ROSA SRI LANKA
Food supplies running low in Jaffna
Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula has already seen decades of conflict. Now its population of 600,000 is feeling the effects of the recent upsurge in fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and government forces.
Apart from the sound of occasional shelling in the distance, the streets of Jaffna town are quiet: because of fuel shortages there are few motorized vehicles and the bicycle has become king.
In the town, queues form here and there outside food shops. Although the Government is continuing to bring in supplies by ship and has set up a rationing system, almost everyone talks about shortages of flour, rice, sugar and lentils. On the black market a kilo of sugar is now 400 Rupees and a litre of petrol 500 Rupees –almost four times their normal prices.
More than 50,000 people are displaced across the peninsula. The majority have squeezed into the houses of relatives and friends. Others have gathered at locations designated as temporary accommodation centres.
In Jaffna town, over 1,300 people are living in the grounds of Our Lady of Refuge church. Around the large white church, women sit on the sandy soil, talking and braiding each other’s hair. Children and teenagers play games near the church walls. The men, mostly fishermen by trade, stand and watch, or talk among themselves.
The families here are living in school buildings in the church grounds. Inside, people have clustered what belongings they have – a few clothes, maybe a mattress and some blankets, pots and pans – on the stone floors.
The residents of Allaipiddy have had to leave their village twice this year – once in May, after the killing of 13 civilians and then again in August, when fighting broke out in the area. “A shell landed on our village and I was wounded in the leg,” says 10-year-old Jeyapiria Jeyaratnam. “I’ve seen a lot of fighting. I hear noises in the night and I’m very scared. I feel that a shell is going to fall here and I get frightened when I hear about fighting on the radio.”
Jeyapira’s mother, Mary Angaleena, says the family decided to sleep in the church when the shelling started. “At 4.30 in the morning a shell landed on the church. I was wounded on my stomach, my arm and my body. We lost everything, even our clothes.”
Jeyapira, smiling, says she now spends her time playing, and sometimes fighting, with other children. She also helps fetch water when her mother cooks. She says she’s disappointed she had to miss her exams because of the conflict.
UNICEF has been working with the Government and other partners to support the families at the church and other centres in the area, creating spaces for children to play and take informal lessons. The local parish priest is worried that disease might spread at the site, and says he is trying to find another location for the people staying there. In the meantime, UNICEF and its partners have supplied water tanks, toilets, washing areas and wells for temporary accommodation centres across Jaffna district.
To the north-east of Jaffna town, about 7,000 people are displaced – two thirds of them living with host families. They fled from fighting at the front line in the east. In one small village, four families, all related, are living together in a single-storey house owned by Yogaraja Vijeyabarathy. The families have 11 children between them. The men sleep out on the verandah, and the women share rooms inside.
“The four families cook separately,” Yogaraja says. “Food is the main problem. There’s not enough flour and rice, but everyone will stay here until the problem is solved.”
Because of the security situation, the families almost never leave the house. They say they are afraid of returning to their village and they worry because their children aren’t going to school.
Nearby, at a temporary accommodation centre, another 36 families are staying in a school. They have received three rounds of rations, but supplies are running low. Mothers at the centre say they cook rice porridge for breakfast. They say they can sometimes buy vegetables in the market, but in the evenings they skip meals so they can feed their children.
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2006/Mead