|A boy with his father at a camp in northern Sri Lanka. The child broke his arm as he leapt into a bunker when the area came under attack.|
By James Elder
VANNI, Sri Lanka, 23 February 2009 – Sennappu had a split second, a moment, literally a heartbeat to throw her body around her 18-month-old daughter before the bomb landed. Her reactions were enough time to save the life of her baby girl. Sennappu was killed instantly.
As Sri Lanka’s conflict has grown in intensity, so too has the number of civilians injured and killed. UNICEF has consistently called upon the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE (the rebel group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) to give absolute priority to the protection of civilians. And yet mothers like Sennappu continue to die, as do children.
The main causes of death and injury to children have been shrapnel and bullet wounds, burns and fractures. Some have been evacuated and taken to hospitals out of the war zone, which are overflowing and desperately short of anaesthetic and essential medicines.
‘Fear defines their childhood’
In a statement last week, UNICEF said it was extremely alarmed at the high number of children affected by the violence in the northern area of Sri Lanka known as the Vanni.
“Hundreds of children have been injured in the fighting and evacuated in the past week,” said UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka Philippe Duamelle. “Children are victims of this conflict by being killed, injured, recruited, displaced, separated and denied their every day needs due to the fighting. Instead of hope, fear defines their childhood.”
UNICEF was reiterating the call it has made time and again – to the government and the LTTE – to give children every protection from the fighting and allow them to move to areas where they are safe and can receive appropriate assistance.
Holmes on civilian casualties
That call was reinforced this past weekend by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes.
At the end of a three-day mission to Sri Lanka, Mr. Holmes urged that combatants ensure the safety of tens of thousands of civilians who remain trapped within areas of heavy fighting in the north.
“We need to ensure that the civilian population can escape as soon as possible from the position they find themselves in, which is extremely dangerous,” he said. “Every effort should be made by the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to avoid civilian casualties. That is the message.”
Assistance provided to 35,000
Thankfully, some civilians have found safety. UNICEF is responding to the needs of 35,000 people who have been able to leave the Vanni and are now receiving humanitarian assistance away from the conflict.
UNICEF’s emergency support for these children and their families includes tens of thousands of hygiene kits, emergency health kits, safe water, latrines and bathing facilities, nutritional supplies and educational kits for all children.
At the same time, UNICEF is supplying hospitals that are treating the wounded children. It is also providing crucial psychosocial support, as well as identification of unaccompanied children who have been separated from their families.
Appeal for emergency support
Many of the children who UNICEF is now supporting have been displaced multiple times as they fled the fighting over the past 12 months.
One mother, Ms. Paskaran, said her family members had been forced to abandon their homes and shelters nine times since January of last year. “The fighting got closer and closer, and more and more people were dying,” she recalled. “My children saw their friends killed. They spent days and nights in bunkers. They were petrified. But we are out of there now.”
They are out, but today tens of thousands of civilians remain in the Vanni, including a large number of children. They are caught in the crossfire, experiencing serious shortages of food, medicine and safe water. Many children have not been to school in almost a year.
As a part of the UN Consolidated Humanitarian Appeal for 2009, UNICEF is appealing for US$15 million for a broad range of emergency support in water and sanitation, nutrition, education and protection for children trapped in Sri Lanka’s conflict.
20 Februry 2009:
UNICEF Sri Lanka Chief of Communication James Elder discusses the situation of children trapped by conflict in the northern area known as the Vanni.