The Catholic aid agency CAFOD has expressed grave concern at the fate of an estimated 100,000 civilians as the Sri Lankan government announced its intention to conduct a ‘final assault’ in the Vanni in the north east of the country as a deadline for the Tamil Tigers to surrender expired.
The ongoing conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has left hundreds of thousands homeless, more than 5,000 people dead and thousands wounded as a result of heavy fighting, in the so called ‘safe zone’ - a sliver of land where the LTTE are fighting their last stand from among tens of thousands of civilians trapped there.
International humanitarian law has been violated on both sides. LTTE forces have prevented civilians from leaving the area and Sri Lankan government troops have continued the indiscriminate shelling of the ‘safe zone’, leaving thousands of innocent men, women and children injured or dead, the charity says.
CAFOD’s Head of International Programmes, Pauline Taylor-McKeown said: “What is needed most urgently is a ‘real’ safety zone respected by both sides and monitored by an international third party. Those who wish to leave the safety zone must be allowed to do so and a lasting ceasefire should be observed with a humanitarian corridor established to allow safe passage”.
The government has prohibited journalists and human rights monitors from going to the Vanni, making access to accurate information difficult. However, CAFOD partners, who must remain anonymous because of concerns for their safety, report that life in the ‘safe zone’ is one of dire misery for thousands as they struggle to feed themselves amidst food and water shortages. A lack of urgent medical supplies has meant that the sick and wounded are left unattended. And families, whose relatives have been killed, have not been able to bury their dead with dignity.
CAFOD has pledged a further £50,000 on top of the £20,000 already sent this year to support families affected by the conflict. Its partner, Caritas Sri Lanka, will use the money to provide food, water and basic household items for those who have managed to escape. The Sri Lankan government reports that 49,000 people fled from the safety zone today and there will be an even greater need for more money in response to the increasing humanitarian need.
CAFOD has been working through its local Sri Lankan partners, assisting war affected peoples, since the mid 1990s. “Some of these are the same people who were affected by the Tsunami of 2004. On top of that, the decades of civil conflict have polarised Sri Lankan society,” said Pauline Taylor-McKeown.
“The Sri Lankan government’s biggest challenge”, she continued, “is not the final assault on the Vanni, but to bring about national reconciliation through dialogue. The cycle of conflict must be broken, and reconciliation and healing put in place.
“The only hope for long-term peace in the country depends on the rights and aspirations of all communities being met and respected’.”
The Archbishop of Colombo, Oswald Gomis, has previously said: "We have to have a political solution. We have to make people realise that fighting is not the answer. We have to ensure that people who belong as nationals in Sri Lanka can live together in harmony. We have to assure them of their fundamental right to equality and justice."