A Christian aid agency has warned of ‘tsunami scale’ long-term need in Sri Lanka.
Tearfund is working with partner agencies in Sri Lanka to help many of the 250,000 civilians caught up in the island’s increasingly bloody civil war. Recent weeks have seen an intensification of fighting between government forces and those of the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebel group in the north of the country.
Key rebel strongholds have fallen to advancing government forces but many civilians have been caught in the crossfire, despite the creation of ‘safe zones’.
Clare Crawford, Tearfund’s programme manager for Sri Lanka, said of the humanitarian situation: “Long term, we are talking about needs of a greater scale than when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka as more people have lost their homes and livelihoods through the intensity of the conflict. As yet no-one has a clear picture of how many have died, or been injured, but health officials estimate that some 1200 people have been killed over the past month with another 100 injured each day. Our partners are doing all they can to meet immediate needs.”
“The human and physical suffering is nothing like we have ever seen - I cannot understand how someone can go through this and still function,’ said a spokesperson for LEADS, a partner agency that Tearfund is supporting. “The Tsunami was a sudden acute pain but these people's suffering has been long drawn out under the compulsion and at the hands of the LTTE while at the same time having to save themselves from attacks by Sri Lankan forces.”
LEADS is helping churches transport relief packs of emergency clothing, bedding and sanitation kits to the affected regions as well as providing medical support and trauma counselling. LEADS say that churches are reaching out across ethnic divides. ‘”he response from churches is encouraging - their willingness to work as a network is a great step.”
A local priest described the desperate situation in a so called ‘safe zone’ near to the conflict area. “The Sri Lankan army continues to shell and bomb places where people have sought asylum, even places which are safe zones. As people flee they are exposed to hot sun and to heavy rain. No food is available and people face starvation.”
Another Tearfund partner agency, World Concern Sri Lanka, which has been working on tsunami-recovery programmes, has been able to support over 1,600 wounded people, including many women and children, who were evacuated from the conflict zone by boat. In the past 10 days these 1,600 casualties arrived at a northern hospital in need of surgery, antibiotics and trauma support. World Concern is providing food, clothing and other items as needed to both the patients and the hospital. Some 2800 more casualties – at least seven boat loads – are expected to arrive in the coming days, according to the Sri Lankan army colonel controlling the security in the hospital.
Ian McInnes, country director for World Concern Sri Lanka, said: “The plight of these people is truly heartbreaking. I sat the other night for four hours and watched a continuous stream of seriously injured and emaciated patients as they were unloaded from ambulances. They arrive with nothing, and in many cases missing limbs and fighting for their lives.
“The small amount of security and dignity that we can offer them is just the beginning of what these people require.”
Sri Lanka’s government is directing civilians into camps that have few basic facilities and movement is strictly controlled. The World Food Programme is providing food but otherwise there is currently no other humanitarian access. The government has indicated that it wants people to stay in these camps – up to 12 in the region are planned – for at least a year while its troops clear their homelands of Tamil Tiger rebels and weapons.
The Government forces attacks on the Tamil Tigers started to intensify at the start of last year and the conflict is now regarded as being at its fiercest since it began three decades ago.