Sri Lanka’s War May Be Over, But the Humanitarian Toll Keeps Growing


Sri Lanka’s War May Be Over, But the Humanitarian Toll Keeps Growing

June 5, 2009

  • IDPs in one of the government’s closed camps wait in long lines for hours for food. There have been some cases where children have been crushed to death in stampedes when desperate IDPs rushed to collect food packets to feed themselves and their families.

  • Because IDPs are confined to the government-run camps, which are encircled by multiple rows of barbed wire, they are entirely dependent on aid distributions and assistance for food, water, shelter, sanitation and health care. The government has said that it will try to return all IDPs to their home areas before the end of the year, but until this can be arranged, close to 300,000 people will be completely reliant on aid.

  • Elderly IDPs are particularly vulnerable after spending months in the conflict zone with extremely limited access to food, shelter and medical care. Aid workers and government officials report that there have been many starvation deaths among the elderly. Often family members were separated from one another in the migration to the IDP camps; many bedridden and disabled older people were left without anyone to help them access food distributions in the camps.

  • NGOs estimate that there are 80,000 children in the closed IDP camps.

  • The IDP camps are extremely overcrowded. For example, one camp, which was designed by the UN to support 35,000 people, currently holds over 80,000. In these conditions, three or four families squeeze into tents like the ones pictured above, which were intended to house only a single family.

  • The extreme overcrowding means that many families are left with inadequate shelter, such as these makeshift tents pictured above.

On May 19, 2009, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that the country's 26-year civil war was "over."

While the armed conflict may have ended, the country's humanitarian catastrophe has not. Nearly 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs, are currently crowded into closed, government-run camps, in urgent need of water, food and shelter. (Read more on the conflict here.) "It's a totally unimaginable situation," says an AJWS grantee whose name is omitted to protect his safety.

In the final months of the war, hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught in fierce, close-quarters fighting and bombardment. The area was shut off to aid workers and journalists, making it difficult to gain a complete picture of the horrors these civilians have endured. Between 7,000 and 20,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in the fighting and tens of thousands more injured.

Because of the lack of access to medical care, many of those who were injured lost limbs to amputations as their wounds became infected. After the government ordered all humanitarian NGOs and agencies to withdraw from the conflict zone in September 2008, the civilians trapped in this area struggled with severe shortages of food, shelter and safe drinking water. Malnutrition rates soared.

Although the IDPs in the camps today are no longer caught in the fighting, their nightmare continues. Most arrived at the camps greatly weakened by months in the conflict zone, and resources to respond to their needs are severely overstretched.

The current conditions are agonizing, reports an AJWS partner working in the camps. "IDPs including pregnant mothers, small children and elders stand in queues for a long time to get food. Many days they don't get breakfast and lunch arrives late in the day. There is no special food or milk powder supplements for pregnant mothers, lactating mothers, children and the sick."

"Many people don't have proper utensils or plates to receive food. They use plastic bags, or sometimes use both their hands like a plate, to receive the food. Safe drinking water is a question and the water supplied to the IDPs is not enough at all. They even drink the water from toilets," she says.

The AJWS partner adds: "In hospitals, there are no proper supplies for the injured and sick. Hospitals are overwhelmed and outsiders are not allowed to see the injured. The situation of the elderly is even worse. Some of them are bedridden and they need others' help to do their routine. Six to seven elders die daily."

AJWS has been working to provide support for civilians caught in the crossfire since the recent escalation of the fighting. Since the beginning of the year, 12 emergency grants have been distributed to AJWS partners responding to the needs of civilians caught in the conflict. These grants are supplying essential aid in the form of vital food relief, temporary shelter, basic medical aid and trauma counseling and rehabilitation services, with an emphasis on supporting women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities.

In addition, AJWS continues to support grantees across Sri Lanka who are working toward building a tolerant, just society, regardless of ethnicity, religion or affiliation.

"The current situation makes it very difficult to do our regular development and human rights work," says another AJWS grantee, "since the needs and priorities of our communities are changing day-by-day."

"But we're still trying to do it, because we don't want to forget our mission. But it's hard to do, it's hard to keep our balance in these kinds of conditions—including within ourselves."

Your contributions will provide immediate and vital aid to civilians who were caught in the crossfire. Click here to donate to the Sri Lanka Rapid Relief Fund.