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Sri Lanka: civilians caught up in battle

29-04-2009 Feature

Raging battle in north-eastern Sri Lanka continues to imperil the lives of thousands of civilians. In the following accounts, three people caught up in the conflict share with the ICRC’s Sarasi Wijeratne their harrowing experiences and hopes for a better tomorrow.

 Longing for his family  

  © REUTERS/David Gray    
  Putumatalan, northern Sri Lanka. A young man who fled fighting shelters under a tree.    

Sebastian 29, lived in a district neighbouring Mullaitivu with his wife and three-year-old son. In September 2008 he left his wife and child behind and w ent to Mullaitivu for a family gathering. However, he was unable to leave the area after the main road back home was closed as a result of the escalating conflict. He remained with his mother in Mullaitivu, where his family home was, but was eventually displaced by the fighting. Mother and son have been displaced eight times since October 2008. 


His mother was his travelling companion as they sheltered in public buildings, and under tarpaulins and trees, seeking refuge from the conflict. Wincing with pain as he adjusted the sling on his arm, he explained that they were able to purchase a little food with the money they had and also received a food parcel donated by the Indian government to tide them over during those days. 

During the fourth displacement, Sebastian’s mother was wounded by a shell and he took her to the " Mathalan hospital " , which is what its patients now call the makeshift health structure in Putumattalan. After leaving his mother in the Mathalan hospital, Sebastian continued his nomadic existence until he too was injured in the arm by shrapnel. 

" I went to the Mathalan hospital and was given some painkillers. The Mathalan hospital did not have the medicine required to treat me, and after a few days my wound started to ooze and give off a bad smell " he elaborates.

Fortunately for him less than two weeks after he was injured he was evacuated to Trincomalee, where doctors were able to operate on his arm without delay. " I have enquired and found out that my mother was also taken to the same hospital for treatment, but I don’t know where she is now " , he said with a far-way look in his eyes, but content that his mother was safe.

" I lived abroad for a long time and returned to Sri Lanka after the ceasefire in 2003 to look after my ailing parents. It is my misfortune I returned and got caught up in the fighting,” he continues. Sebastian would like to put the past behind him and is looking forward to a family reunion. " All I want now is to be with my wife and child " , he says.
 Staying together  

  © REUTERS    
  Northern Sri Lanka. Thousands of civilians have been displaced by fighting, often repeatedly.    
    Fifty-two-year-old Rani and her family were also among the evacuees from Putumattalan. She was worried about how the family were going to sustain themselves now they were away from the conflict area. Rani and her husband accompanied their young daughter who had to be treated for an infection. Another daughter, too young to be left behind, was also able to accompany them. Unlike the many other displaced people who have been separated from their families, Rani and her family managed to stay together.

The family were displaced from their home in Mullaitivu at the end of January 2009. " We left behind everything we had except for a little food and the clothes we were wearing. From Mankulam we travelled around looking for shelter and safety in five other surrounding areas before finally arriving in Putumattalan. We had a tent which we would erect wherever we settled, and survived on the little food we had taken during the six times were displaced. Eventually we ran out of food and had nothing to eat. We had our first meal of rice and curry in ten days when we arrived at the hospital " , said Rani, tears of relief welling in her eyes. 

" For now I cannot talk about the future, except to say that my family and I are away from the fighting, and that we can secure our children’s lives and our own " , she concluded.

 Ray of hope  


Miriam was standing next to the bed where her three-day-old baby was peacefully asleep. Her older daughter was perched on the edge of the bed.

  © REUTERS    
  Putumatalan, northern Sri Lanka. A displaced young mother and her toddler.    
    She thinks back on how she came to be on the ferry. Miriam, a native of Jaffna, had gone to the Mulaitivu district in September 2008 with her husband and two children for a church festival. She was pregnant with her third child. The family were unable to return home after fighting broke out, and had to keep moving around to stay safe before finally ending up in Putumattalan. Miriam's second child was killed while the family were displaced, but the birth of her third child has brought a ray of hope into Miriam's life.

“I still have no idea what I will call my son,” she explains shyly, adding her husband, who was left behind in Putumattalan, is yet to learn about the birth of their son.

For these civilians who have been given a new lease of life, their lives would be richer if their wishes were to come true: Sebastian, who is waiting to be reunited with the wife and son he has not seen for five months, Rani, who wants a better future for her family and Miriam who wants to tell her husband about the birth of their baby and give him a name.