The declared end of the 26-year-old civil war in the Indian Ocean island nation of Sri Lanka means a flood of refugees and a humanitarian disaster for secular and Christian aid organizations operating there.
For weeks the rebel LLTE, commonly referred to as the Tamil Tigers, had been cornered on narrow beachheads in the northeastern corner of the country. Over the weekend the Sri Lankan government declared the war over after the last of the Tigers was defeated and its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.
As many as 250,000 refugees may be caught in the middle of the final push to end the war, according to sources currently within the coutry.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said keeping track of refugees and their medical conditions is impossible for the time being.
“Under international humanitarian law, the lives of all those who are not or are no longer fighting must be spared. Wounded and sick people must be collected and cared for immediately, and detainees must be treated humanely,” said the ICRC’s director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl, from the ICRC’s headquarters in Geneva Monday.
“This is all the more urgent since no humanitarian aid has reached those who need it for over a week.”
Bernard Barrett, an ICRC spokesman in Washington, said there is no way an accurate total of the number of people affected can be counted.
“There’s three main goals we have moving forward,” Barrett explained. “The first is reconnecting people with families in different parts of the country and with families overseas. We need to determine the best ways to care for the injured and what kind of resettlement options there are.”
Those goals are made more problematic by the need for water, sanitation and the safety of refugee camps, Barrett said. Phones have been set up in camps for refugees to communicate with families, too.
“There are a lot of families with a lot of concerns about where their families are,” he said.
The Sri Lankan government has said it want to resettle 80 percent of refugees by the end of the year.
That may be a difficult task.
“The clock is ticking and we need to start moving on this issue,” Douglas Keh told Reuters. Keh is the Sri Lankan representative for the United Nations Development Program, which helps resettle people displaced in the conflict area.
Keh added the government will need to reach out the Tamil population in substantive ways. Calls have already begun from European Union officials over war crimes investigations regarding conduct of the war.
“There has to be a genuine reaching out to the Tamil community, not just in words but in terms of empowerment, political votes and equity,” Keh told Reuters. “If the government of Sri Lanka is really willing to reach out to the Tamil community, my hope is that donors would start to provide support.”
Where and how ethnic Tamils may strike back at the Sinhalese majority government is unclear now that the Tigers have been defeated. Guerilla tactics and suicide bombings may become more common, according to a BBC news analysis.
Christian aid organization World Vision operates an office in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. It has seen a tremendous spike in IDPs (internally displaced persons) over the weekend.
“At the end of April, there were already ten camps that were housing between two and five times their capacity,” said Suresh Bartlett, World Vision Sri Lanka National Director.
“Over the last few days another 50,000 persons have come out. There are now almost 250,000 people in the displacement camps, which are already at breaking point. Among these are an estimated 80,000 children,” said Barlett.
Barlett echoed the concerns of the ICRC’s Barrett.
“World Vision has provided more than 3 million liters of water over the past month, but the water table in the area was already low – we are being forced further and further afield to find water.”
“When we get to the camps, the water tanks are emptied faster than we can fill them.”
World Vision has provided 57 metric tons of food, 3,000 tarpaulins and more than 85,000 packs of cooked food. The organization has also set up three child-friendly spaces and eight temporary learning spaces.
“We have particular concerns for the children emerging from the conflict zone, who are terribly distressed, both physically and emotionally,” said Bartlett. “Getting children back home and then back to school will have the biggest impact for good on their health. Children need to be back in communities and classes where neighbors and teachers can keep an eye on them and restore a sense of normalcy which is what children crave. Hundreds of schools need to be rebuilt, repaired, re-staffed and restocked with equipment to make this a reality.”
Bartlett agreed with Keh on the need for the easing of ethnic tensions.
“We need trust-building programs to break down years of prejudice. It is especially important to focus on the next generation – the children – to give them the opportunities to meet and get to know each other. We would advocate for trust-building programs that bring Tamil and Sinhala communities together, especially those who once lived along what was the Line of Control that (ethnically) divided the country.”
Christian Children’s Fund also operates on the island nation, and its initial assessment illustrates a serious situation..
CCF Sri Lanka National Director Guru Naik said via e-mail that children, including infants, have dysentery and are malnourished in the IDP camps.
“In the camps children are safe from the shells and bombs but they are still suffering from malnutrition, and diseases caused by dirty water, poor sanitation and open wounds left unattended,” Naik said.
“Children are also struggling with the trauma of hiding in trenches to escape shelling, witnessing the death of family members and the destruction of their homes.”
CCF has begun an emergency response to meet the needs of the currently displaced families and the many thousands who are expected to arrive in the next few weeks.
“CCF Sri Lanka’s crisis team is planning to address the immediate needs of the children by distributing nutrition packs, sanitation kits, clothes and shoes,” Naik said.
“We will also set up Child Centered Spaces to help children recover from the horrors they’ve witnessed. It’s critical to give children a sense of safety and normalcy to help them cope and these spaces enable that.”
CNN coverage of the civil war: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/05/18/sri.lanka.conflict/
The Times of London coverage of the civil war: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article6309915.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1
BBC news analysis of the end of the war: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8055138.stm
International Committee of the Red Cross: http://www.icrc.org/eng
World Vision: http://www.worldvision.org/
Christian Children’s Fund: http://www.christianchildrensfund.org/default.aspx