CAFOD partners working in the Vanni conflict zone in Sri Lanka have been severely wounded during the latest spate of shelling.
The director of Caritas Vanni-Hudec, Fr TR Vasanthaseelan, suffered severe injuries to both his legs, one of which has been amputated.
He was caught up in the fighting when shells hit St Anthony’s Church in Valaignarmadam during the morning of Thursday 23 April, where he was providing food and shelter to many of the tens of thousands of innocent people trapped in a small pocket of land surrounded by fighting. Fr Vasanthaseelan, a 34-year-old social worker, is believed to have been washing up at an outdoor well when he was struck by artillery shrapnel. He is awaiting possible evacuation on a Red Cross ship.
Fr James Pathinanthan, a member of the National Commission for Justice, Peace and Human Development who is well known to CAFOD, was also wounded the day before and is now receiving treatment in a hospital in Anuradhapura.
Other CAFOD partners remain in the war-torn area and are determined to stay with the people to help those affected by the conflict. Since January, an estimated 5,000 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands displaced. One partner reports moving from place to place with the displaced and providing food and comfort where possible.
He said: “It’s painful to see innocent civilians being killed in big numbers by shelling and by long range gun fire. Whole families have been wiped out. We are constantly having to move from place to place to avoid the fighting and people are coming to us daily seeking assistance.”
CAFOD’s Head of International Programmes Pauline Taylor-McKeown said: “Our thoughts are with the men, women and children and our partners suffering in the Vanni. Fr Vasanthaseelan had the opportunity to leave the Vanni but he stayed to be with the people. What has happened to Fr Vasanthaseelan and Fr Pathinathan clearly spells out how innocent people are being injured and killed and this must stop.
“If we are to avoid a catastrophe it’s vital that a ‘real’ safe zone is respected and people are not trapped between the warring Sri Lankan government troops and the Tamil Tigers. A lasting ceasefire should be observed with a humanitarian corridor established to allow safe passage. The international community must hold both sides to their obligation to protect civilians and allow humanitarian access.”
Since Monday, 20 April, the Sri Lankan government says that over 100,000 people have escaped the conflict zone. A total of 120,000 displaced people are already in displaced persons camps in Vavuniya, south of the Vanni. Many more people are expected to cross over to the government controlled area in days to come.
Pauline Taylor-McKeown said: “This is a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale and we must do all we can to ensure those people reaching the camps have food and water immediately.”
CAFOD has pledged a further £50,000 on top of the £20,000 already sent this year to support families affected by the conflict. CAFOD’s partner, Caritas Sri Lanka, will use the money to provide food, water and basic household items for those who have managed to escape. With the rapidly evolving situation, their needs are increasing daily.