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Sri Lanka: ICRC maintains support for hospital hit by shelling

02-02-2009 Interview

Fighting between government forces and the LTTE is killing civilians and obstructing humanitarian operations. With hospitals coming under attack and civilians forced to seek refuge in areas scarcely less hazardous than those they have left, the ICRC is calling on both sides to comply with international humanitarian law. Interview with Monica Zanarelli, ICRC deputy head of operations for South Asia.


Monica Zanarelli, the ICRC’s deputy head of operations for South Asia    
     What is the ICRC's position today with regard to the ongoing hostilities in northern Sri Lanka?  

The ICRC is calling on both parties to the conflict to offer guarantees of safe passage so that patients can be transferred from the Vanni to hospitals in government-controlled areas. The ICRC is calling on both parties to meet their obligat ions under international humanitarian law – in particular, to spare medical facilities and activities in all circumstances.

 There have been reports that Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital was shelled a third and a fourth time. What is the situation there now?  

At least nine people were killed and at least 20 others injured as a result of the first three shellings. The hospital sustained direct hits three times in less than eight hours: twice between 3 and 4 p.m. local time, then again at 10.20 p.m. local time. On Monday evening at 6.40 p.m., the hospital was hit a fourth time.

On Sunday the hospital's kitchen was hit first, then its church and later a ward with women and children. On Monday it was another ward. It is likely that there were casualties outside the hospital, too, but we do not have the exact figures yet. Despite the shelling, people injured in the ongoing fighting continue to arrive at the hospital.

When it was hit the third time, more than 800 people, including 500 in-patients, were sheltering in the hospital.

Two other medical facilities in the Vanni region have also been hit by shelling in recent weeks, and again today. This is unacceptable. Wounded and sick people, medical personnel and medical facilities are all protected under international humanitarian law.

 What is the humanitarian situation on the ground?  

Fighting between government forces and the LTTE continues unabated. The vast majority of civilians are displaced and confined in an area whose size is diminishing day by day. People are moving in search of a less exposed location and greater safety.

According to estimates, only half of the population found refuge in the so-called safe area, which is too small for the entire population. Some 10,000-15,000 families, for example, have settled in a coastal area where there is no clean drinking water. No matter where they are, however, civilians are protected under international humanitarian law and must be spared the consequences of the fighting.

Our staff on the ground have not observed any significant population movement – not more than about 5,000 people since last December – out of the Vanni into the government-controlled area.

Hygiene is deteriorating with the extra demand placed on already limited sanitary facilities. While there have been no reports of significant outbreaks of communicable diseases, there are fears of this happening should current conditions persist.

 What are the immediate plans of the ICRC to help these people?  

The priority of the ICRC is to continue to support the medical staff in Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital. Our staff have built a makeshift structure for the triage of incoming patients. They are rebuilding the wall of the ward for women and children that was hit on Sunday, helping patients into and out of ambulances, and helping to maintain basic hygiene by cleaning the hospital. As soon as the security situation permits, the ICRC and the Sri Lanka Red Cross will try to remove dead bodies from the hospital. If family members can be found, the bodies will be returned to them inside the Vanni for proper burial in accordance with local tradition.

The ICRC remains in contact with both parties to remind them of their obligation to spare civilians, the wounded and sick, and medical personnel and facilities, and of their obligation to balance military imperatives with humanitarian requirements.

The ICRC has been organizing the transfer of patients from Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital to the government- controlled area, a task that has become even more crucial with the escalation of the fighting. Nevertheless, patients in need of urgent medical treatment sometimes have to wait for as long as a week to receive it.

The need to bring humanitarian aid into the Vanni is becoming critical because of the deteriorating situation on the ground. This need is all the more acute as the majority of the people are displaced and have become completely dependent on aid coming from outside the conflict zone. The disruption of aid convoys has prevented much-needed food, shelter and medical supplies from reaching the people who are trapped there. At the end of last week, after 13 days without a convoy, the ICRC facilitated the entry of 170 metric tonnes of food provided by the World Food Programme into the Vanni. Since then, however, it has not been possible to bring in any further emergency aid.

 How many staff does the ICRC have in the Vanni?  

There are more than 100 ICRC staff members, including three expatriates, working in the Vanni. The ICRC is working together with the Sri Lanka Red Cross in support of the Ministry of Health staff caring for the injured and sick in Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital.

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