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Responding to
Sri Lanka’s plight

 

In 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 context.

 

The Movement working
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
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

 



Restoring family links

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 island.

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
Sara Blandford is ICRC tracing delegate in Colombo.

 

 


In this family, two sons went missing during military operations in 1990.
©ON BJORGVINSON / ICRC


The 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
Barbara Leck is ICRC protection delegate in Trincomalee.

Note: All names have been changed to respect the confidentiality of the information obtained and to protect the victim’s and their family’s privacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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