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Sri Lanka Conflict: Notes from the Field

22 August 2006

Throughout the past months rumors of a resurgence of conflict between the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been a warning to the attacks that began in the north eastern town of Muttur on August 2. UMCOR, in partnership with the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka (MCSL), works in Muttur with a field office in nearby Trincomalee, reconstructing homes and infrastructure following the tsunami. UMCOR personnel were first-hand witnesses to the violence that erupted in the area and set aside their development work to deliver aid to the tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the area to the town of Kantale, some 37 miles away.

The humanitarian crisis began with the violence in the first days of August. UMCOR Sri Lanka headquarters in Colombo received reports from staff in the Trincomalee office that a 4,000 strong column of people were fleeing from Muttur which had been under siege for a week. By 8:00 that night, the UMCOR staff reported that they had counted 10,000 people entering the town and that they were the one of the few organizations operating in the town-ferrying wounded and sick people to the hospital and directing people to schools and municipal buildings which would become refugee camps.

All of UMCOR's resources were directed to this relief operation. The only other NGO in the crucial early stages of the crisis was Muslim Aid. UMCOR partnered with them to provide drinking water and immediate medical services. Together the organizations set up camps and gave organizational assistance to the authorities.

Guy Hovey is the head of mission for all of UMCOR's Sri Lanka operations. The following are his reflections on the terrible humanitarian crisis caused by this recent spate of violence. He reports on the hardships aid workers face as well as their dedication and bravery.

August 8

As the crows wake up in Kantale, so do the people who have fled the nearby towns of Muttur and Thoppor. Bundles of rags lying at the side of the road begin to move and one soon realizes that they are human beings-collapsed in a state of exhaustion as they reach the safety of Kantale in Eastern Sri Lanka. The road they have traveled has been long and dangerous. Columns of people, fleeing the fighting, have braved blazing sun, shells, bullets and marauding gangs of villagers from opposing ethnic groups bent on attacking them. Men and young girls have been taken from the columns and their relatives are distraught.

A few miles from Kantale artillery booms out as barrages are sent deep into Tamil Tiger territory in the continuation of the latest military action.

By Saturday morning, August 5, the number of displaced people was 15,347, by Sunday 20,000 and three days later it was up to 45-50,000. The town couldn't cope-every spare bit of space was occupied and sanitation was difficult. For example 4,000 people in one camp shared four toilets. The potential for disease was huge.

The UMCOR aid station is the first thing refugees arriving in Kantale see. The station is staffed by UMCOR personnel, Doctor Lars from 'Emergency Medical Teams' and medical nuns from a nearby convent-everybody is lacking sleep and some have become ill as exhaustion overtakes them.

Getting people to rest is impossible. If they are ordered not to come in to work, they turn up anyway and say they will work as volunteers in the camps if UMCOR won't use them for the day! So far UMCOR has treated thousands of people (the medical center saw 645 babies and children in one day alone), distributed 6,000 hygiene kits, provided tens of thousands of liters of drinking water, given out tens of thousands of sets of clothes and provided support and services to over twenty refugee camps covering 50,000 people.

August 9

UMCOR, the MCSL and Muslim Aid have been at the forefront of the response to the crisis and as I write this another UMCOR vehicle is rushing towards the hospital in what has become a familiar site of an UMCOR pick up with a doctor in the back holding a drip in one hand and providing comfort to a wounded person with the other.

Tonight we had a meeting with a senior government official who also a military officer. We discussed the possibility of people returning to their homes in Muttur and the mechanisms of how that would happen. On UMCOR's advice, the government agreed to provide a bus which would take people to Muttur and back so they could see their homes. It was agreed that this could only happen if safe passage could be assured as much as it is possible in a conflict zone. Qualified assurances were given and the bus is scheduled for tomorrow morning.

August 10

The promised bus arrived this morning and was filled with people desperate to see their homes. A half hour before it was to depart, the first ambulance sirens were heard heralding another influx of casualties-this time military-a major new offensive had been launched along the road to Muttur. The bus was cancelled and people never got to go back to see their homes.

By mid afternoon we receive word that the latest offensive has displaced an estimated 45,000 people who are heading south towards Batticaloa. The MCSL personnel there tell us that they have been into the war zone and the situation is desperate-they are asking for our support and we agree to meet the next day.

I spent the rest of the day with the UMCOR Program Coordinator for the area Angelina Sakic and her dedicated team. Angelina lives up to her name-she is truly an angel and I am not the only one who thinks it. The correspondent for the daily telegraph a British paper writes about the situation in Kantale and says that the aid workers there truly deserve their place in heaven.

Angelina's team brave far more danger than I to bring succor to the displaced-for the people they are helping are from a different ethnicity than the UMCOR team and many would willingly kill them if they had the chance. I always find it a humbling experience to work with such people.

How You Can Help

Your gifts support UMCOR's relief efforts in Sri Lanka. Checks can be mailed to UMCOR, PO Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write "UMCOR Advance #982450, International Disaster Response - Sri Lanka" on the memo line of your check. One hundred percent of your gift will contribute to relief in Sri Lanka.