Food supplies running low in Jaffna
by Francis Mead
JAFFNA, 24 October, 2006 - Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula has already seen decades of conflict. Now its population of 600,000 are 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 on the road and the bicycle has become king. The security situation means that few businesses are operating at all. Many people have no work, and transportation into Jaffna is currently limited to air and sea. 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 - about 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 1300 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. They fled from two villages, Allaipiddy and Mandaithevu, on the islands to the west of Jaffna. The residents of Allaipiddy have had to leave their village twice this year – once in May, after the killing of thirteen 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 ten-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 a 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. My husband took a white flag and led people out to a road junction, but they weren't able to go further. So he called Jaffna and an ambulance came and picked us up. We lost everything, even our clothes."
Jeyapira, smiling, says she now spends her time playing, and sometimes fighting, with other children at Our Lady of Refuge. She also helps fetch water when her mother cooks. She is in Grade 5 and says she's disappointed she had to miss her exams because of the conflict.
15-yearold Vajeesman Sivalingam, from Mandaithevu, says he'd like to go back to his village and live there peacefully. "I will go back when both parties come together. They have to forgive each other," he says.
Children like Vajeesman and Jeyapira are registering for school and they hope to be able to start lessons soon. 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.
M E Pius, the local parish priest at Our Lady of Refuge, is worried that poor sanitary conditions might lead to the spread of disease 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 to temporary accommodation centres across the Jaffna district.
To the north east of Jaffna town, in the Karaveddy area, about seven thousand 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 eleven children between them. The men sleep out on the verandah, and the women share rooms inside.
"The four families take it in turns to cook," 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 thirty six 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.