Sri Lanka

A catastrophe for Sri Lankan children trapped in northern conflict zone

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© REUTERS/Stringer
Displaced civilians stand in line to receive food and supplies in a camp on the outskirts of the town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, where thousands remain trapped by conflict.

By James Elder

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, 13 May 2009 – Engulfed by gunfire, Tharshini, her husband and their two-week-old baby daughter, Anandi, plunged into the lagoon. Caught amid intense fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government troops, the new parents were making a desperate bid to escape the conflict zone.

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Beyond the constant threat of bullets and shelling, there was a critical lack of food and water in the small area where Tharshini’s family was trapped.

‘I was crying with fear’
Holding Anandi on his head, Tharshini’s husband entered the water just after 9 p.m. She followed beside him. The water was around 1.5 metres deep, and 200 metres across.

“It was dark, there was so much shooting and I was crying with fear,” says Tharshini. “But we were getting close to the other side.”

There was another burst of gunfire around them, and Tharshini closed her eyes for a split second. When she reopened them, she saw Anandi alone, starting to sink into the lagoon. Tharshini lunged and grabbed the baby, then frantically looked for her husband but saw nothing.

She turned again and saw his body floating in the water.

Tharshini says she didn’t scream. At that moment, she recalls, she heard nothing at all despite the continuing firefight. Deafened by the loss of her husband, she waded another 30 metres or so until she and Anandi reached the other side, where government troops took charge of them.

Children among those trapped
As Sri Lanka’s army advances in its bid to end the island nation’s 25-year conflict, and as the LTTE continues to stop civilians from leaving the conflict zone, fierce fighting persists around a sliver of land where tens of thousands of people remain trapped. Among them are a large number of children who are now caught in the final, intense stages of a war.

Many are being killed. And yet with this current surge in fighting, UNICEF’s greatest fear is that the worst is yet to come.

Those who have escaped the fighting are now in camps around the towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna. In the last 20 days, their number has almost trebled, to around 200,000. Many, like Tharshini and her daughter, arrive exhausted, hungry and traumatized.

Aid for the displaced

UNICEF has worked around the clock to respond to many of the immediate needs of the displaced. Faced with an almost overwhelming demand for safe water and sanitation, UNICEF and its partners are supplying drinking water and rapidly constructing latrines and bathing facilities in the camps.

In addition, UNICEF is establishing nutrition centres for malnourished children and helping hospitals meet increased maternal and child health needs. The organization continues to deliver hygiene kits, emergency health kits, cooking pots, water-purification tablets, and student, teacher and recreation kits. It is also constructing temporary learning shelters so that displaced children can resume their education.

At the same time, UNICEF is supporting the provision of psychosocial support for conflict-affected children, as well as the identification of separated and unaccompanied children.

Tharshini and Anandi have been receiving support from UNICEF. Tharshini says her daughter is looking healthy again, but the mother cannot fathom that her little girl will never know her father. “He was a good man, a farmer who had worked very hard,” she says, “and one year ago we also started a small shop. Now we have nothing, and my husband is dead.”


 

 

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13 May 2009: UNICEF’s Sarah Crowe discusses the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka.
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