Sri Lanka: massive displacement of civilians amid escalating conflict

15-01-2009 Operational Update

Ever more civilians have been leaving areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and entering government-controlled territory in recent weeks.

The ICRC has been helping them to maintain acceptable levels of hygiene, to keep in touch with relatives and to maintain hope.

Fighting has prevented relief supplies from reaching the population in the Vanni for the past five days. " Civilians in the Vanni are weary from the conflict. Repeated displacements, often involving the loss of their personal belongings, have taken a toll on them. Nevertheless, their ability to cope has been remarkable, " said Paul Castella, the ICRC's head of delegation. " The ICRC is committed to stay at their side as long as there are needs to address "

Because of ongoing combat operations and the moving front line, tens of thousands of displaced civilians are concentrated in an area so small that there are serious concerns for their physical safety and living conditions, in particular in terms of hygiene. In addition, the ICRC has to negotiate safe passage over a distance of up to 30 kilometres between government- and LTTE-held areas with the parties every day (between 2002, when the ceasefire was signed, and November 2008, guarantees of safe passage were needed only for travel on a 300-metre stretch of road). The new situation has made it necessary for the ICRC to bring in more international and national staff to manage the convoys and communicate with the parties on the ground.

The ICRC also negotiates with the parties to the conflict to arrange for the safe passage of ambulances transferring patients and health professionals back and forth between the various medical facilities in LTTE-held areas and Vavuniya. However, the ICRC is extremely concerned by the fact that no safe passage has been arranged since 9 January. This has put at risk the lives of patients who cannot receive suitable treatment on the spot and therefore need to be transferred to Vavuniya Hospital, in government-controlled territory.

A major concern of the ICRC is to ensure that civilians, the sick and wounded and medical personnel receive the protection to which they are entitled under international humanitarian law. The organization has reminded the parties to the conflict repeatedly – in recent days especially – of their obligation to protect persons not taking part in the hostilities.

ICRC maintains its support for displaced people in the Vanni  

In the districts of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, more and more civilians abandoned their homes and shelters and fled combat areas in December. Unfortunately, there is almost no area left in that part of the country where people can be safe from the ongoing hostilities. " Families heading westward in search of safety are encountering other families moving eastward with the same aim, " said Mr Castella.

Heavy rains that fell on the Vanni in December damaged shelters and roads and destroyed millions of rupees'worth of food crops, thus posing further challenges for the displaced population.

Existing health-care facilities are managing to cope with the basic health needs of the civilian population despite a lack of personnel and other constraints.

The ICRC has distributed personal-hygiene and baby-care items to more than 750 displaced people and built toilets and bathing facilities. In addition, it has monitored conditions in centres for the displaced set up by the authorities in Jaffna and Vavuniya. It has listened to the concerns of those living in the centres and where necessary helped them to restore contact with their relatives by means of Red Cross messages.

In an attempt to stave off mosquito-transmitted disease among displaced people, the ICRC distributed some 350 baby mosquito nets.

Working together with volunteers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, the ICRC provided some 3,600 displaced individuals in Puthukudyirippu with shelter and other essential items. The ICRC also repaired wells and built toilets for the displaced population in Oddussudan, Kandavalai and Puthukudyirippu. In addition, it gave over 1,100 displaced people in these areas tents and tarpaulins for use in erecting emergency and temporary shelters.

In December, a total of 60,056 families in Kandawalai, Karachchi Maruthankerny and Puthukudyirippu received food, clothing and hygiene items donated to the ICRC in November by the Indian government for the conflict-affected population of the Vanni.

  ICRC serving as neutral intermediary between government and LTTE  

In its role as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC facilitated the movement of civilians, sick and wounded people, food and other relief items, and Sri Lanka Red Cross members and various officials across the front line throughout most of last year. In 2008 the ICRC helped more than 273,000 civilians and 32,000 vehicles to make the crossing.

In December, the conflict continued to disrupt the movement of civilians, civilian vehicles, ambulances and humanitarian aid convoys across the no man's land between government- and LTTE-held areas. During the month, the ICRC facilitated the passage into the Vanni of 199 ambulances carrying 505 patients and of nearly 1,190 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid. ICRC staff also transported the bodies of 204 fallen fighters across the front line.

  Protecting civilians and people held in connection with the conflict  

The ICRC continues to monitor possible violations of international humanitarian law affecting civilians throughout the country. When necessary, it makes representations to the authorities concerning missing persons, arbitrary arrests, under-age recruitment, unlawful killings and ill-treatment of civilians or detainees by weapon bearers. Allegations of violations are discussed confidentially with the parties to the conflict.

With the cooperation of government officials and the LTTE, the ICRC has been visiting a growing number of people arrested in connection with the armed conflict to monitor their treatment and conditions of detention. In December, ICRC delegates held private talks with more than 900 security detainees in some 50 government places of detention throughout the country and provided them with clothes, toiletries and recreational items. The ICRC covered the travel costs of six detainees returning home on public transport after being released, and of the families of over 465 detainees visiting their detained relatives.

  Restoring family links with Red Cross messages  

Red Cross messages help family members separated by the conflict to keep in touch. In December, the ICRC and the Sri Lanka Red Cross collected or distributed 685 messages.

  ICRC staff member killed in Jaffna  

An ICRC staff member was killed in a shooting incident in Jaffna on 23 December. He was the father of two children and had been working with the ICRC since 1999. The incident occurred while the victim was exiting a bus on his way to work. The police authorities are investigating to ascertain the exact circumstances that led to his tragic death.

  For further information, please contact:
  Carla Haddad Mardini, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 24 05 or +41 79 217 32 26
  Sarasi Wijeratne, ICRC Colombo, tel: +94 11 250 33 46 or +94 773 158 44

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