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Sri Lanka: ICRC continues humanitarian work in LTTE-controlled area

19-09-2008 Interview

Fighting in northern Sri Lanka between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has intensified in recent months. Tens of thousands have fled areas affected by fighting. Last week, many international aid organizations pulled out of the LTTE-controlled region of northern Sri Lanka (Vanni), while the ICRC remained. Anthony Dalziel, ICRC deputy head of delegation in Sri Lanka, talks about the challenges faced by the population and the organization.

 

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Anthony Dalziel, ICRC deputy head of delegation in Sri Lanka 
     
©ICRC/A. Gutmann/lk-e-00395 
 
Sri Lanka has only one crossing point between government-held areas and those held by the LTTE, at Omanthai. The ICRC has the unique role of facilitating the smooth passage of people and goods across the lines. 
     Today, the ICRC is one of the few international humanitarian organizations still working in the LTTE-controlled areas of northern Sri Lanka. Why has the ICRC decided to stay when many other international aid organizations have pulled out?  

The ICRC works to protect and assist victims of armed conflicts worldwide. This mandate is recognized by both parties to the Sri Lankan conflict that has been going on for 25 years now. In agreement with the government of Sri Lanka, the ICRC has decided to remain in the Vanni and to continue our humanitarian work for people affected by the conflict.

The ICRC maintains its role as a neutral intermediary. It will continue to be present at Omanthai entry/exit point to facilitate the passage of civilians, civilian vehicles and ambulances between government-controlled and LTTE-controlled areas. We continue to transport the bodies of fallen fighters between the two areas so that families can bury their loved ones. Almost 80 bodies were handed over across Omanthai crossing point in the first two weeks of September. The ICRC will also continue to monitor the humanitarian situation, especially the needs of internally displaced persons. It will obviously respond according to the needs of those affected by the violence.

 
©ICRC/J. Bjorgvinsson/lk-e-00003 
 
Omanthai, Vanni. Checkpoint. Sri Lankan Special Task Force checks car loads on the way to Jaffna during the ceasefire. 
     Are you concerned for the security of your staff working in the Vanni?  

The ICRC is primarily concerned about the humanitarian situation and the needs of those affected by the violence. However, as fighting escalated in recent weeks, security increasingly became an issue of concern. The ICRC maintains daily contacts with the Sri Lankan Security Forces and the LTTE. This allows us to obtain the security guarantees the organization needs to be present and carry out its work in the field.

In view of the extremely volatile situation, we must constantly adapt our activities and movements. We attempt to balance the need to remain close to the civilians affected by the conflict, especially those who have been displaced, and the need to keep ICRC staff out of harm's way.

 
©ICRC/J. Bjorgvinsson/lk-e-00002 
 
Omanthai, Vanni region. Crossing a checkpoint during the ceasefire. 
     

 How would you describe the humanitarian situation in the Vanni?  

Fighting between government forces and the LTTE in the Vanni escalated in July 2008. Since then, tens of thousands of people have been displaced, many of them more than once. These people fled their homes with the bare minimum, often with very few belongings.

The most pressing needs of these people are security, health, water, shelter, sanitation and food. Local health facilities have moved along with the civilian population and are continuing to provide health services under extremely difficult conditions. Kilinochi District General Hospital has been receiving even more patients than usual. No large-scale health problems have yet been reported, but the approaching monsoon rains are cause for concern.

 
©ICRC/D. Sansoni/lk-d-00085 
 
Omanthai, Vanni region. Crossing a checkpoint during the ceasefire. 
     

 How has the ICRC been helping displaced people in the Vanni?  

The ICRC has asked both parties to the conflict to do their utmost to spare all civilians the effects of hostilities. The armed conflict in Sri Lanka continues to cause casualties among civilians, but compliance with international humanitarian law greatly reduced the danger to them.

Between the beginning of July and the end of August of this year, we were able to provide more than 84,000 displaced people with water, shelter and essential supplies. They have been receiving hygiene and baby care items, mosquito nets, shelter materials and such household requisites as bedding and lamps. We have helped them obtain clean water by maintaining, digging and cleaning wells, and by providing hand pumps. For all these activities, the ICRC has worked closely with volunteers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.