Unfolding tragedy

Print edition : September 08, 2006

War rages in north and east of the island, and the number of civilians displaced by war has risen to 1.7 lakhs.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Colombo

SRI LANKA ARMY soldiers fire artillery shells at LTTE positions at an undisclosed location in the Jaffna peninsula.-SRI LANKAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/AFP

THE undeclared war in Sri Lanka, nearly a month old now, has triggered a humanitarian crisis and could lead to a catastrophe if the international community does not pay immediate attention to ensure a cessation of hostilities. The seriousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that since August 1, with the Jaffna peninsula becoming the new theatre of war between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an estimated 1.70 lakh people have been displaced.

The fighting is so intense that the peninsula is under curfew for the second week running and remains virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Food is in short supply and critical medicines are unavailable. It took more than five days for the government to rush a shipload of relief materials to Jaffna under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ship, which sailed out on the evening of August 21, was docked in the harbour for days awaiting green signal from the LTTE. Implied in the situation was the inability of the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure safe passage of the ship and the helplessness of the international community. There is nobody influential enough to prevail upon the LTTE to relent and the government to embark on new political initiatives to defuse the crisis. The government seems to lack a strategy in the short term to isolate the LTTE and in the long term to have an imaginative political road map.

The LTTE waxes eloquent on the plight of ordinary citizens in the peninsula but does nothing to alleviate their sufferings. In fact, the LTTE seems to look at the citizenry as its best bet to carry on the military offensive. Here is a sample of its lament on its official website.

"Cost of closing borders - a baby's death.

"If it were two separate states, the Northeast of Sri Lanka, aka Tamil Eelam, would have its own sea port and airport that will connect it with the rest of the world. It will also have its own well-resourced hospital.

"In the present situation, the only connections that the island has with the rest of the world are the international airport in Colombo and the shipping port also in Colombo. It is by using this as the rope the GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka] is throttling the Tamil people in Northeast, economically as it did during the war in the past."

The government's case is that, faced with an offensive by the LTTE on the de facto border that separates LTTE-controlled areas from the peninsula, it is left with no option but to close the borders. Colombo cannot be faulted on this count beyond a point.

The ground battles at various points coupled with aerial bombardment of suspected LTTE targets have forced thousands of people to flee for safety. Officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the agency had problems accommodating all the new refugees. UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said that the number of internally displaced persons had jumped in just three days from 21,000 to 50,000 on August 11. According to the U.N. agency, some people had to be turned away because of the lack of accomodation.

Christian Children's Fund spokesman Marc Nosbach told the media "Many children here have acute respiratory illnesses and we're also seeing the beginning of scabies and diarrhoea." He said that the camps were overcrowded and lacked essential items such as food, medicines and mosquito nets. Among the refugees were at least 4,000 children without their parents.

The situation confronting refugees in LTTE-controlled areas is worse. An estimated 30,000 Tamil civilians fled to Vakarai after the air force bombed Ehchilampattu near Mavilaru. Many walked another 60 kilometres to the town of Batticaloa owing to the lack of facilities at Vakarai.

Conditions in LTTE-held areas are compounded by a military blockade, which has been extended to aid workers. Pagonis said the agency was "now seriously concerned about the welfare of civilians in areas inaccessible to humanitarian agencies because of strictly enforced travel restrictions". She said that supplies of food and water were at "alarmingly low levels" in many places.

In its latest report, for the week from August 14 to 21, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) said fighting had been going on in Trincomalee district for more than three weeks.

"It is still unclear if the SLA [Sri Lanka Army] managed to get control over the Mavil Aru sluice gates, which was the objective of the government at the start of the offensive. The LTTE has responded by making smaller attacks on positions [of the government forces] in and around Trincomalee. Fighting in the Jaffna peninsula is concentrated in the central and southern parts of the FDL [forward defence line] and the initial offensive by the LTTE seemed to have been stopped," the report said.

TAMIL REFUGEES RECEIVE medical attention at a camp set up by non-governmental organisations in the north-eastern Sri Lankan town of Muttur.-GAMINI OBEYSEKARA/AFP

According to the SLMM, LTTE shelling of the Palali airport continues and the SLA is firing back at suspected LTTE artillery positions south of the Jaffna lagoon. Government-controlled areas have been sealed off as the entry/exit point in Muhamali is a scene of fighting and no airplanes can land there. Currently, the only means of transport in or out of Jaffna is by sea by using Sri Lanka Navy or by Sri Lanka Air Force helicopters, which are also targeted by the LTTE.

Yet another disturbing observation made by the SLMM is that the government is hesitant to assist the SLMM and it took the SLMM three days of negotiations to evacuate one monitor in a helicopter. Supplies were running out and the SLMM DO1 had enough fuel and food for just one more week, it said.

The SLMM said: "The latest developments make it very difficult for SLMM to carry out its mandated tasks due to limitations in the freedom of movement and lack of cooperation from the Parties. It is evident that the Parties are now disregarding the CFA [Ceasefire Agreement] and are not able to live up to its security guarantees towards SLMM.

"Due to the unstable situation, SLMM Head of Mission decided to prepare for a temporary withdrawal of all monitors to Colombo this week to ensure the security of the monitors and allow the mission to focus on the upcoming transfer. A new Acting HOM [Head of Mission] is recruited but he and additional monitors will arrive very late and it is crucial for a smooth transformation that some E.U. citizens are allowed to stay after September 1. Both the monitors and the Parties have agreed to that arrangement."

Even as battles raged in the north, the east and in the peninsula, the targeting of VIPs in Colombo continued. On August 14, a bomb exploded near the Liberty roundabout in central Colombo killing four soldiers escorting the out-going High Commissioner of Pakistan. Three civilians, including a child, were also killed.

It is a grim situation by any reckoning. The government must act quickly to thwart the designs of the Tamil Tigers to draw the forces into a full-fledged war. It should step up its political initiatives for a credible and workable strategy to begin the process of delivering people of the north and parts of the east from the grip of LTTE while at the same time redressing the legitimate grievances of all communities in the island nation.

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