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Crisis for children in Sri Lanka

Close to one quarter of a million conflict-affected people are now in desperate need of immediate assistance, with thousands of children still trapped in fierce fighting.

On any random morning most 11-year-old Sri Lankan children are seated safely behind their school desks. In a nation that prides itself on being the regional leader in education, these pristinely uniformed students listen attentively before the school bell says it’s lunchtime. The clanging old bells are the loudest interruption of any school day.

In the north of Sri Lanka, where there is intense fighting between Government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), 11-year-old Niveathga’s morning was spent in a shallow trench. The constant booms of shelling causing a terror no children should ever endure.

Niveathga’s life had been like this for months now: Constantly fleeing her home, losing the last treasures an 11-year-old may keep, swapping school for a bunker, and seeing neighbours die.

“There has been fighting everywhere,” says Niveathga. “All the time I hear babies crying and people running… some are injured with blood like this [she moves slight her hands to show bleeding on arms and legs] … some are already dead.”

It was with these images in her head that Niveathga huddled in a shallow trench with her mother, grandmother and seven-year-old brother. With the shells landing increasingly closer to their makeshift refuge, those around Niveathga decided it was better to run than to be hit lying down. As another shell landed, Niveathga’s mother made the same decision.

“We got up to run,” recalls Niveathga, “but my little brother was hit by shrapnel in his leg. My mother scooped him up and ran with him to try to find some help. This was the last time I saw my mother or my brother.”

As the fighting subsided, Niveathga and her grandmother were able to escape the area and entered Government-controlled territory. They then began the two-day journey to the transit site in Government-held Vavuniya where we find her today. She has no idea where her mother is, or the extent of her brother’s shrapnel injury. Despite her grandmother’s best efforts to be positive, Niveathga fears the worst. And with good reason.

Hundreds of children have been killed in the past months in fighting. This week a Government offensive pushed into the last remaining area occupied by the LTTE. Children, who for months have been living through unimaginable hell, are now caught in the final, intense stages of a bitter war. Tens of thousands of civilians – including a large number of children – are still trapped. They are living in dire circumstances and consistently being caught in the crossfire.

Over the past five days, and amid fierce fighting, around 100,000 people fled the conflict zone in the north and entered Government territory. This means the number of people in camps will more than double in the next week. The urgent need for assistance by these IDPs – who have endured great hardships these past months – will put even greater strain on already overcrowded IDP camps, and on the resources of UNICEF.

UNICEF is massively expanding its response in water and sanitation, health, nutrition, education and protection to meet the greatly increased need.

The massive influx will put even greater strain on already overcrowded IDP camps, and on the manpower and resources of the UN.

UNICEF’s emergency support for children and their families includes nutritional support to malnourished children and their mothers, the provision of hygiene kits, emergency health kits, safe water, latrines and bathing facilities, and temporary learning shelters and educational kits for children. At the same time UNICEF is supporting hospitals to meet the increased needs for mother and child health, and is supporting the provision of psychosocial support and the identification of separated and unaccompanied children.

And, most importantly for Niveathga, UNICEF is providing urgent assistance for children who have been separated from their family. But as the conflict continues there is no happy ending for Niveathga. There has been no news of her mother or injured baby brother for weeks.
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UNICEF is in urgent need of US$5million to cover the most immediate needs of the IDPs in the areas of health and nutrition, water and sanitation, protection and education.



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