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U.N. Chief Visits Displaced Tamils


After 25 years of civil war, Sri Lanka is celebrating its first week of peace. Now, it's what comes after such a long, costly war that has people across the globe focused on this island nation off of India. One of them, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, is in Sri Lanka today visiting some of the nearly 300,000 civilians who have been displaced by the war and are being held in government camps.

I spoke with NPR's South Asia correspondent, Philip Reeves, about what the secretary general did today.

PHILIP REEVES: Well, he went to a place called Vavuniya in North Sri Lanka. This is where the great bulk of the displaced people are being held, about a quarter of a million of them there. They're Tamil civilians, and they're being held in internment camps. They're unable to leave.

Ban Ki-moon went to the biggest of the camps, a place called Manik Farm. He went to a clinic and saw some of the people wounded in the conflict and said he was very humbled by what he saw, and then after that he flew by helicopter over the final battlefield in this war, where the Tamil Tigers were finally annihilated by government forces.

LYDEN: What is his objective in these visits?

REEVES: Well among other things, Ban says that he wants to secure full, unimpeded access for the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies to these camps. He says that the displaced are badly in need of food and sanitation and water.

The government's been saying that it is going to try and provide greater access and greater freedom of movement also of people inside the camps, but it says it does need time to weed out any Tamil Tiger infiltrators that might be within them.

LYDEN: Did he get any promises or indication how long people would be held in these camps?

REEVES: Well, he said that Sri Lanka's foreign minister had promised him that the civilians would be resettled by the end of the year, and he says that he wants to hold the Sri Lankan government to that.

LYDEN: Now, one thing we know, Philip, is that the U.N. Human Rights Council is planning a special session on Sri Lanka on Monday because there has been pressure for war-crimes investigations. Did Ban Ki-moon address that?

REEVES: Yeah, he said that wherever there were serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, there should be a proper and full investigation. Both sides in this conflict, they're under suspicion of committing war crimes. The Tamil Tigers used Tamil civilians in very large numbers as human shields. There were numerous reports of government forces indiscriminately shelling areas where there were many civilians and including hospitals.

Ban, I think, signaled that this is a matter that the U.N. is taking most seriously. Incidentally, the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressed this issue on Friday at a victory rally, where he was very defiant and said that he wasn't afraid of the gallows, having defeated the world's worst terrorists. So, he's already, in a sense, preempted the pressure that he's now under from the international community by putting his point of view.

LYDEN: NPR's Philip Reeves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories.