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Sri Lanka: ICRC ship brings Jaffna evacuees to safety

29-08-2006 Feature

The ICRC recently managed to evacuate more than 160 persons from the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka which has been cut off by fighting since earlier this month. The evacuees, many of them foreign nationals, were taken on a passenger ship flying the ICRC flag to the eastern port city of Trincomalee. ICRC field coordinator, Serge Thierry, was on board.

The first thing we did when we heard that the evacuation would go ahead was to have a look at the vessel provided by the government. The Seruwilla II which usually serves as a passenger ferry on Trincomalee Bay was built in 2000 and has seating for 200 passengers but no cabins.

  ©ICRC/NG Norman/lk-e-00187    
  Trincomalee. Passengers disembark an ICRC-hired ferry after being evacuated from the Jaffna peninsula.    

She looked comfortable, seaworthy and safe. The following days we spent liaising with both parties to the conflict to ensure that we had the necessary authorizations for the journey. It would have been impossible for the ICRC to carry out a potentially dangerous operation such as this one without the necessary security guarantees.

Once our colleagues from the UNHCR had generously lent us some fuel for the ship and we had loaded sufficient blankets, food and water for our passengers we were ready to go. We left Trincomalee harbour on 25 August at 10 a.m. for our ten-hour trip to the Jaffna peninsula. It was a tough start to our journey as our vessel was at the mercy of the wind and waves. I don't usually get sea-sick but was starting to feel a little queasy.

The same evening we were sailing about 10 kilometres off-shore from the Jaffna peninsula where the authorities told us to spend the night under anchor before entering the port of Point Pedro in the morning. We spent an uncomfortable few hours on the open sea with the swell of the ocean making sleep practically impossible.

Arriving in Point Pedro the following morning we found ourselves next to a cargo ship flying the ICRC flag which had just arrived from Colombo carrying more than 1,500 tonnes of food and medicine provided by the government and the World Food Programme. This gave me the chance to catch up with some colleagues and to have a shower and some food on board the well-equipped freighter. Later we helped to start unloading the vital cargo.

In mid-afternoon, our 162 passengers who had been identified by the local authorities began arriving together with their baggage including two prams. Getting everyone on board the Seruwilla II was a tight squeeze but we ev entually managed to set off for our journey back to Trincomalee.

  ©ICRC/NG Norman/lk-e-00185    
  ICRC passenger ship arrives in Trincomalee.    

Yet again the rough seas tested our resolve and our stomachs. The distribution of anti-seasickness pills came a little too late for some passengers and there was a sense of palpable relief on board when we finally arrived in calmer waters off the Trincomalee Coast at 3 a.m. the following morning. Again, we were told to wait until daybreak before entering the harbour.

The final leg of the journey was a relatively uneventful bus trip back to the capital, Colombo, where the evacuees, by now exhausted from travelling and the strain of the previous weeks, were handed over to their respective embassies. Many of them made a point of thanking us for the ICRC's help and support. All that was left for me to do w as to head home for a shower, a change of clothing and some rest in a bed that didn't move!