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Sri Lanka: parties must grant safe passage to stranded patients and medical staff

09-02-2009 Interview

On 4 February around 300 patients, accompanied by 18 ICRC staff, fled Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital in northern Sri Lanka after it was shelled repeatedly. Monica Zanarelli, ICRC deputy head of operations for South Asia, explains their predicament and what the ICRC is doing to help them.

   

   
 
Monica Zanarelli, the ICRC’s deputy head of operations for South Asia    
     

 What happened to the 300 patients who fled Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital last week?  

Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital was shelled repeatedly between 1 and 4 February. Early in the morning of 4 February, the Ministry of Health (MoH) personnel who ran the facility determined that it was not safe for patients to remain there any longer and decided to have them leave immediately. An ICRC team that was on the premises supporting the MoH staff helped the doctors and nurses to prepare the patients and to pack emergency medical supplies. About 300 patients, accompanied by medical personnel and 18 ICRC staff, then left for relative safety in Putumattalan, a town on the north-eastern coast. Patients, doctors and nurses have been there ever since, without sufficient access to medical facilities or clean water. There are now over 400 displaced patients in need of professional medical care staying in a school, a community centre or, if they are lucky, with family members. Their situation is dire. At least five patients have died.

    

    

 What are the patients' needs and what is being done to help them?  

MoH medical staff supported by the ICRC are caring for the patients to the best of their ability. Others in the local community are also involved: civil authorities have helped to transport patients and a local church has been providing hot rice. The most serious problem is the lack of sanitation and hygiene.

 What will happen to the patients in Putumattalan?  

The ICRC is extremely concerned about their well-being and safety, which, under international humanitarian law, is the responsibility of the parties. It has asked both parties to grant safe passage so that patients and medical staff can be evacuated. Despite many attempts, this has not yet happened. An evacuation by sea has in principle been agreed upon by both parties. The ICRC will do its utmost to ensure that the evacuation is carried out in the coming hours.