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Update No. 98/01 on ICRC activities in Sri Lanka

10-03-1998 Operational Update

 50 years down the road from independence  

Just as Sri Lanka was about to celebrate 50 years of independence, a bomb blast ripped through a Buddhist holy site in Kandy, dealing yet another blow to any hopes of a speedy settlement of the country's political, religious and ethnic divisions. Fourteen people were killed in the blast and the anniversary celebrations had to be transferred to Colombo for security reasons. According to the authorities, the presumed authors of the blast are the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), which have been locked in a struggle for independence with the predominantly Singhalese government since 1983. The conflict has cost Sri Lanka thousands of lives and barred it from reaching unity and effective economic progress. The government reacted by promptly outlawing the LTTE.

The hostilities are concentrated in the Vanni along the road linking Vavuniya to Kilinochchi. The cost in lives of the government's slow advance northwards towards the Jaffna peninsula is particularly high, with both parties suffering heavy losses. As the front line between the government and LTTE shifts depending on military operations, the civilian population, both resident and the displaced, is often on the move trying to flee the fighting. Their situation was exacerbated by flooding resulting from heavy rainfalls at the end of last year. To survive in these conditions, the people in the Vanni continue to rely heavily on outside assistance. The most pressing needs are for basic supplies, a minimum of medical care, safe water and acceptable sanitary conditio ns.

The Jaffna peninsula is under government control, but is cut off from the rest of the country by LTTE-held territory. Government-provided supplies for the population in Jaffna therefore have to be shipped by air or by sea. This is both costly and dangerous, as relief convoys frequently come under attack. In a recent case, a convoy of the Sri Lankan navy was attacked, two transport vessels were sunk and some 50 sailors lost their lives. To logistically sustain the Jaffna peninsula, it is vital for the government to open a direct land link to the north.

 ICRC programmes  

The ICRC continues to play a significant role as a neutral intermediary between the parties, which enables it to bring vital assistance to the population in the Vanni, the country's eastern districts and the Jaffna peninsula.

 Relief activities  

Owing to continued fighting in the Vanni, many families are obliged to flee the combat to find refuge in secure zones. The ICRC is running an emergency relief programme to assist them. More than 24,400 people have received assistance in the form of plastic sheeting, mats, bed sheets, water containers, cooking pots and kitchen utensils. Some seed kits have also been distributed to improve food security. Other humanitarian actors are also present in the region with complementary programmes. Food is provided by the government and the ICRC closely monitors the general nutritional status of the Vanni's civilian population.

 Agricultural programme  

In eastern Sri Lanka there is an urgent need to rehabilitate irrigation facilities which have fallen into disrepair either because of the hostilities or lack of maintenance. To enable cultivation to resume successfully (some 85% of the population are involved in agriculture), the World Bank finances a National Irrigation Rehabilitation Project (NIRP) in these areas. Owing to insufficient security guarantees, the World Bank monitors were no longer able to work. The project was consequently blocked between September and December 1997. At the request of the World Bank, the ICRC agreed to act as a neutral intermediary in carrying out proxy monitoring on the Bank's behalf. To date, delegates have visited some 30 project sites.

 Medical activities  

In cooperation with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), the ICRC runs ten mobile health teams   which provide medical care for some 30,000 people in " cleared " and " uncleared " areas in the northern and eastern provinces. The teams'mobility is an important aspect as they cater to the needs of a population frequently displaced by fresh outbursts of fighting. The project will shortly be delegated to the Canadian Red Cross, with the ICRC retaining overall responsibility.

Twenty-nine public health centres, which receive ICRC support, provide basic health care and education in remote areas in the north and east.

Occasional health assistance in the form of medicines and other medical supplies is provided to hospitals in the east which cannot be supplied through ordinary channels.

 Water and sanitation  

The ICRC has a well programme which includes sinking, equipping and repairing wells in the Vanni. As from April a similar project will be carried out, together with the Austrian Red Cross, in the three eastern districts of Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The project will benefit Muslim, Singhalese and Tamil farmers. So far in 1998, eight well projects have been completed.

 ICRC vessel  

An ICRC-chartered vessel, sailing under the protection of the red cross emblem, is currently the only independent link between Jaffna and the rest of the country.

The ship transports ICRC/NGO/UN personnel, as well as ICRC and NGO supplies and medical items provided by the government. In January 96 patients used the shuttle from Jaffna to Trincomalee, from where they were transported on to Colombo for medical and surgical treatment not available on the peninsula.

 Other activities  

The ICRC visits detainees to check on their material and psychological conditions of detention. In January delegates visited 266 detainees, of whom 122 were seen for the first time, in the course of 55 visits to 46 different places of detention. In addition, some 500 family messages were distributed to civilians and detainees. The ICRC also submitted some 50 requests concerning missing persons to the authorities. The delegation in Sri Lanka promotes respect for international humanitarian law and provides training and support to the SLRCS for its tracing, medical, first-aid, relief and fundraising activities, as well as institutional development.