SRI LANKA: Displaced civilians traumatised – By: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

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COLOMBO, 1 March 2009 (IRIN) - Thousands of civilians who fled fighting in northern Sri Lanka remain traumatised by their experience and anxious about their future, say aid workers.

“All of those who have fled the fighting have seen people die in front of them,” Annmarie Loof, the head of mission in Sri Lanka for Médecins Sans Frontières (
MSF <http://www.msf.org/msfinternational/countries/asia/srilanka/index.cfm> ), told IRIN.

“They are also anxious about their own future and of their loved ones, those who have escaped and especially those who still remain trapped,” she said.

More than 36,000 Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have escaped to government areas since January and are now being assisted in 16 government-established transit sites in and around the northern town of Vavuniya.

However, tens of thousands more remain trapped inside a narrow swathe of land in parts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts, about 300km north of the capital Colombo, known as the Vanni Pocket.

“These people have experienced continuous heavy shelling and now don’t know what is happening with their relatives who are trapped [in the Vanni Pocket],” the MSF official said.

MSF said many who escaped did so after repeated attempts and risked death to reach safety.

“Those who managed to flee the Vanni [Pocket] tell how they were constantly on the run from the fighting and heavy shelling coming from both sides. Many have spent days on end hiding in bunkers,”
the agency said <http://www.msf.org/msfinternational/invoke.cfm?objectid=7F12EFEF-15C5-F00A-25CA632E34722AB3&component=toolkit.article&method=full_html> .

MSF said there was fear among those who had fled the fighting that they would be targeted for reprisal attacks by the LTTE for disobeying orders to stay within conflict areas.

MSF and others estimate more than 200,000 people remain trapped in conflict areas, while the government puts the figure at about half that.

Lack of information

"People arrive here in a state of extreme anxiety and fear. They have been separated from their families and often have no news about their fate,” Karen Stewart, a MSF mental health officer in Vavuniya,
said in a web post <http://www.msf.org/msfinternational/invoke.cfm?objectid=6F441DB8-15C5-F00A-250F9D59C723E847&component=toolkit.article&method=full_html>  on 13 February.

“A child spoke about how he was in a bunker with his cousins at the time of an attack. Out of the 10 people seeking refuge, six died,” she said.

Risath Bathiyutheen, Minister for Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, told IRIN that government officials were registering the newly arrived civilians in Vavuniya, with lists to be available soon.

“We are constructing four villages complete with all facilities like health, education and recreation for the civilians coming out,” Bathiyutheen said, referring to those areas where people would be housed following their transfer from 16 temporary sites. “One of the villages, Kadirgamar, already has about 3,000 persons. We want to move these people out of the transit sites as soon as we can,” he said.

UN preparedness

UN agencies said they were prepared to meet the immediate needs of more civilians expected to flee the fighting.

“UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] have stated they are ready, with partners, to assist in meeting the immediate needs of up to 150,000 civilians fleeing from the conflict zones into government-controlled areas,” the UN Office of the Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka said in a joint update on 26 February.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said further action was needed to prevent conditions deteriorating and disease outbreaks among the displaced.

“If further measures aren't taken, healthcare will continue to deteriorate and outbreaks of malaria, dengue, measles and other communicable diseases could occur,” it said
in a statement <http://reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/EGUA-7PKMM6?OpenDocument&rc=3&cc=lka>  issued on 25 February.

“There is also the threat of gender-based violence and increased numbers of people suffering psycho-social and mental health illnesses,” the statement warned.

The UN has repeatedly called on both sides of the conflict to find an orderly and humane solution so that civilians – and children in particular – can be spared further bloodshed and loss of life due to both disease and the fighting.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict between government forces and the LTTE, which has been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.


http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportID=83210    01March 2009