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Sri Lanka

Aid reaches families displaced by conflict in eastern Sri Lanka

© UNICEF video
Children in a camp in Vaharai, on Sri Lanka’s east coast. More than 45,000 people in the region fled their homes when fighting intensified between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and government forces.

By Francis Mead

VAHARAI, Sri Lanka, 12 October 2006 – Not far from the shoreline, where rows of tents stretch into the distance, a group of children and women gather round a concrete well to wash clothes and dowse themselves in cooling water – a relief from the fierce heat.

These are some of the 45,000 people who fled southward along Sri Lanka’s east coast before gathering here at Vaharai, about 30 miles north of the town of Batticaloa. They left their homes, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, as fighting intensified between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and government forces in early August.

Sivanayaham Vasanthy, 23, has a bandage on her left arm. “I was picking up a bundle of grass when a shell exploded. I fell down and my parents took me to hospital,” she says. “We had to leave and come to Vaharai and then I was treated here.”

Help with medical care

This morning, long queues wait outside Vaharai’s district hospital. Among the crowd at the entrance are mothers with babies, men holding registration cards, a young girl with a bandaged hand and a frail, elderly woman who is only able to walk with the help of her daughter.

Everyone here has heard that a group of 30 doctors and nurses from the Ministry of Health has been transported in to help for the day. Until now, Dr. T. Varatharajah, who had to flee the shelling himself, has been the only doctor at the hospital. Neatly dressed, he roams among the patients, a stethoscope around his neck, handing out health registration cards and directing patients to the right queue.

“When I came here, I heard that seven people had been injured by shells and they were in Vaharai Hospital,” says Dr. Varatharajah. “No other aid organizations were here at the time, so I decided to stay and help treat the people.”

The doctor has been seeing more than 100 patients a day and says 40 per cent of them are suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery.

© UNICEF video
UNICEF and other UN agencies are helping the Sri Lankan Government bring in supplies and provisions to help thousands of people living in the camp, including this mother and child.

Supplies and provisions

UNICEF and other UN agencies are helping the government bring in supplies and provisions. Today’s convoy delivers jerry cans, water tanks and mosquito nets. While there is water for washing, drinking water is in short supply and has to be trucked in.

School equipment, recreation kits and essential medicines have also been provided.

“We are doing our best to help the government bring in the supplies and support that these people need,” says the head of UNICEF’s Batticaloa office, Christina de Bruin.

‘We had to leave in the night’

Around the tents, flies are multiplying. Visible on children’s faces and hands, they carry a risk of infectious disease.

Although some children are able to attend temporary classes in Vaharai, for much of the time there is little for anyone to do. The recent upsurge in conflict is on everyone’s mind.

Anuwarna Varnakulasingham, 10, has vivid memories of what happened. “We had to leave in the night because of the shelling. We travelled here through the jungle and we hid in tunnels under the road,” she says.

“We lost our goats and cows – and we lost all the things in our house,” adds Sivaranjan Kanapathipillai, 11.

What the displaced families wish for most is a chance to return home. But for the moment they fear that home isn’t safe, and so they stay.




12 October 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on the situation of displaced families living in a camp in Vaharai, Sri Lanka.
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