Special report : the ICRC : bridging the divide in Sri Lanka

 December 1996  



 [ICRC/D.Sansoni, Ref.LK-D4/14]  



Sri   Lanka, often referred to as the pearl in the Indian Ocean, is renowned for its natural beauty. However, this provides little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of people who are victims of the violence that divides the country.



 Size : 65,606 sq km

 Population : 18 million

 Ethnic Groups :  

Sinhalese   : 74 %

Tamil : 18.1 %

Muslim : 7.1 %

Burghers and others : 0.8 %

 Religions :  

Buddhism :   69 %

Hinduism : 15 %

Christianity : 8 %

Islam : 8 %

 Density : 260/sq hm

 Languages :  




 Annual income per capita : US$ 600

1995 January: The LTTE and Sri Lankan President agree on a cessation of hostilities.

1995 April: Fighting resumes after two vessels of the Sri Lankan navy are sunk in a suicide attack by LTTE commandos. Violence escalates.

1995 October: Government forces launch a major offensive on the Jaffna peninsula, resulting in countless deaths and the displacement of some 400,000 civilians.

1995 December: The Sri Lankan army takes the town of Jaffna.

1996 April: Most of the peninsula falls into government hands, forcing the LTTE to move its base to the Vanni region. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people return to their places of origin on the peninsula, while others flee across the Jaffna lagoon to the LTTE-held Vanni region.

1996 July-September: The conflict reaches new heights. The LTTE attacks the Mullaittivu army camp, killing hundreds of soldiers but taking no prisoners, wounded or not. In September the Sri Lankan army captured the town of Kilinochchi. Both sides suffer great losses but no mention is made of any prisoners.

 The ICRC - A Crucial Bridge  

The ICRC has been operational in Sri Lanka since 1989. It serves as an essential link between the government, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan people.

In accordance with the principles of impartiality and neutrality, and acting as an intermediary, in 1996 the ICRC:

* protected road convoys carrying government supplies (medicines, food and other essential goods) to the north and east;

* Chartered a ship which served as the only non-military means of communication between the Jaffna peninsula and Trincomalee;

* handed over the bodies of fallen combatants across front lines;

* accompanied officials from the Mnistry of Education in conflict areas to enable them to supervise school examinations;

* provided logistic support to the Mnistry of Health in LTTE-controlled areas for its national immunization campaign against polio.

 Restoring Vital Links  

Detainees held by the government or the LTTE are often frightened, insecure and isolated. Through regular visits the ICRC offers reassurance. Delegates register new detainees, follow the cases of inmates previously seen and monitor the material and psychological conditions of detention. Links between detainees and their families are restored by means of Red Cross messages. Family messages are also exchanged between the displaced and their next-of-kin.

To build a bridge between separated family members, the ICRC handles tracing requests, confirms the names of individual prisoners and collects information regarding disappearances.

 A Lifeline of Hope  

Leaving behind their possessions, hundreds of thousands were forced to flee the approaching violence. To help the displaced set up makeshift homes, the ICRC provided material assistance plastic sheeting, cooking utensils, soap, clothes and other basic necessities - to 10,000 families in the Vanni region. An agricultural programme in Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts was launched to provide farmers and fishermen with seed, farming tools and fishing nets.

To protect people against water-borne diseases, an ICRC sanitation engineer worked in the camps for the displaced. In coordination with the offices of government agents in the Vanni region, the ICRC disinfected and strengthened wells, repaired pumps, supervised the construction of latrines and installed bladder tanks. Similar projects were also carried out on the Jaffna peninsula and in the eastern provinces.

In times of conflict basic health care structures are debilitated. In 1996 the ICRC assisted eight mobile health clinics and 11 primary health centres run by the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society in conflict areas. The ICRC also evacuated patients from the Vanni across the front line to Vavuniya and by ship from the Jaffna peninsula to Trincomalee for treatment in Colombo.