Emergency in Sri Lanka


Emergency in Sri Lanka

February 7, 2009

Ethnic Tamil civilians board a military vehicle to go to a camp for internally displaced people after being checked by the military in Vishvamadu.

Update: May 11, 2009

Over the weekend, hundreds of people were killed in the conflict zone of northeastern Sri Lanka. According to a government doctor working in the area, 378 people were killed and over a thousand injured. Within the past few days, there has been heavy fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military, and many civilians are trapped in the conflict zone.

Because independent journalists are not permitted in these areas, claims are difficult to verify. Reports are being pieced together from eyewitness accounts, hospital reports and government statements. It is believed that of the dead and wounded, many are civilians.

In addition, there are reports of at least 30 deaths due to starvation among people who recently escaped from the conflict zone to government-run camps for the displaced. Most of the dead are senior citizens. Those arriving from the conflict zone have been weakened by months of extreme hardship. Insufficient deliveries of aid to these civilians, who have been dependent on this assistance, have led to high levels of malnutrition. With the recent large influx of civilians out of the conflict zone and into these camps, systems for the distribution of food, shelter, water and medical care are stretched thin.

AJWS’s partners have been working steadily since the conflict flared up to assist civilians, regardless of ethnic or religious identities. They are currently responding to the needs of those escaping the conflict zone, providing food and essential aid.

Update: May 1, 2009

There is growing belief that the war in Sri Lanka, a deadly 26-year-old conflict, will soon be over. But with 6,500 dead and 14,000 wounded in the last three months alone (according to the U.N.), there is little triumph in this alleged victory. more arrow

Tens of thousands of civilians, mostly from poor and rural communities, have been able to leave the conflict zone, a small section of land in the northeast of the country that is held by the Tamil Tigers and is under siege by the Sinhalese-majority government. It is estimated that 81,000 to 100,000 people have fled the conflict zone within the past few weeks.

Since aid organizations were expelled in September 2008, citizens caught in the fighting have received very little food aid and medical attention, and are extremely weakened. There are reports that an alarming number of civilians who have recently emerged from the war zone are dying due to their wounds and lack of food and water. Another 50,000-100,000 are estimated to still be trapped in the conflict zone. (Because aid workers and journalists cannot access the area, exact numbers are unknown.)

Far from being over, the conflict in Sri Lanka is only headed in new directions. An acute humanitarian crisis is underway, with devastating malnutrition rates and medical crises among IDPs. While a UNICEF survey in mid-March found that a quarter of children under five coming out of the war zone were malnourished, a doctor providing care to those who are still trapped found that almost 70 per cent of children remaining in the war zone are malnourished. Many fear that a military victory will only drive further insurgency and retaliation in the future. And as with so many conflicts, it is the poor who are caught in the cross hairs. more arrow

Update: March, 6 2009

An AJWS program officer in Sri Lanka reports:

The situation in Vavuniya urgently needs attention.  All Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are being moved to closed "welfare" or "welcome" centers in Vavuniya.  The government's own count shows over 32,000 IDPs in 13 camps in Vavuniya.  There are concerns that the government is not able to provide support to the IDPs because of the massive scale of displacement.  Many of these camps are in schools or colleges, which is disrupting education for students in Vavuniya. There are still thousands of people trapped in the area of active fighting, but our grantees are ready to respond.

A humanitarian catastrophe of devastating proportions is underway in Sri Lanka. The "final push" of a decades-long civil war is causing deaths, injuries and displacements of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. More than 70,000 people have died in Asia's longest running civil war. While a military victory by the government will mark a decisive shift in the conflict, the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have been injured or displaced in this forgotten war will need support until a sustained peace is achieved.

Civilians Caught in Between

The current fighting between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has taken a heavy toll on the local population of north-east Sri Lanka:

Over 6,000 men, women and children have been killed since the most recent ceasefire broke down in early 2006; Hundreds of civilians have been killed in recent weeks.

  • Independent organizations predict that 230,000 to 250,000 civilians are now trapped in the combat zone, although the Sri Lankan government claims that the number of civilians is much lower.
  • A suicide bomber, traveling with civilians fleeing the conflict, blew herself up on February 9, killing more than 20 and injuring almost 100.
  • Medical facilities have not been spared; the last open hospital in the conflict zone was recently shut down and evacuated after sustaining repeated shelling.
  • The government forced virtually all UN and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations from the conflict zone in September, which has left vulnerable civilians without food, shelter, medicine and other humanitarian supplies.
  • Independent journalists have been silenced; recently a television station in Colombo was destroyed and a prominent editor of a weekly newspaper was assassinated.

It is estimated that 24,000 people have fled Sri Lanka's Vanni region so far this year, and 13,000 new Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are being accommodated in the Vavuniya refugee camp.

On February 12th The New York Times published an article, "Near Sri Lanka's War Zone, Wounded Civilians Struggle to Cope," about the escalation of violence in Sri Lanka and the immense toll it is taking on civilians in the affected regions.

AJWS Responds

After providing support for grassroots development there in the 1980s, AJWS returned to Sri Lanka following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and has made over 70 grants since this disaster. AJWS has identified community-based organizations in the country and will be providing emergency assistance to these groups in the form of food aid, medical attention and psychosocial services, with a particular focus on women and children.

By working closely with community-based partners in Sri Lanka, AJWS is able to get support quickly to the people who need it most.

The scale of need and pain of those who have been injured or displaced is tremendous. As one of our partners that is providing vital relief to injured civilians who have been evacuated from the conflict zone recently reported to us:

"[We] are tired of seeing the number of Amputees...This ranges from two months only baby to a 70 year old woman …Currently there are over 100 such severely injured persons [in the hospital where we work]."

Donations to AJWS's Rapid Relief Fund will meet the critical needs of civilians who are caught in this complex and devastating humanitarian crisis. Click here to donate.

Sri Lanka Background

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. The Sinhalese (mostly Buddhist) ethnic group makes up almost three quarters of the population, with a significant Tamil (mostly Hindu and Catholic) minority. The armed Tamil separatist movement that took root in the 1970s in response to discrimination and marginalization is now led by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Since 1983 the LTTE and government forces have been locked in a brutal war as the Tigers have fought for an independent homeland in the north and east of the country while the government has sought to keep the island unified.

In 2008 there was a complete breakdown of a 2002 ceasefire between the LTTE and the government and full-scale war resumed. The government is now seeking a military solution by taking full control of the last remaining LTTE-held territory. In recent weeks, the government has captured the Tigers' de facto capital of Kilinochchi and seized the stronghold of Mullaitivu. The Sri Lankan military claims it is closing in on the Tigers' founder and leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and has rejected calls for a truce, claiming that "the end is near."