Charities are calling for a ceasefire and are working to relieve the “dire need” of hundreds of thousands of “highly traumatized” civilians who have fled intense combat between government and rebel forces in northern Sri Lanka.
Caritas Internationalis said that the civilians are leaving rebel held territory in Vanni in the north of the country after months of combat between government forces and Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels. Two priests who remained in the conflict zone, despite having had the chance to leave, were badly injured in shelling.
The refugees are now in government-run camps, where Caritas is providing cooked meals to new arrivals, medical support and trauma counseling. The organization is also working to provide schooling for children.
Caritas Sri Lanka’s National Director Father Damian Fernando said Sri Lanka is undergoing “the worst scenario.”
“Innocent civilians are paying a huge cost and are the worst hit. Already there are more than 130,000 who have crossed over to the [Vavuniya] government controlled side. These people are coming out in highly traumatized conditions. Most of them are tired and worn out after months of suffering. Many of them are injured and some of them are very severely wounded. The hospitals have totally exceeded their capacity to receive the wounded.”
Father T.R. Vasanthaseelan, local director of Caritas in Vanni, was severely injured in the legs when St. Anthony’s Church in Valaignarmadam was shelled on the morning of April 23. One of his legs required amputation.
Tens of thousands had sought safety at the church. The priest had been in Vanni to provide humanitarian assistance and to move with refugees.
Further, Caritas has received the news that Rev. Fr. James Pathinathan, a member of National Commission for Justice, Peace and Human Development was also injured and brought to the hospital in Anuradhapura the day before.
Caritas Internationalis Secretary General Lesley-Anne Knight responded to their being injured, saying the organization’s thoughts and prayers were with the priests and the people of Vanni.
“Fr. Vasanthaseelan is a much loved figure in Sri Lanka and throughout the Caritas confederation. He is a man of peace, courage and hope. He has lived among the people he seeks to serve and accompanied them through their suffering. He has been a sign of love and faithfulness throughout such difficult times.”
“That aid workers are suffering only underlines how innocent people, women and children are being killed and injured in Sri Lanka’s civil war and reinforces our calls for an immediate ceasefire,” she said, reiterating combatants’ obligations to protect civilians and allow humanitarian access under the Geneva Conventions.
“The United Nations and the international community must hold them to these commitments,” Knight added.
The biggest challenge is meeting the needs of those who are now arriving in large numbers and will soon be amassed in “already overcrowded” camps, Fr. Fernando said.
“The military forces in charge of the camps are totally preoccupied with security and fears of LTTE infiltration,” he explained.
He reported that the government has asked religious people from both north and south to be mobilized to bring help to the refugees.
“The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka has mandated Caritas Sri Lanka to respond. Caritas, as a Church institution, is able to work in the camps and send religious nuns and priests to help the people. Caritas is responding as it’s the only opportunity for the Church to witness its compassion to the suffering people.”
There is a “dire need” for food and other aid items, Fr. Fernando said, adding that Caritas is trying to provide aid through its Manar Valvuthyam and Jaffna offices.
“Caritas will support the needs of the people as and when they arrive and as long as the needs are not catered to by others,” he said, stating that Caritas will negotiate with the government to find a “lasting solution for peace.”