Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sri Lanka: Children are bearing the brunt of a conflict which is not theirs

Just nine years old, Thevaki was trapped in the crossfire between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and barely escaped with her life.

"I don't remember anything. I just remember the blood," she said, gesturing to the bandaged shrapnel wound on her head.

After six days in a government hospital in Vavuniya - a humanitarian hub for more than 30,000 ethnic Tamil civilians fleeing southward - she is back with her family in one of 16 transit sites in the northern Sri Lankan town.

But while doctors say her physical wounds will heal, they warn that the memory of what she saw, including 10 days of constant shelling in a "no-fire zone" outside the town of Mullaithivu, could take longer.

Children are suffering the most in the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka, says the UN.

Because of problems of access to the conflict zone where fighting continues, there are no reliable figures of the numbers affected.

"Children are bearing the brunt of a conflict which is not theirs," James Elder, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) spokesman in Sri Lanka, told IRIN. "They are being killed, they are being injured, they are horribly traumatised, and they are short of clean water and medicines," he said.

Until recently, many of the children were living in bunkers and trenches for weeks on end. Many had seen family, including their parents, killed. Others suffered horrific injuries, including burns, fractures, shrapnel and bullet wounds, and lost limbs, Elder said.

Separated children

In addition, there are reports of children being separated from their families during the government screening process in Kilinochchi and Omanthai, the former frontline about half-an-hour's drive north of Vavuniya.

To address this, UNICEF has established a data base to help track separated and unaccompanied adults, but as there is no independent observation of the screening process, it remains a source of concern.

Reports suggest there have been a number of instances when children are placed in one transit site in Vavuniya while their parents are placed in another, as well as the issue of unaccompanied minors arriving.

According to mental health experts, this brings a whole new level of trauma for the children as it is generally the family that can provide the greatest support in the recovery process.

"If we could prevent separation in the first place, that would help a lot," Elder stressed.

UNICEF is working closely with local authorities to reunite families, as well as seeking ways to mitigate the number of families being separated.

In addition, the agency is working to provide play and psycho-social activities at transit sites to give children a greater sense of normality; however, access for UNICEF's implementing partners remains difficult to negotiate.

"These children need a safe and secure environment, which is key to their long-term recovery," Elder said. "What they need most is to be with their families, to know that they will be safe."

Yet while fighting continues and more and more Tamil civilians make their way to Vavuniya, Elder emphasised that much of the Vanni's population are still trapped.

"We mustn't forget that there are tens of thousands of children who are still in the Vanni [in the north] and have to live out this nightmare on a daily basis," he said.

According to government sources, some 100,000 civilians remain in the Vanni while the UN estimates the number to be nearer 250,000.

Forced recruitment

Meanwhile, UNICEF on 17 February raised another concern over reports of a growing number of children being recruited by the LTTE.

"We have clear indications that the LTTE has intensified forcible recruitment of civilians and that children as young as 14 years old are now being targeted," Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF's representative in Sri Lanka, said.

"These children are facing immediate danger and their lives are at great risk. Their recruitment is intolerable," he said.

From 2003 to the end of 2008, more than 6,000 children were recruited by the LTTE, the UNICEF statement said.

UNICEF reiterated calls to the government and the LTTE that civilians, especially children, must be given every protection from the fighting.

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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