Away from the battles displaced people face new struggles

Proper distribution of food and water, sanitation problems, medical facilities and more importantly access to and information on loved ones are some of the areas that officials need to urgently look into at the welfare centres at Vavuniya
By Chris Kamalendran

As the government grapples with the challenge of meeting the immediate needs of tens of thousands of displaced people in welfare centres, spending an estimated Rs. 20 million a day, many issues need urgent attention.

Many of the 188,000 people displaced since January this year, are being accommodated in 41 centres in the Vavuniya District.

Although most feel that conditions in the camps are better than what they were undergoing these past few months in the uncleared areas amidst the intense fighting, they feel a more efficient administration was needed to channel the distribution of food and water and medical and sanitation facilities. They also say it is important that some system be put in place where they could get information regarding their kith and kin who have been separated during the mass flight from LTTE held areas to government controlled areas.

People lining up for food and (below) being registered at Chettikulam camp in Vavuniya. Pix by Priyantha Hewage
Going back home: The first batch of people to be resettled in Mannar.

Water supply is one of the main issues in the camps but minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management Mahinda Samarasinghe says the government hopes with the assistance of the UNICEF to provide pipe-borne water within the next two weeks in addition to the water bowsers that are being sent to the area.

The people also say there should be a better food distribution system in place, with complaints that they sometimes don’t get the food on time. Because of the overwhelming numbers, there are some days when the distribution of the midday food parcel begins at 1 p.m. and goes on beyond 3 p.m. Early this week two children had reportedly died in a stampede that broke out during food distribution.

Clothing too is a huge problem since many fled clad in only what they were wearing. It is hoped that this problem would ease to some extent when donations from the south, that include clothing reach the displaced people.

The non-availablity of footwear too is a problem as the people find it hard to get around within the camps because the ground gets unbearably hot for bare feet.

The displaced people have also complained that their movements outside the camps have been restricted, but the government says this is due to security reasons. One of their biggest concern is that there is no proper mechanism in place to find out about family members who are scattered around in various other camps. They say when they hear reports that other family members have arrived from the LTTE-controlled area and are in adjoining camps they have no one to turn to to get information of their whereabouts.

Government officials say it would take time to put some mechanism in place regarding family reunions because they were still in the process of scrutinizing identities of the displaced people.

The lack of information not only affects those within the camps but those without too who have been coming to Vavuniya from various parts of the country including Batticaloa, Ampara, Kandy, Trincomalee and Colombo to find out about their loved ones who may have fled to government-controlled areas.
"Since we are not allowed into the camps we go to the Government Agent’s office in Vavuniya to get some information but there is very little. It would be so helpful if the authorities could put up lists of those who are in the camps,” a resident from Trincomalee told The Sunday Times.

Another serious issue is the lack of toilets. There are also those who are suffering various medical ailments and who need immediate and continuous medical attention after being denied access to such facilities in the Wanni these past few months.

Reports from the camps say that many are suffering from malnutrition when they fled from the Wanni and about 20 of them had died as a result when they arrived at the camps.

Although many have said the medical facilities were better than what they had in LTTE controlled areas during the past months they were hopeful of the authorities providing them with better facilities.

The Vavuniya hospital is also bursting at its seams because of the influx of patients from welfare centres. The hospital which can only house 450 patients is now forced to accommodate 3000 patients of whom 1200 are displaced people. The field hospital setup by the French government has helped to ease the situation while there are moves to relocate the Indian field hospital in Pulmoddai closer to the welfare centres in Vavuniya.

The day-to-day activities of the Vavuniya hospital have been disrupted with patients being turned away to give priority to the influx of displaced people.

Education activities too have been disrupted in Vavuniya as well as in Trincomale and Jaffna where displaced people are being accommodated in schools till lands are cleared to put up temporary shelters.

However, the government has set up co-operative shops, a few bank branches and telephone facilities in some of the camps.

Officials working in the camps say that the people appreciate the voluntary contributions being collected in various parts of the country. (Please see Plus section Page 5 for details of collecting centres)
One of the main concerns of the inmates are when they will be able to return to their homes. Officials say this would depend on how quickly the government is able to clear the respective areas and also ensure security.

The government has already started resettling the first batch of displaced civilians in their homes in Musali, Mannar this week raising hope of those displaced people in the camps of Vavuniya.

Health crisis imminent

By our Trincomalee correspondent Sinniah Gurunathan

Overcrowding and a lack of suitable places to isolate sick people could result in a major health crisis at three Pulmoddai camps where more than 5,000 displaced persons are being sheltered. According to an April 30 health assessment on the Pulmoddai situation, conditions are favourable for an outbreak of dysentery, chicken pox and acute respiratory infections (ARI).

The camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been set up at three vacated schools, where toilet facilities are severely limited. A lack of sanitation facilities and a shortage of personal hygiene items are only increasing the health dangers, the report said.

The worst affected by conditions at the camps are women and children. The report says there is a desperate need for clothes for adults and children, and under-garments.; the only clothes the displaced persons have are the clothes they are wearing.

According to the report, public health inspectors and midwives are being assisted by volunteer workers, including those from the Sri Lanka Red Cross and the Ministry of Health, to monitor the health situation at the camps.

Meanwhile, mobile medical clinics are attending to IDPs who fall sick, and the police are assisting by transporting the serious cases to nearby hospitals. Some of the most urgently needed items at the camps are:

Infant foods, milk powders and nutrition supplements; soaps, sanitary pads, toothpaste, toothbrushes, slippers, nail-clippers; shaving razors; detergent powders;

Also needed are plastic buckets; ekel brooms; wheelbarrows; rakes; mammotties, garbage collection barrels.

Anandasangaree appeals to President

The moderate Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) yesterday called on the Government to allow an international agency to enter the ‘no-fire-zone’ to persuade the LTTE to free the civilians and grant a general amnesty to those who surrender with arms.


In a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, TULF leader, V. Anandasangaree has urged that an international agency, acceptable to the government be given a period of two weeks to carry out this task, and warned that if the arrangement fails it would be detrimental to the good name of the country.

The TULF leader also expressed serious concern for the civilians caught in the fighting saying it will have serious repercussions on the IDPs elsewhere since many of them have relatives in the ‘no-fire zone’.

He also urged the President to send immediate food supplies to the area since an estimated 100,000 people are on the verge of starvation.

“I have reliable information that the number still stranded in Wanni is over one hundred and fifty thousand but I am positively sure that the number exceeds one hundred thousand. On an earlier occasion too, I hope you will remember, as regards the number I was proved correct.

It is unfortunate that although aerial bombing has stopped, shelling and artillery attacks have been taking place during the last three days also. I plead with you to have them stopped forthwith and save the civilians,” he said in the letter.

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