Sri Lanka’s plight
a country still recovering from the tsunami that struck two
years ago and plagued by an armed conflict that continues
to defy solution, the situation for many people in Sri Lanka
is bleak. Three ICRC delegates describe different ways in
which the Movement is responding to the needs in a very difficult
in close concert
WITH a presence in Sri Lanka going back more than two decades,
the ICRC, in close partnership with the Sri Lanka Red Cross
Society (SLRCS), has been working to assist the population
affected by the prolonged armed conflict between the Sri Lankan
government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelaam (LTTE)
and splinter groups seeking autonomy for the north and east
of the island. The response to the tsunami of 26 December
2004, which caused widespread devastation and the loss of
many lives, brought in new support from other National Societies
and the International Federation, which coalesced into a massive
Movement effort focusing first on relief and then on reconstruction
in the wake of the disaster.
The reconstruction is ongoing, but the recent resurgence
of the armed conflict and the fraying ceasefire agreement
have rekindled old challenges for the Movement’s work
in Sri Lanka. Restrictions on access and increased operational
security concerns affecting the north and east have obliged
some partners to scale back or suspend reconstruction and
development activities. Such setbacks have raised concerns
about the equity of humanitarian aid to tsunami victims. Setting
the security framework for the Movement, the ICRC has worked
hard to give appropriate advice and guidance to the other
components, balancing risk management against operational
urgency. The ICRC has stepped up its own activities to meet
the increasing needs arising from the conflict, acting wherever
possible jointly with the SLRCS. The complexity of the situation
has made coordination within the Movement both more vital
and more challenging. In such a volatile context, keeping
a collective focus on the victims and on the Fundamental Principles
offers the best chance of success.
Michael Myers is ICRC operation delegate in Sri Lanka.
Thousands of displaced persons live in Kiram
camp, in Batticaloa district of eastern Sri Lanka.
©DOMINIQUE SANTONI / ICRC
In Kiram camp, tents and basic relief are provided
by ICRC and Sri Lanka Red Cross.
©DOMINIQUE SANTONI / ICRC
Families split up by armed conflict or disaster often experience
intense anxiety that comes with not knowing where or how their
loved ones are. Questions and worries nag ceaselessly at them:
“Did my sister survive? What happened to my father?
I need to tell them that I’m alive.” In Sri Lanka,
many people know what it is like to be without news of family,
to have no means of communicating with those closest to them.
The tsunami, armed conflict and mass displacement have all
disrupted normal family life for many people on this small
In late 2005, SLRCS, the ICRC’s main partner in Sri
Lanka, began a two-year capacity-building project supported
by the ICRC and funded by the American Red Cross Tsunami Recovery
Program to reactivate and strengthen its tracing service.
According to Surein Pereis, Deputy Director General of Operations
at the SLRCS, “The Sri Lankan Red Cross is committed
to having an effective and efficient tracing service. Bringing
news about a missing loved one is the best thing that one
can do for a person in distress.” During the first year
of the project, owing to the escalation of violence, tens
of thousands of people were displaced in the country’s
north and east and unable to travel around freely. Large sections
of the country were inaccessible for extended periods of time.
Rebecca Dodd, head of the ICRC office in Puthukkudiyiruppu,
recalls: “People went from being able to make a simple
two-and-a-half-hour bus journey each weekend to see their
relatives to being completely cut off from them. Families
were all desperate to know that their loved ones were safe.”
Through the capacity-building project, SLRCS volunteers received
training in basic tracing skills.
The main role of the Red Cross volunteers has been to collect
and distribute messages containing urgent family news. “The
strength of the SLRCS is in its volunteers. We can deliver
messages most quickly. Our divisional office volunteers know
the families and people in their communities, so it is easy
for them to make sure the messages are delivered,” says
Prathajini Bernard, volunteer tracing coordinator for the
Mullaittivu district. These services are still in demand today,
as the ongoing armed conflict continues to prevent families
from maintaining normal means of communication in some areas
of the country.
The newly strengthened Sri Lankan Red Cross tracing service
is part of a global Red Cross Red Crescent network devoted
to assisting family members separated by conflict or natural
disaster, when conventional communication systems have been
disrupted or broken down, to restore and maintain contact
both within their own countries and across international borders.
It is a service that meets a need as fundamental to human
life as food, water, medicine and shelter.
Sara Blandford is ICRC tracing delegate in Colombo.
In this family, two sons went missing during
military operations in 1990.
©ON BJORGVINSON / ICRC
anguish of uncertainty
When the ICRC office in Trincomalee learned that another
fisherman had disappeared, we knew that we had to go and see
the family as a matter of urgency to offer our help. We reached
the village by midmorning the following day and were approached
by a young woman, Pitchammah, her eyes red from a night of
crying. The whole village was standing around, but we asked
them to leave us alone with her so that we could talk privately
about the disappearance. Pitchammah showed us a picture of
a handsome young man standing next to her on their wedding
day. She explained how her husband, Vijaysena, had gone to
the market the previous day. He was seen by neighbours heading
home with his purchases but had never got there. Instead,
he had vanished into thin air on a stretch of road barely
a kilometre long. Pitchammah gave the ICRC permission to approach
any authority necessary in order to determine her husband’s
whereabouts. That same day, we started calling the army camps
and police stations, as well as LTTE leaders in the area.
From all sides, the replies were negative.
The following week, we returned to the village, where another
incident, a killing, had taken place. We met the parents of
the victim and discussed with them whether or not to raise
the matter with any of the authorities. As we were leaving,
Pitchammah came up to us. In spite of her round cheeks, she
seemed thinner and drawn. She had heard a rumour that Vijaysena
had been arrested by “some unknown civilians”
near the market and taken to a police station on the day of
his disappearance. This new piece of information boosted our
chances of locating him. We tracked down the witness, who
explained that she was indeed in the village on that day and
had seen a truck pass in which she had spotted a man with
a cloth over his face whom she had assumed was under arrest.
After talking to passers-by, however, she had realized he
was probably simply protecting his face from the dust. Even
though the witness had concluded that it was not Vijaysena
she had seen, her story had been retold and embellished until
it had reached Pitchammah’s ears.
We had to convey to Pitchammah the results of our investigations,
which had included visits to places of detention, phone calls
and letters to and meetings with all parties concerned. All
our efforts had proved fruitless. A request for information
on the fate or whereabouts of Vijaysena will be resubmitted
at a higher level in the hope that this might yet uncover
something. In the meantime, neither Pitchammah nor the ICRC
team is any closer to knowing what happened to Vijaysena —
another name on the list of the many people who remain unaccounted
for in Sri Lanka.
Barbara Leck is ICRC protection delegate in Trincomalee.
All names have been changed to respect the confidentiality
of the information obtained and to protect the victim’s
and their family’s privacy.