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Sri Lanka: no fun on the beach for families escaping conflict

27-09-2006 Feature

Since fighting surged again in northern and eastern Sri Lanka earlier this year, some 200,000 people are said to have fled their homes to find safety elsewhere. The ICRC’s Florian Westphal joined a relief team on a mission to the coast.

At first sight, the beach at Ampalavanpokkanai village seems worlds away from any sign of trouble. The crystal-clear ocean, white sands and palm trees bring to mind rest and relaxation, rather than misery and deprivation.

But the people milling on this beach in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka did not come for pleasure. Incessant shelling and repeated clashes during August forced about 300 families to leave their homes about 60 kilometres up the coast to seek safety here.

  ©ICRC/NG /Norman/lk-e-00171/    
    Assisting displaced families such as these is not as straightforward as it may seem. Based on 20 years’ experience of relief work, the ICRC delegate Jose Mejia-Gomez, knows that to help them effectively he needs detailed and first-hand information about their situation.

The ICRC always carries out its own surveys, to ensure that its analysis is factual and unbiased. The process usually involves discussions with local authorities and other humanitarian agencies involved in relief work.

" Coordination is essential to avoid duplication, " explains Jose. " What we don't want is that some displaced people are assisted by several organizations while the needs of others are overlooked. "

 Tsunami camp  

After consulting the government agent in the village, the ICRC assessment team meets a group of displaced families who have found shelter in a disused camp originally constructed for victims of the 2004 tsunami. A group of men, women and children quickly gather in the welcome shade of a large banyan tree.

During the past two decades, displacement has become a fact of life for many people in Sri Lanka’s conflict zones. These families have themselves been obliged to abandon their homes several times before and are familiar with the kind of questions asked by Jose: How did you get here? Are there any other people from your village likely to come? What did you manage to bring with you? Do you have enough water and food? Are there any sick people among you?

While not alarming, the situation of the displaced is anything but comfortable. Most of them just had time to grab the bare essentials – a few clothes and household items – before fleeing. Only a few families were able to bring the fishing boats and equipment that provide these communities with a living.

For the time being, some of them have found shelter in tents or huts at the tsunami camp, while others are camping under the trees dotted along the beach. While the well and the water tank originally constructed by the ICRC for the tsunami victims still work, few of the latrines can still be used. This could develop into a serious problem, especially if more displaced families arrive at the site.


 A few days after the survey, and after further talks with the local authorities, the ICRC distributed essential household items including bed-sheets, kerosene cookers and lanterns.  

 "The assistance we can give is useful for people in the short term," said Jose. "But in the long term the only thing that can really help them is to be able to go back home and start fishing again..."