Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sri Lanka: 10,000 say "We did not know where to run"

Tens of thousands of civilians are still trapped in the conflict zones living out in the open with little food, poor sanitation and the constant fear of being caught up in the fighting

Life started changing in April 2008 for Kanagavel, a 40-year-old Tamil living in Kilinochchi District, who worked as a driver in a government department, when the Vanni became the latest battlefield between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Vanni is an area encompassing the two districts of Kilonochchi and Mulaithivu and parts of Mannar and Vavunya districts in the north.

The first sign was when food and other necessities transported into the area became scarce as supply trucks were delayed by the fighting.

"The situation changed suddenly in April with supplies becoming increasingly limited," Kanagavel, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution, told IRIN by telephone. He and his wife and two dozen relatives are now living at a welfare centre in the northern town of Vavuniya after escaping the fighting in early February 2009.

Before fleeing they scrounged for what scant food crops and chickens remained. By August 2008, Kanagavel said they could hear distant artillery fire and the first civilians who fled fighting in the south-western parts of the Vanni began to arrive in Kilinochchi town and its outskirts.

By December 2008, the fighting had reached the town limits of Kilinochchi and Kanagavel and his family fled deeper into the Vanni. He told IRIN that thousands sought shelter in a narrow swathe of land east of Kilinochchi town.

The civilians were barred by the LTTE from leaving the conflict zones and moving across the front lines into army-controlled areas, Kanagavel said.

"They [the LTTE] did not let us get out. We were asked to go deep into the Vanni. We did as they told us," he said. "We knew that there was fighting but did not know what exactly was going on in the battlefield. We did what we were ordered to do.

"The situation was pathetic. We did not have sufficient food, no proper sanitation, not even a place to bathe or change clothes. Everyone was running from the fighting," he said. "We lived in fear every second, not knowing from where the next artillery attack would come."

The UN estimated there were 250,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Vanni by December 2008. The Sri Lankan government puts the figure at between 100,000 and 120,000.

Jungle escape

Kanagavel said that as fighting got closer, civilians were caught up in the artillery fire. He told IRIN he saw many civilians killed and injured trying to flee the fighting.

"The people did not know where to run for safety. We were so helpless," he said. "One day I was moving on the main road and saw maybe 100 people injured or dead."

Kanagavel took his wife, mother and 25 other relatives to a place near the town of Visvamadhu in December 2008. Finally in early February as fighting encircled the area where they were staying, he and his relatives decided to risk death to flee the conflict zone and cross the frontline into the army-controlled area.

They travelled through the jungle to avoid getting caught in the fighting or being confronted by Tamil Tigers who were preventing civilians from fleeing.

"We spent one full day trekking through the jungle. It was hell," he told IRIN. "You can't describe the fear. Every sound makes you feel like you are about to die."

They successfully crossed into the army-controlled area on 10 February, but not unscathed. "Artillery fire fell near us at one point and both my hands were injured. I don't know how I made it out," he said. His mother was also injured and is still receiving treatment.

Despite not knowing when he and his family will be able to return home and work again, Kanagavel feels lucky: "We did not die on the road. We were the lucky ones, we made it out … Thousands of others are still trapped with nowhere to run."

By 13 February, according to figures released by the Sri Lankan government, at least 34,000 civilians had fled the combat zones to army-controlled areas since December 2008. More than 24,000 made the risky journey since 6 February alone.

The Sri Lankan government said it had already begun distributing assistance to the IDPs with the help of UN agencies.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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