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Update No. 96/1 on ICRC activities in Sri Lanka

19-01-1996 Operational Update

Following fierce fighting in November, the Sri Lankan army succeeded in taking the town of Jaffna at the beginning of December. Since then, the violence on the peninsula has lost its intensity. However, in recent months the situation in the east of the country, particularly in the Batticaloa area, has deteriorated. The civilian population has been caught up in a spiral of violence between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan security forces. The ICRC has made repeated representations to the parties concerned, reminding them of their obligation to respect international humanitarian law and, in particular, to spare civilians and their possessions during military operations.

 Hundreds of thousands still displaced  

There are still movements of people originally displaced from Jaffna town. Since October between 250,000 and 300,000 civilians have fled the Jaffna peninsula to seek shelter in Mullaittivu, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and on Mannar mainland. Some 150,000 others have sought refuge in the eastern part of the peninsula held by the LTTE, mainly in the area of Chavakachcheri. Many displaced have been accommodated in the homes of local people whilst the more unfortunate have had to make do in schools, temples and huts in a number of small camps. The ICRC has not been able to assess the conditions of the displaced, believed to number several thousand, in the government-held area to the west of the town of Jaffna.

To date very few civilians have returned to their place of origin, now under the control of the Sri Lankan army. The ICRC is concerned about the plight of more than 400, 000 internally displaced, many of whom are living in dire conditions, utterly dependent on outside assistance.

 Clean water and hygienic conditions - an absolute must  

Since the end of November the ICRC has been conducting a water and sanitation programme on the Jaffna peninsula in order to prevent an outbreak of water-borne diseases amongst the displaced. The institution has provided local sanitation engineers with technical advice and materials. It has also developed a project to improve the quality of drinking water. To this end, almost 100 wells have been cleaned and chlorinated. Many wells are dry owing to the lack of rain and the situation could worsen. Two sites are being prepared for the installation of bladder tanks and distribution taps.

Minimum conditions of hygiene must be guaranteed in order to prevent disease spreading through overcrowded areas. The ICRC has supplied some 500 pans and 600 metres of piping for the construction of latrines, which have been specially designed. A sludge pump and fibreglass tank have already been ordered for this purpose.

 Medical care adapted to specific needs  

Since the exodus of civilians from Jaffna to the east of the peninsula and, more recently, towards Kilinochchi, the ICRC has adapted its medical activities to meet the specific needs of the displaced. A medical team, consisting of a doctor and two nurses, has been sent to the peninsula to monitor the epidemiological and nutritional conditions of the displaced population living in camps or private houses. The prevention of typhoid fever, cholera and severe malnutrition among vulnerable groups is one of their main concerns. In addition, the two mobile health teams on the peninsula, run by the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) and supervised by the IC RC, have increased their workload.

A similar programme has been carried out in camps for the internally displaced in the districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaittivu and Mannar. In addition to the four SLRCS mobile health teams already operating under ICRC supervision in this region, new teams have also been set up in Kilinochchi, with its high population of displaced, and northern Vavuniya, a region devoid of any health structure. On Mannar mainland six primary health care centres are currently in operation under the ICRC's supervision.

In the east, three mobile health teams continue their work in camps for the displaced and remote villages in the districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara.

 Supplying the essentials  

The ICRC has continued to provide protection to government vessels supplying the Jaffna peninsula with food and other essential items. Since mid-October some 11,500 tonnes of supplies have been transported under the red cross emblem. Following a request made by Jaffna's government agent, the ICRC has transported government-supplied flour free of charge on the M.V. Habarana . Since mid-October some 5,700 tonnes of flour and 300 tonnes of relief items, supplied by the ICRC and NGOs, have been transported on the ICRC-chartered vessel.

On the peninsula the institution has distributed plastic sheeting to improve shelter in welfare centres and medical and social institutions, such as hospitals, dispensaries and homes for the elderly. As the price of soap increased sixfold in December and in order to improve hygienic conditions, the ICRC distributed soap to more than 38,000 displaced people living in welfare centres and public places. Soap was also provided to medical and social institutions, as well as to the SLRCS. Some 330,000 bars of soap are curr ently being distributed to the internally displaced and resident population on the Jaffna peninsula.

 Protection and tracing  

Following the resumption of hostilities, the ICRC has stepped up its protection and tracing activities, particularly in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

On 21 December the ICRC visited 25 detainees held in the Palali army camp. Visits to other prisoners detained by the government authorities throughout the country have continued. Twenty-three other detainees held in Palali have been handed over to the ICRC to be transferred to the LTTE-held zone via Point Pedro. In the east of the country, the security forces have handed over the mortal remains of 18 LTTE combatants to the ICRC to be returned to their families.

The LTTE have released six soldiers who were subsequently transferred to Trincomalee under the auspices of the ICRC. Delegates have visited 43 people held by the LTTE on the Jaffna peninsula.

In 1995 the ICRC visited 2,097 detainees held by both parties to the conflict in more than 280 places of detention, of whom 1,532 were seen for the first time.

As a result of the high number of displaced, the ICRC's tracing service has been inundated with enquiries regarding relatives'whereabouts. The delegation's additional detention-related activities have also contributed to an increase in the tracing service's workload.

 Personnel  

The ICRC currently employs 40 expatriates in Sri Lanka, six of whom were seconded from the Red Cross Societies of Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland.