Humanitarian crisis in flux in Sri Lanka war zone

A 20-plus year-old civil war has brewed between the government and rebel forces. The government is controlled by the majority Sinhalese ethnic group. The opposition are primarily ethnic Tamils. The rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, is commonly referred to as the Tamil Tigers.

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks as government forces launched a successful offensive pushing Tamil Tiger forces into a narrow five-mile Indian Ocean beachfront area in the northeast corner of the island.

Caught in the crossfire are thousands of what aid organizations commonly refer to as IDPs, or internally displaced people. Many of them have been able to flee to nearby refugee camps on the Jaffna Peninsula and the town of Vavuniya, where people are camped outside of hospitals overflowed to capacity.

Complicating the situation are varied details coming from the immediate conflict area. The Sri Lankan government has severely restricted press access.

Conflict anatomy

According to the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), more than 70,000 deaths have occurred during the war with hundreds of thousands of IDPs during that time.

Sri Lanka gained its independence from the British Empire in 1948 and over time ethnic tensions escalated between the Buddhist Sinhalese and Tamils, the majority of whom are Hindu.

The term “eelam” in the Tamil Tigers’ official name represents the word “homeland” and a desire for a separate Tamil state on the island.

The war erupted in its degree of violence last year when the government forces pulled out of a six-year-old ceasefire brokered by Norwegian diplomats. Sporadic skirmishes took place during the ceasefire too, including suicide bombings by Tigers-related people.

Human rights abuses have been rampant in the eyes of international organizations, the BBC said. Those allegations were echoed by a senior aid worker with a humanitarian organization who had been in Sri Lanka in recent weeks.

The worker, who requested anonymity, said the estimates of current refugees vary widely based on the motivations of the two sides. The government would tend to quote a lower number of IDPs in the conflict zone to minimize allegations the military is unconcerned with civilian well-being. The Tigers, conversely, would give lower estimates and claim people are in the conflict zone of their own free will.

International agencies believe that the Tigers are trapping the civilians in the conflict zone against their will, and using them as human shields.

He confirmed human rights concerns have emerged on both sides over the years, including forced conscription of children into the Tigers’ forces.

Refugee crisis

Managing the flow of refugees is complicated by the fact the government screens refugees before releasing them to IDP camps, the aid worker said. The length of time in this process is complicated by the lack of an international monitoring presence before refugees are released, the worker said.

Once refugees make it to longer-terms camps or end up camping out themselves outside hospitals, international aid organizations–secular and religious alike–are given government permission to step in and do their jobs.

“A lot of general hospitals are over capacity and a lot of faith-based groups have sent medical teams to assist,” the worker said. “The whole issue of access (to refugees) is very sensitive.”

A cease-fire proposed for European Union foreign ministers has failed to produce results. According to the Associated Press, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa has rejected claims of the necessity of a cease-fire as the government has been dropping leaflets to civilians asking them to leave the conflict area.

Rajapaksa had earlier pledged to stop using heavy weapons in the war zone to safeguard the civilians, but reports from the densely packed war zone accused the military of continuing to launch artillery attacks and air strikes, AP reported.

A new artillery barrage began Thursday night and lasted until Friday morning, with more than 100 shells hitting the area, said a government health official in the war zone.

A number of Christian aid groups are active on the island.

Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD) supports the local Anglican Church to provide basic supplies such as clothing, personal hygiene supplies and food, according to Kirsten Muth, ERD’s senior director for Asia.

“There is always restricted access to hostile areas,” Muth explained. “We want to maintain a neutral position to reach as many people as we can who need to be served.”

When and if the tension subsides, the parishes ERD works with may also be able to return to social and community development work it does as well. Whether or not the military offensive ultimately defeats the Tamil Tigers, there is little doubt the world is paying closer attention to the conflict than it has in some time.

“When you look at the international response, I certainly haven’t seen so many statements coming out on Sri Lanka in recent years,” Muth said. “I definitely think it’s more intense. There seems to be a pretty significant determination globally to address the severity of the crisis.”

Taking care of children in such situations is of paramount importance.

“Our team distributed special baby packs to nearly 500 families with infants. The packs included essentials such as baby soap, powder, cream, cologne, diapers and washing powder items especially for babies,” said Vasanthanayagam Thambinayagam, World Vision’s district coordinator for Jaffna.

World Vision plans to begin distributing relief packs containing 20 items of essential supplies to 1,000 families.

The mass exodus of refugees from the beachfront war zone presented an immediate challenge.

“This great exodus of people from the Tiger enclave was like some Biblical scene–thousands of people dressed in ragged clothes, clutching their children, and their few belongings wading through water to escape the fighting,” said Suresh Bartlett, World Vision’s national director in Sri Lanka.

“Those already in the camps told me they were happy to be out of harm’s way but their current situation is by no means ideal and they want to return home as soon as possible. There are very, very long lines for food and water. The people need new clothes and shoes. The tents and temporary shelters are overcrowded and there is not enough space to put up new ones, so jungle is being cleared.”

Catholic Relief Services also has a long-term presence in Sri Lanka.

“We are there because the [Catholic] church is there, and we continue to help the people in Sri Lanka,” said Father Damian Fernando, director of Caritas Sri Lanka, in a statement on the CRS Website. “We are seen as neutral by both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They accept the presence of Caritas and the work of Caritas.

“In the north, in the Jaffna Peninsula, we are delivering humanitarian aid to people who have had to leave their homes because of the conflict. Many people are trapped there, living in refugee camps, because the government has closed off the area. But we are allowed by both sides to travel to and from the area, again because they recognize us and our work. We’re bringing food and nonfood items, and we are giving livelihoods and educational support there.”

The United Nations reported Friday that it was assisting about 3,000 IDPs return to coastline area villages over the next few weeks.

“(The UN) welcomes these returns as a positive development,” UN High Commission for Refugees spokesperson William Spindler said Friday in Geneva. “While the number of those returning to their homes is still small it is an important starting point. We hope that returns to other areas in northern Sri Lanka will also be possible soon,” he added.


BBC Sri Lanka profile:

United Nations’ Sri Lanka Update:

Episcopal Relief & Development:

World Vision:

Catholic Relief Services:


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