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Sri Lanka: ICRC reiterates concern for civilians cut off by the fighting

04-03-2009 Interview

Jacques de Maio, the ICRC's head of operations for South Asia, speaks of the tragic humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka.


Jacques de Maio, the ICRC's head of operations for South Asia.    
     Could you describe the humanitarian situation in conflict-torn northern Sri Lanka?  

Concerning the civilian population trapped by the continuing fighting in the Vanni region, it is definitely one of the most disastrous situations I have come across. Yet it would be possible to avoid further unnecessary suffering and death by allowing civilians who want to leave to get out of the are a. It is urgent that more humanitarian assistance be brought into the Vanni now.

With the support of the parties to the conflict, we have been using a ferry to regularly evacuate wounded civilians and others from the area near Putumattalan, in the north-east, where thousands of people are stranded in the coastal area. They are exposed to shelling and exchanges of gunfire in this area. People are dying. There is no functioning hospital or other medical facility in the area. The facilities that did exist have been shelled and are mostly destroyed.

 How do you decide who can be evacuated on the ferry?  

The decision as to who is evacuated on the ferry is taken in agreement with all the authorities concerned, based on priorities set out by local medical professionals. Tragically, we have to leave many people behind who also want to leave. This is very difficult to handle for our people on the ground. So even though it is positive that in the last three weeks we managed to save up to 2,400 people, we cannot but think of the people left behind, particularly the wounded and sick.

 What is your fear when it comes to civilians in the Vanni?  

Civilians are literally trapped in the combat zone. In the ongoing military confrontation, civilians and other non-combatants are dying in the line of fire and cannot receive life-saving assistance. The obligation to distinguish fighters from civilians and plain common sense dictate that the civilian population should be urgently evacuated. Meanwhile, as a matter of absolute urgency, much-needed relief, medical supplies in particular, must be brought in.

 Did you manage to get any medical supplies in?  

Wha t I can tell you is that we have so far not been able to bring enough appropriate medical supplies into the area. We would like to be able to do more to support government health officials on the spot who are treating the wounded. Apart from medicines, the people there also urgently need food.

 How many civilians are currently in the Vanni?  

Because of the confusion caused by the fighting and repeated population movements it is very difficult to come up with an accurate figure. The margin of error is quite large, but we believe that up to 150,000 people may still be trapped in the Vanni.

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