Civilians long for elusive peace

Fighting continues in northern Sri Lanka, isolating the region from the rest of the island and displacing civilians repeatedly. Hicham Mandoudi of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) discusses the organization’s assistance to civilians fleeing the areas affected by the conflict:

People continue to endure security problems and restrictions on their movements as a result of the conflict. [Pic: icrc]

What is the current situation on the ground in the Vannifor instance numbers of displaced people, where they are fleeing from and to, and their living conditions?

The situation for displaced people has worsened in the recent past. Tens of thousands of families have been displaced from one area to another between April and the first week of November 2008.

Because of ongoing military operations a lot more people have fled from the south of the Vanni to the north than from to the north to the east. This implies that some of the families have been displaced more than once. This is a very heavy burden on people in terms of transportation costs, which are very high. People get really tired moving from one place to another, sometimes five or six times. Luckily family members have been able to move together so we have not seen many families separated by displacement.

There are still confrontations between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan armed forces in various areas. But because most of the people in those areas had already fled, there are no massive population movements at present.

What are the most urgent concerns for the displaced and what is the ICRC doing to help them?

Shelter is a major concern at present, particularly in view of the rainy season. Security is also an issue. People desperately need to feel protected. Water and sanitation too are a major concern.

The ICRC has been increasing its response to the needs of the population for some time, mainly because it is the only international humanitarian actor permanently present on the ground, following the departure of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations at the beginning of September.

ICRC teams have been distributing mosquito nets, hygiene items, plastic sheets and tarpaulins, and constructed emergency shelters. With the rainy season already in progress the ICRC is doing what it can to ensure that displaced people are protected from the elements.

What is the current security situation for ICRC staff in the Vanni?

ICRC staff continue to operate in a very volatile security situation because of frequent air strikes and dangers along the Vanni's roads linked to the evolving conflict.

The organization is applying a very strict and rigorous security system that involves notifying both parties to the conflict of every movement it makes. This is done for every working day of every week and when needed on the weekend. So, because the security situation is quite tense and volatile, there are strict rules in place and everyone has to abide by them.

The conflict in Sri Lanka dates back a couple of decades. Do you see any reason to be optimistic about a breakthrough in the near future?

The conflict has been going on for a long time now. The civilian population is very tired and is longing for peace and security that remain elusive. This is what I have been hearing in the last 12 months from the people.

From the civilians’ point of view, there is hope that this will end one day, and that their children will live in peace and be able to go to school and return home, without fear.

For the time being, no peace negotiations are under way. Both parties are now engaged in confrontations. But, We hope that the population will one day have peace.

What is your most striking memory of your mission in Sri Lanka?

It has to be the image of a number of trucks along the road at night, with people scattered about, asleep.

I was leaving work late one night when I came across trucks parked along the side of the road. There were people sleeping on the ground, on trucks, tractors, behind even the wheel, wherever. It turned out that they were displaced people. Obviously very tired, they had not had the time to pick a place where to set up camp, but simply slept where the night found them. It was a sight to behold. [icrc.org]