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Sri Lanka: between the lines

29-06-2006 Feature

Since the signing of a the ceasefire agreement in 2002, the ICRC has been playing an important role in monitoring traffic crossing between government and rebel-held areas of north-eastern Sri Lanka. The fragile peace now seems in danger of breaking down. A report from ICRC delegate, Roland Huguenin-Benjamin.

   

  © ICRC/D. Sansoni/ik-d-00067    
 
   
    We've been driving for approximately one hour from Jaffna on an uneven countryside track when we eventually spot the ICRC flag on a mast. It marks the entrance to the stretch of road that crosses the no man's land between the positions of the Sri Lankan army and those of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). There, Majed, a tall ICRC employee from Kenya, spends ten hours a day with a Sri Lankan colleague watching the movement of pedestrians and vehicles.

A canopy pitched on four tall posts provides protection from the tropical sun. Along with two or three rattan chairs and a table and a small toilet cubicle in a corner courtesy of the ICRC sanitatio n engineer, it is all one can hope for in matter of comfort at this outpost. Ominous red signs warn of anti-personal landmines sown right next to the track that crosses no man's land. A herd of elephants recently strayed into a similar area further south and there was nothing anyone could do to rescue the poor animal that stepped on one of these devil's tools.

The " lines " is the official term coined since the Sri Lankan Government signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2002 with the LTTE that de facto controls the Vannie area, a portion of territory in the northern part of the island. Travellers have to register their full personal details and whereabouts with either side in order to be able to actually " cross the lines " .

There is not much time for a chat. As we arrive at the ICRC's outpost, Majed has just been informed that someone has been shot dead about four miles inside no man's land. It is as yet unclear who he might have been and why he was there but the body must be retrieved. In typical ICRC fashion, the ICRC delegate sets off to talk to the military officers on one side and then returns across the line to talk to the LTTE representatives. She has to make sure that there is proper agreement that no more shots will be fired in order for the body to be collected.

Both parties approached the ICRC in 2002 to request the establishment of a neutral monitoring service at the crossing points. The stretch of wilderness between both sides may not be more than a few hundred metres but few would dare walk across in full range of fire power were it not for the reassuring presence of a neutral observer. In quieter days up to 25'000 travellers crossed the two lines from the Vannie area into the South every week.

But in situations of conflict things can change rapidly: news arrives that a roadside bomb has gone off near the town of Kebitigollewa and has cau sed huge damage. Our journey out of Kilinochchi across the lines into the south comes to a halt as the ICRC radio operator calls and we are ordered to stop at the side of the road until further notice. We keep the doors of our land-cruiser wide open to be aware of any approaching aircraft or shooting in the area.

We are drenched in sweat by the time the all-clear is given and enjoy the air as we drive on to Vavuniya with the car's windows down. Ishfaq, the head of sub-delegation welcomes us warmly and tells us of another corpse that has been exchanged between the two sides that same day.

Observing the lines had been an important yet rather uneventful duty for ICRC employees over the last four years, but suddenly it seems events are quickening and incidents are becoming more frequent. At the end of the day, this is underlined by the ominous sound of approaching aircraft in an otherwise perfectly quiet sky.