently needs to be found," he said.
The Manik Farm site is part of a forest that was cleared to accommodate an exodus of civilians who escaped after being trapped for months on a 25 sq km strip of coconut groves on the island's east coast.
The now-defeated LTTE was accused by rights activists of holding the civilians there as human shields when the military closed in, while the army is blamed for bombarding the area and killing civilians in its final push to end a conflict which spanned a quarter of a century.
The U.N. Human Rights Council in March passed a resolution, backed by the United States, pressing Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes.
Aid workers say Manik Farm was often an uninhabitable place where at least five people died in one season as a result of the poor terrain, bad weather and shelters. One boy was killed when a pit latrine collapsed and others died of over-exposure to wet and humid conditions.
During heavy monsoons, latrines overflowed and mud and human excrement flowed through people's tents and communal cooking areas, spreading water-borne diseases.
While the United Nations has praised the government for closing the camp, it says there are still around 350 people from Manik Farm who cannot return to their original homes and will be relocated to state land where their future remains uncertain.
There are also many more who have left the camp, but have not been adequately settled and are either living with friends and relatives or in welfare centres.
Nandy said that while the government plans how to resettle the displaced, it is important that people have a choice over their future, including where they are housed.
"Allowing people to settle anywhere in the country and resolving legal ownership of land for those who have resettled away from their original homes is a key part of the reconciliation process" he said.
(AlertNet is a humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)