|Civilians arrive at the village of Putumatalan in Puthukkudiyirippu, northern Sri Lanka, after fleeing an area still controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.|
By James Elder
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 23 April 2009 – On any random morning, most 11-year-old Sri Lankan children are seated safely behind their school desks. In a nation that prides itself on being the regional leader in education, these students in their pristine uniforms listen attentively before the school bell says it's lunchtime. The clanging old bells are the loudest interruption of any school day.
But a few weeks ago in the north of Sri Lanka, where there is intense fighting between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), 11-year-old Niveathga's morning was spent in a shallow trench. The booms of shelling caused a terror no children should ever endure.
Niveathga's life had already been like this for months: constantly fleeing her home, losing the last treasures a child may keep, swapping school for a bunker and seeing neighbours die.
"There has been fighting everywhere," she says. "All the time I hear babies crying and people running. Some are injured with blood; some are already dead."
With these images in mind, Niveathga huddled in the trench with her mother, grandmother and seven-year-old brother that morning. As shells landed closer and closer to their makeshift shelter, people around Niveathga decided it was better to run than to be hit lying down. After yet another shell landed, her mother made the same decision.
"We got up to run," recalls Niveathga, "but my little brother was hit by shrapnel in his leg. My mother scooped him up and ran with him to try to find some help. This was the last time I saw my mother or my brother."
As the fighting subsided, Niveathga and her grandmother were able to escape the area and entered government-controlled territory. They then began the two-day journey to the transit site in government-held Vavuniya.
Caught in the crossfire
Hundreds of children have been killed in the past months in fighting here. This week, a government offensive pushed into the last remaining area occupied by the LTTE.
Children, who for months have been living through unimaginable hell, are now caught in the final, intense stages of a bitter war. Tens of thousands of civilians – including a large number of children – are still trapped. They are living in dire circumstances, caught in the crossfire.
Over the past five days, amid fierce fighting, around 100,000 people fled the conflict zone in the north and entered government territory. This means the number of people in camps will more than double in the next week. Their urgent need for assistance will put even greater strain on already overcrowded camps, and on the resources of the UN .
To help meet the increased need caused by this influx, UNICEF is expanding its response in water and sanitation, health, nutrition, education and protection.
UNICEF's emergency support for children and their families includes providing nutritional support to malnourished children and their mothers, as well as hygiene kits, emergency health kits, safe water, latrines and bathing facilities, temporary learning shelters and educational kits for children.
At the same time, UNICEF is supporting hospitals to meet increased maternal and child health needs, and helping to provide psychosocial support for children affected by the violence.
Most important for Niveathga and others like her, UNICEF is providing urgent assistance for children who have been separated from their families. For the moment, her story has no happy ending. Niveathga has had no news of her mother or injured brother for weeks.
23 April 2009: UNICEF Communications Officer James Elder describes the crisis facing children caught in conflict in northern Sri Lanka.
Children trapped in Sri Lanka's conflict