Insecurity and fear seem to be setting in among the civilians in the uncleared areas of the North as the fighting intensifies and on a government directive International Non Governmental Organizations (INGOs) begin to pullout.
INGOs are currently relocating their operations in Vavuniya, the largest town south of the Wanni area, while the government says it is taking over the responsibility of distributing food and other relief items in the uncleared areas through the government administered mechanism. However this mechanism itself appears to be on shaky ground with many public servants themselves being displaced.
Until now the INGOs were involved in distributing emergency food packages, tarpaulin sheets, water and providing emergency shelters and sanitation facilities in and around Killinochchi, Mannar and Mullaitivu to the displaced whose number had risen upto 200,000 by early this month.
|On the move: Several NGO and INGO vehicles leaving uncleared areas.
"There is intense fighting between the two parties and increasingly the attacks are close to civilian areas. As a result more and more people are on the move,” United Nations spokesperson in Colombo, Gordon Weiss told The Sunday Times.
One INGO withdrawing from the Wanni said civilians have expressed doubt about how they would be treated if they moved into government-controlled areas while also fearing forced recruitment by the LTTE.
"The civilians are confined to camps and face a no-win situation. Our presence was a relief to them. We gave them a sense of security and protection,” a staff member of an INGO operating in the North said.
Meanwhile Government servants working and residing in affected areas had also expressed a sense of insecurity arising from the pull out of INGOs.
"We fear for our safety. When the NGOs were here there was some sense of stability. Now that they have also left we are not sure about what will happen in the future,” an official who wished to remain anonymous said.
Some of these government officers who have to now bear the full responsibility of providing relief to the displaced are themselves concerned how they would manage operations without the assistance of INGOs especially when the humanitarian crisis worsens with all signs that the war would only intensify.
Meanwhile the government says they are making arrangements to receive the displaced in Vavuniya, with several locations being earmarked as temporary shelters. These include Omanthai Maha Vidyalaya, Gamini Maha Vidyalaya on Mannar Road, Nelukulam Kalai Maha Vidyalaya in Nelukulam, Muthaiya hall in Kurumankadu and the Young Men’s Hindu Association at Station Road. On a long term basis, some areas in Chettikulum, Sidamparampuram and Vavuniya are also being cleared to settle the displaced people.
"The INGOs have been instructed to take all their food and non food items to Vavuniya which will be the main distributing hub. We have asked the people in the affected areas to move into Vavuniya and we are going to be ready when they arrive,” Commissioner General of Essential Services, S. B. Divaratne said.
According to Mr. Divaratne the respective Government Agents (GAs) have been instructed to facilitate the people who will be on the move within the uncleared areas, by providing them shelter and security in schools, temples and other buildings.
|NGO officials being checked at the Omanthai checkpoint
"The government is ready to receive the people who are coming from these areas. We have a buffer stock of food items for a month, material for temporary shelter and medicines in Vavuniya. We have specifically instructed the people to travel through a particular route to reach Vavuniya. The three GAs of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya have been requested to work out a proper programme to facilitate IDP influx,” Mr. Divaratne said.
Meanwhile, Vavuniya’s Government Agent Nicholas Pillai said steps are being taken to register the displaced people and provide them temporary identification.
Several committees comprising representatives from NGOs, INGOs and government officials have been set up to look into issues such as security of the people, food, emergency shelter, camp management, health, water supply, sanitation and education. INGOs including OXFAM, World Vision and Save the Children who are in the process of withdrawing from the uncleared areas are drawing up plans to operate from Vavuniya.The World Food Programme (WFP) is relocating its staff, but will continue to support the humanitarian operations in the Wanni with convoys, Mr. Weiss said.
However, he expressed concern about operating from outside the theatre of conflict.
"It is very difficult to operate if we are not inside the Wanni because we rely on being close to the beneficiaries, close to the people who need these things. This is a time when the humanitarian task is more difficult. So I don't think it is an improvement in the humanitarian situation to havewithdrawn UN and other agencies from the area,” he said.
"We will help in the distribution of relief items to the beneficiaries, but the direct distribution, according to the government, will be fully handled by government networks. All our operations in the Wanni involved humanitarian work. The modus operandi for our work from this point on is still being worked out,” he further explained.
Up to date UN organizations have provided the displaced civilians with relief items such as food aid, access to clean water, medical supplies and material for shelter especially in view of the upcoming monsoon rains.
|Residents in uncleared areas of Kilinochchi protest over the departure of World Food Programme in front of its office
He said there were irregularities in the issue of these supplies too which are adversely affecting the already badly hit people. He said humanitarian operations are now facing severe hurdles because the people are on the move. “ The situation is getting more chaotic and difficult for the people,” he warned.
Giving a different opinion was Mr. Divaratne, who said although there would be some difficulties in the humanitarian operations, food and other essential items would be delivered to the needy through the government administrative mechanism.
"Even under normal circumstances there are shortcomings and shortages, but I can vouch that the people will not starve due to this. The delivery of food may be delayed by about one or two days but the food will be delivered. "That is why we say, to come to Vavuniya,” he said.
However, it would take a few more weeks to see how the people in the Wanni, respond to the government’s call to get out of the uncleared areas and move into the cleared ones.
INGOs on Operation relocation to vavuniya
Twelve INGOs are in the process of relocating their staff and assets in Vavuniya.
These include, World Vision, Oxfam, Care, Danish Refugee Council, German Agro Action in partnership with Sewa lanka, Solidar Consortium, World University Services of Canada in Sri Lanka (WUSC), MSF Holland, Caritas/HUDEC, Forut, ZOA, Save the Children and Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA).
There are about 550 local staff and nine expatriates working in these organizations, CHA Executive Director Jeevan Thiagarajah said adding that humanitarian relief is provided to the displaced in collaboration with the GAs.
He explained that the humanitarian agencies discuss their work plan with the Ministry of Social Services annually and carry out relief and other activities accordingly.
"Quarterly action plan of work carried out is shared with the NGO secretariat. The action plan is further shared and approved by the respective GAs. GA's authority is required to carry out planned activities within the districts,” he said.
ICRC stays, UN suspends pullout
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is to continue its presence in the Wanni, in compliance with its mandate to protect and assist victims of armed conflicts worldwide and in agreement with the Government, ICRC Communications Coordinator Aleksandra Matijevic said.
She said ICRC would be working closely with the Sri Lanka Red Cross, in monitoring the humanitarian crisis.
"We are aware of the prevailing security situation in the Wanni which has an impact on work and daily life of both our staff there and civilians alike. We pursue contacts on a daily basis with both the Security Forces and the LTTE to obtain security assurances for our activities and will adjust our work to the security situation prevailing on the ground,” she said.
The ICRC relief work includes the distribution of sleeping mats, mosquito nets, bed linen, towels, cooking utensils, hygiene kits and baby-care essentials in the areas of Karachchi, Oddusuddan, Puthukkudiyirippu, Kandawali and Thunukkai in the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.
Since the hostilities escalated in the Wanni at the beginning of July, more than 84,000 displaced persons had received these essential goods while almost 12,000 persons were able to access clean water through the ICRC, she said.
"We would continue our presence at the Omanthai entry/exit point to facilitate the passage of civilians, civilian vehicles and ambulances, as well as transport of the mortal remains of fallen fighters between the Government and LTTE-controlled territory,” Ms. Matijevic said.
A UN official in Colombo said yesterday that the UN also suspended its withdrawal fom the Wanni following protests by the civilians.
INGOs’ departure worsens crisis
A Kilinochchi-based human rights group has charged that ordering international humanitarian agencies to leave the Wanni during an intense phase of the conflict will worsen the unfolding human rights and humanitarian crisis in the area.
The North East Secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR) in a statement said there was a shortage of food and other essential items in the area and therefore the presence of international agencies such as the World Food Programme was important to improve the supply of essential items.
The supply of items such as milk powder which are not handled by UN agencies is dangerously low. The supply level of milk powder is 86% below the amount requested by the Government Agents of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, the NESOHR noted.
It said restrictions imposed on fuel supplies to the area have hampered efforts by local groups to help the IDPs in the area.
The human rights group said the INGOs which were ordered to leave the Wanni were even taking their water tankers along with them and as a result the IDPs had been denied even drinking water. The NESOHR statement called on the international community to urge the INGOs not to leave the Wanni and ensure their safety.
Such measures were imperative to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in the Wanni, the secretariat said.