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Sri Lanka: helping civilians affected by conflict

29-06-2006 Feature

With the deteriorating security situation in northern Sri Lanka, the ICRC and the Sri Lankan Red Cross are working to help the civilian population worst affected by the renewed violence. ICRC employee, Roland Huguenin-Benjamin reports.

Vavuniya holds a central position in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It is approximately halfway between the Mannar peninsula on the Western flank of Sri Lanka and the bay of Trincomalee on the eastern side.

It is from the delegation in Vavuniya that ICRC officers go every morning to man the observation posts operated by the ICRC since the 2002 ceasefire agreement. They make sure that people feel safe to use the crossing points between the Vannie area and the southern part of the country.

In a region divided between Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), delegates are doing their best to contribute to what – in ICRC parlance - is the protection of the civil population. On this Friday night, Zacharia gets back to the sub-delegation in Vavuniya from his office in Mannar, a town on the western side just miles across from the Indian coast. In recent weeks, rumours have spread that a number of Tamil people have been fleeing areas considered unsafe and moving to Mannar with a view to travelling to India by sea.

It is around seven o'clock when Zacharia gets to the Vavuniya delegation where everyone has had a hard week trying to respond to the emergencies caused by an outburst of military action. Ishfaq, the head of sub-delegation is still out with his team of Sri Lankan colleagues. They are busy delivering sleeping mats to hundreds of villagers who have taken refuge in the school of Kebitigollewa after a huge explosion killed 64 people on a bus. The phone lines have been hot with calls from the other ICRC delegates in locations along the eastern coastline where the air force has been conducting retaliatory raids. For everyone some rest over th e weekend would be welcome.

Next thing we know, there has been a naval battle outside Mannar early Saturday morning. Fishing villages along the coast have been hit and there are reports of lots of injuries and of five dead civilians. Zacharia will drive back to Mannar in order to find out exactly what happened, how many casualties need care and what can be done for the people there.

By the time he gets there, lots of villagers have rushed to the Our Lady of Victory Church in the city of Pesalai for refuge and locked the doors. They sought protection in the sanctity of a place of worship but to no avail. Gunmen were on the lookout. They followed them to the church, shot at the building and threw hand-grenades at it. One woman was killed instantly and dozens were wounded.

By Sunday, thousands of terrified civilians had fled their homes, huddling together in fear. ICRC delegates have supplied tarpaulins for people to sit on and another organization has been handing out food.

Meanwhile, days after the attack on the bus, the villagers are still staying at the Kebitigollewa's school. None of them feels secure enough to go home, they live too close to the dividing lines and no one seems to be able to ensure their security so far.