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Sri Lanka: bringing relief despite intense fighting

22-05-2007 Interview

The ICRC is helping more than 12,000 internally displaced people now living on the coastline after they fled clashes inland between governmental forces and the Tamil Tigers. Toon Vandenhove, ICRC head of delegation in Sri Lanka, insists that access to victims should be provided at all times.

 

© ICRC / lk-e-00283 
 
Kiran, Batticaloa district. Camp for displaced people. 
     



© ICRC / lk-e-00290 
 
An ICRC delegate brings a Red Cross message to a family living in the Kiran camp. 
      

 What is the response of the ICRC to the recent intensification of the fighting in Sri Lanka?  

    

After the 2002 ceasefire we had a few calm years but armed confrontation increased significantly mid-2006. Today, most of the violence is taking place on the east coast region where the ICRC is present. People have had to flee the fighting between governmental forces and the Tamil Tigers, which sometimes occurs very close to their villages, making them fear for their lives. Once again, the civilian population is bearing the brunt of the violence.

We try to assist the population, mostly internally displaced, whose number exceeds 100,000. The highest concentration of IDPs is in the coastal Batticaloa district which is under government control. Half of them are able to stay with friends and relatives. Humanitarian organizations care for the needs of the rest of the IDPs unable to find any other solution but to head to the camps. As for the ICRC, we provide shelter, non-food items, hygiene material, as well as water and sanitation services to 12,000 people in 5 different camps.

    

 To which extent has the ICRC been able to provide aid to those in need?  

    

In all armed conflicts, we always explain to the warring parties that the ICRC's activities do not interfere with ongoing military operations. It's not an easy task and Sri Lanka is no exception. Access to the victims is a key element for the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations, and both the government and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) do understand, at least this is my hope, why we have to remain neutral.

However, our access to the victims may be hampered because of the intensity of the fighting. We are ready to take some risks but not to the detriment of our colleague's lives. Access is always problematic in armed conflicts and we have faced serious problems in that regard though, I must admit, things have improved recently. We are now more or less able to bring relief to all areas where we want to work and stay in contact with the beneficiaries. But the situation may change overnight.

 The country continues to be affected by a series of problems such as the missing, mines, or a lack of respect for the civilian population. The road to normality may be quite long…  

    

Honestly, I hope not. But let's face reality. The conflict in Sri Lanka is an old one, over 20 years old. The 2002 ceasefire exists only in name and there is too much confrontation to be optimistic for the near future.

All we can wish for at this stage is that one day all parties will come back to the negotiating table to find a political solution. Today this can't happen. There are no ongoing talks, and there is no sign to my knowledge indicating those talks will begin again soon. I'm afraid more patience is needed to see any breakthrough. The ICRC remains committed to clarifying the fate of the many missing persons. We maintain numerous contacts with all parties and each of them gives us the opportunity to remind them of their obligation to respect the civilian population.