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Sri Lanka: continuing assistance for the victims of conflict and the tsunami

23-06-2005 Feature by Solveig Olafsdottir

Despite a ceasefire in place since 2002, decades of conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have left their mark on the population of Trincomalee in northeastern Sri Lanka.

People have been displaced, others have gone missing, and families have been separated. Many have lost their loved ones, their homes and their livelihoods over the years, and are suffering the psychosocial effects of war.

On the 26th of December last year, they suffered yet another blow when the tsunami, caused by an undersea earthquake off Sumatra, ravaged coastal towns all around Sri Lanka. The tidal wave flattened villages and claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 people. Some 500,000 people island-wide were left homeless and displaced.

In December last year, the ICRC had responded to flooding in Trincomalee by providing essential relief material to the affected population. The ICRC was finalizing its distributions when the tsunami hit.

  ©ICRC/Solveig Olafsdottir/    
Fatima's extended family is still living in tents provided by the ICRC. 

Three staff members narrowly escaped when their boat was carried off course by the giant tidal wave. Within minutes, hundreds of local fishing boats went under, and many villages along the bay and coast were totally destroyed. Around one thousand people were killed.

Within hours, the ICRC and the Sri Lanka Red Cross activated a large-scale emergency operation as the magnitude of the disaster unfolded. National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from all over the world moved swiftly to provide assistance. The ICRC's fifteen-year presence in Sri Lanka and its experience in working in conflict zones in the north and east of the country ensured the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement free access to tsunami victims across the island. 

 A double tragedy  

Meet Fatima Sharif. Her story is typical of the depth of hardship faced by Trincomalee's people over the years. Hers is a story of love and loss, displacement and poverty. She is a victim both of the war and of the recent disaster.

When Anita Yeomans, a protection delegate for the ICRC, and Shakeeb Mohamed, a field officer based at the ICRC's Muthur office, visit her in June, she is still staying in the tent that the ICRC gave her family after the tsunami. She is one of the many who lost their ho mes when the tidal wave struck. But today, the ICRC is there to address another issue.

Fatima seems prepared to receive bad news. When her husband went missing in 2003, she turned to the ICRC for help. Yeomans and Mohamed are there to inform her that two years of inquiries, both on the government and the LTTE side, have yielded no results.

His case will therefore end up in the missing file with thousands of pending cases of persons reported missing since the outbreak of the conflict. The ICRC can take no further action unless new information becomes known. It is hard news for Fatima to hear.

  ©ICRC/Solveig Olafsdottir/    
  Fatima and her family. 

" The first shock and hardship came after my husband disappeared. Then life became even more difficult. " Fatima explains.

 Facing the future  

The family is still coming to terms with the trauma following the disaster. Fatima was working as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia when the tsunami hit Trincomalee - trying to earn some income for the family. She returned to Sri Lanka as soon as she heard the news. She was lucky enough to find her three children - aged two, five and eight - alive.

The eldest was rescued from the sea but Fatima's sister, who was minding the children at the time, lost her five-year-old son. Now Fatima feels she can never leave again – she has to be there to take care of her children.

They live with her parents and extended family in Muthur, a Muslim town in Trincomalee. They have decided to stay where they are, although their tents are now the only ones that remain of the emergency camp erected in the middle of town in the wake of the disaster. 

They do not want to move to the semi-permanent housing now available, as that would take them too far away from their only resources – too far from the market place and the ocean.

Like so many others, the family's recovery depends on whatever assistance it receives from the government and the aid agencies in place. Meanwhile, the population of the north and east of Sri Lanka continues to rely on ICRC assistance. Six months after the tsunami struck, the work of the ICRC is slowly shifting from the emergency phase back to the ongoing programmes planned for 2005. 

In the coming months, the ICRC will carry out rehabilitation projects, targeting both the tsunami victims and inland communities. It will focus on restoring livelihoods, water and sanitation and community based health care programmes – as well as working in partnership with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies carrying out longer term recovery programmes in the region.

" The protection programme has continued throughout the emergency phase, " says Thierry Meyrat, head of the ICRC's Sri Lanka delegati on.

" The ICRC is aware of the importance of maintaining a balance between assistance to people affected by the tsunami and to victims of conflict. We will, therefore, extend our services to meet the needs of both these groups. "

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