Church workers aid people caught up in Sri Lanka conflict

By agency reporter
May 7, 2009

Churches in Sri Lanka are helping desperate families looking for loved ones missing in the civil war that is raging in the country. Government troops cornering Tamil militants have forced around 200,000 people into refugee camps.

The UCA News service in Asia reports that many families have been split up and have little or no way to find mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, or even to discover whether they are dead or alive. A further 50,000 civilians are trapped in rebel territory unable to flee. Colombo has refused to bow to heavy international pressure to suspend fighting long enough to get them out.

"One nun took me from camp to camp to find my father and my sweet younger brother," said Niroshini, aged 21, a university student, who had already lost her mother to the tsunami and her other brother to the war.

This time, however, she was one of the lucky ones and finally found her brother and father in one of the camps.

But thousands of others have not been so fortunate and church workers are facing unprecedented problems when trying to trace people in refugee camps spread out across thousands of hectares.

"We are working in little-known remote areas with difficult transportation and communication problems with the Sinhalese soldiers," a nun of the Good Shepherd Convent in Vavuniya said.

Santhiapillai Emilianuspillai, a Catholic parish priest from St Anthony's church in Vavuniya, is also concerned about the mental health of the victims of war.

"This is the worst-ever fighting in the region and there are thousands of people on the streets looking for kith and kin," he said. "They have suffered acute trauma."

Church relief workers have developed an informal tracking system. Priests and nuns who visit the camps with food and medical provisions take details from families they meet and try to locate their missing relatives at other camps.

Others are trying to find their loved ones, themsleves flocking to the region from all corners of the country to find family members in the war zone. Each day, thousands gather near the camp gates in the Cheddikulam area, 30 kilometres south-west of Vavuniya, in the hope of picking up some information about their missing relatives and friends.

Soldiers guarding the camps are forbidden to talk to the media, but one told UCA News that the mass exodus from the battle zone had put "a massive strain on the state's welfare and administrative system."

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Keywords:tamil | sri lanka
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