In conflict-affected eastern Sri Lanka, aid for a population on the move

By Gordon Weiss

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, 28 March 2007 – “By foot, by ferry, by bike, by tractor, by tuk-tuk, people are pouring in,” says UNICEF Emergency Officer Donna Carter.

Her hand-held radio is crackling with incessant reports from the field. “They’ve been in the paddy fields, the shelling started, they grabbed their kids and just ran with whatever clothes they had on their backs,” she explains. “Now they’re here, and they’ve got nothing.”

Since late 2006, renewed fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tigers in eastern Sri Lanka has stampeded tens of thousands of civilians caught in the fire zone. For the past few weeks, artillery and air attacks have intensified as the army tries to gain control of the hinterland surrounding the government-held town of Batticaloa.

Thousands of civilians have filled the town, and thousands more are swelling existing camps and new sites in nearby districts.

School provides shelter for thousands

Twenty kilometres away, Vijay Selvarajah arrived on Saturday morning at the school where he is principal, hoping to catch up on some extra work. Instead, he discovered the classrooms, corridors, and open spaces filled with bedraggled and frightened people who had fled their homes.

“There were more than 5,000 people in and around the school,” he says. “The community was trying to feed them. We called the teachers and began registering them, and we’re still registering them. Most of our 1,200 students are just staying at home, but we’ve managed to keep three classes going for students with important exams.”

And people keep coming. The condition of the school is ample demonstration of the importance of UNICEF’s sanitation response. The air is heavy with the reek of human waste, unwashed clothes and bodies, burning firewood and cooking. Even though three hand-pumps have been installed in recent days and water bladders and tanks are being set up, more water is needed.

The grounds are littered with faeces and great patches of urine. Children urinate against walls, on tents and near water sources. School furniture has been burned for firewood.

Sanitation and supplies for camps

UNICEF has been responding to the crisis here with emergency aid in the form of high-energy biscuits, therapeutic food, cooking utensils, clothes, school uniforms, around 300 water points and almost 500 latrines. To deal with the mobility of the displaced population, UNICEF has developed latrines that can be erected in a day and dismantled quickly, if necessary, to follow the displaced to a new location.

Although a row of latrines is under construction at the school in Batticaloa, it’s clear that more are needed as people keep coming in from the countryside. This chaos is reproduced in dozens of camps and sites, as agencies struggle to gather information about who is going where and what is needed – and then manage the logistics to deliver emergency supplies.

In a single day at one camp, non-governmental organizations registered more than 10,000 new arrivals. Between 50,000 and 60,000 people have been displaced in the past few days, joining the 80,000 already forced from their homes into the camps that have littered the Batticaloa district since the fighting resumed last year.

‘We’re just trying to keep up’

More than 30,000 students in and around the town have stopped attending almost 100 local schools. The head of UNICEF’s response operations in Batticaloa, Christina de Bruin, says that while many schools are overwhelmed by the displaced, simple fear has emptied others.

“The sound of multi-barrel rockets being launched is just terrible,” she notes. “We know parents and children are staying away from school because they are too scared to go.” For those who are trying to continue their studies, says Ms. De Bruin, UNICEF is working with the education authorities to set up extra classroom space and organize additional shifts for students in the afternoons.

Ms. de Bruin’s radio crackles, a report is acknowledged.

“A lot of these people have been displaced, three, four or half a dozen times,” she says. “They’re just managing, and we’re just trying to keep up with them. And it’s simple stuff, like making sure they can find clean water and stay clean.”

Then she climbs into a car and drives to yet another site where this ‘simple’ work goes on.