UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2006 / 20060922-1

UMCOR Helps Sri Lankan Families Displaced by Violence

By Linda Bloom*

NEW YORK (UMNS) - Families displaced by recent violence in Sri Lanka are being assisted by the United Methodist Committee on Relief as they return home.

Guy Hovey, UMCOR Sri Lanka's head of mission, reported what started "with a trickle" of returnees to the town of Muttur has expanded significantly.

"We're now working in Muttur helping people resettle themselves," he said during a Sept. 18 visit to the agency's headquarters in New York. UMCOR has been designated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as the lead agency for the return and reintegration of displaced people in the Muttur area.

Since the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, UMCOR has worked in partnership with the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka on recovery and rehabilitation projects in the Trincomalee, Ampara, Batticaloa, Matara and Mullaitivu districts of Sri Lanka.

For example, during a July 21 ceremony, UMCOR representatives handed over keys to five houses constructed for survivors in Karunkalichol, where the tsunami destroyed the village and killed five inhabitants. More than 40 villagers also have been killed in the war. The five houses were the first of 113 houses to be completed by UMCOR this year.

The latest outbreak of violence between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began in late July. Shelling over the town of Muttur caused many residents to flee, although damage there has been minimal, according to Hovey.

UMCOR set up an aid station for those who fled to the government-held town of Kantale, treating the wounded and sick, distributing hygiene kits and providing drinking water and clothing.

 As families return home from refugee camps, they are being assisted by the United Methodist Committee on Relief. UMCOR has been designated by the U.N. Commissioner for Refugees as the lead agency for the return and reintegration of displaced persons in the Muttur area. A UMNS file photo by Paul Jeffrey, Action by Churches Together. Photo #061104. Accompanies UMNS story #567. 9/21/06

As families return to Muttur, UMCOR is providing cleaning materials and hygiene kits and the government is providing food, Hovey said.

Income also is needed, especially since the most recent harvest has been lost. "The fields have been devastated, not by military action, but by cows and goats," he explained.

UMCOR is implementing a "cash-for-work" program involving teams of three to four people who will help clean up the town and make minor repairs.

Tensions remain

While many Muslims have returned to Muttur, Hovey said, Tamils "are pretty reluctant to go back" because of fear of reprisals. About 200 young Muslim men were separated from the displaced and have disappeared and the Tamils are being blamed, he explained.

Hovey hopes to help dispel a bit of that ethnic tension by placing both Muslims and Tamils in the cash-for-work program. "If we can't mix the groups, we'll have groups working in cooperation with each other," he said.

To set the example, UMCOR Sri Lanka and the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka have worked in partnership with Muslim Aid, a British agency, during this recent crisis.

But the government also plays a role in unity for Sri Lanka, according to Hovey. "The government needs to show leadership on this," he said.

In that respect, Sri Lanka is not much different from Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan or other countries where conflicts are built on ethnic divisions. "It's politicians manipulating ethnicity and nationalism," Hovey observed.

Impact on recovery

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights called Sept. 18 for international monitors for Sri Lanka. Human Rights Watch has declared that both the government and Tamil Tigers "have been responsible for numerous preventable civilian deaths and injuries since major fighting resumed in April."

The conflict has had an impact on UMCOR's tsunami recovery projects, according to Hovey. The agency had 161 houses under construction in Muttur. That work has been delayed, as well as the beginning of three water projects.

Even in the Batticaloa area, which was slightly removed from the fighting, a militia group "kidnapped all our building workers." Hovey managed to get six of the 15 workers released, but progress on tsunami projects is slow. "It's very difficult at the moment," he said.

That is the risk, he acknowledged, of working with marginalized communities. But without groups like UMCOR, Hovey pointed out, "those are the people who, after a few years, will be left behind."

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York. News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.