Sri Lanka: Children paying a heavy price in conflict
“Children are being killed, witnessing their family and parents killed, being separated, and suffering injuries including burns, fractures, shrapnel and bullet wounds,” UNICEF said in the Humanitarian Update for Sri Lanka, released on 4 March.
The agency said the lack of food, clean water and health facilities had affected overall nutritional levels in the displaced community.
“There is a dire lack of clean water, food, proper sanitation and medicine. In turn this has further worsened the nutritional status of affected populations, with malnutrition rates in the north higher than the national average,” the report stated.
Heavy fighting since mid-2008 between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern Vanni area, which includes Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts and parts of Mannar and Vavuniya districts, about 300km from the capital Colombo, has forced tens of thousands to flee. More than 36,000 have escaped the fighting into government-controlled areas since January.
However, UNICEF estimated between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians to be caught in the rapidly shrinking area of fighting. The Defence Ministry said the LTTE had been pushed into a narrow area of about 55 sqkm by 3 March.
UNICEF raised concerns about LTTE recruitment of underage children: “Recruitment of children by armed groups continues to be reported and is assumed to have increased over the past months in the north.”
The statement by the UN Secretary-General’s office urged the LTTE to stop child recruitment and remove armed cadres from areas of large civilian concentrations.
“The Secretary-General calls on the LTTE to remove its weapons and fighters from areas of civilian concentration, to cooperate in all humanitarian efforts calculated to relieve the suffering of civilians, and to immediately cease recruitment of children.”
Tens of thousands of children have been unable to attend school as they have been forced to flee on multiple occasions as fighting advanced, UNICEF stated.
“The conflict has further left more than 60,000 children of primary school age out of the education system. Many of the children have been displaced up to 12 times over the past year and have been living in bunkers and trenches for weeks on end.”
In addition to disruptions in the Vanni, the education of 16,000 school children in the northern town of Vavuniya has been disrupted due to schools functioning as transit centres for the displaced.
There are 16 transit centres in Vavuniya. The government said it was constructing four model villages for the IDPs with education, health and other public amenities although no date has been given for the IDPs to move.
Ban called on both parties to allow civilians to move safely out of the combat areas. “The Secretary-General renews his call to the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to suspend hostilities for the purposes of allowing civilians to leave the conflict zone, and allowing immediate humanitarian access to them,” the statement said.
The government and UN agencies have accused the LTTE of forcibly stopping civilians from leaving the areas of fighting.
06 March 2009
SRI LANKA: Civilian circumstances "dire"
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) organised the eighth sea evacuation of sick and wounded civilians and their dependents from combat areas on 4 March, but officials warned the situation was dire.
Since the first evacuation on 10 February from Putumattalan in Mullaithivu District, more than 2,700 sick and wounded civilians have been moved by ferry to safer areas for medical care, Sarasi Wijeratne, ICRC spokesperson, told IRIN.
"Concerning the civilian population trapped by the continuing fighting in the Vanni region, it is definitely one of the most disastrous situations I have come across," Jacques de Maio, ICRC's head of operations for South Asia, said in a statement on 4 March.
"They are exposed to shelling and exchanges of gunfire. People are dying. There is no functioning hospital or other medical facility in the area," De Maio said. "The facilities that did exist have been shelled and are mostly destroyed."
Wijeratne said one of the ICRC's local staff had been killed inside the combat zone on 4 March.
The ICRC established the ferry service in February with the assistance of the Navy when evacuation overland was halted because of security fears. The ferry service has also been used by World Food Programme (WFP) to transport food into the combat areas.
Heavy fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Vanni Pocket in the Mullaithivu District in northern Sri Lanka has forced tens of thousands to flee.
More than 36,000 have fled the fighting since January to safer areas behind government lines, but thousands remain trapped. The ICRC estimates that up to 150,000 persons are still in the Vanni Pocket.
"Civilians are literally trapped in the combat zone. In the ongoing military confrontation, civilians and other non-combatants are dying in the line of fire and cannot receive life-saving assistance," De Maio said.
Morven Murchison, the ICRC health coordinator, said more and more people were moving into Putumattalan to escape the fighting.
"Because there is not enough drinking water in the Putumattalan area, they end up moving back inland in search of water," she said in a web post on 26 February.
"The lack of clean water is a major humanitarian concern," she told IRIN. "The population at the coast has increased tremendously over recent weeks and the wells in Putumattalan cannot provide enough water for everyone to drink, wash and cook."
"The risk of an outbreak [of disease] is very high given most people's living conditions, the lack of water and the lack of proper sanitation," she said.
"There are no proper latrines or pits in the area where most displaced people are. There are reports of an increase in the number of cases of communicable diseases, including diarrhoea and respiratory infections," Murchison said. "We are very concerned about the possibility of a serious outbreak of disease."
De Maio said the ICRC had been unable to transport sufficient medical supplies into the combat areas.
The Sri Lankan government said the Tamil Tigers had stopped civilians from moving to safe government-controlled areas.
"After over 30,000 had got away in the space of a week, with the churches among others providing admirable leadership, they were intimidated and targeted by suicide bombing and gunfire and forced into a tiny area," Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister for Human Rights and Disaster Management, said during a speech at the 10th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 2 March.
He said government troops had taken precautions to avoid hitting civilian areas.
"Our troops, who carry handbooks as part of their standard kit on how to conduct themselves in accordance with these norms and standards [of international humanitarian law], know that even a few deaths of civilians are deaths too many, and that is why currently we are holding back our strength even at the cost of increased casualties to our forces."
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