Fleeing the fighting in Sri Lanka

As the scale of the humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka becomes apparent, Anna Ford assesse

The humanitarian situation in northern Sri Lanka is changing day by day. After months of being trapped in the conflict area, thousands of families have finally been able to escape the intensifying fighting between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which flared up in recent weeks.

Nearly 26,000 people, many of whom have lost everything, have arrived in the district of Vavuniya in the past few days, completely dependent on aid from the Sri Lankan authorities, the UN and non-governmental organisations.

Whilst no doubt many of them feel lucky to have escaped, for some the pain of not knowing where their husband, wife or children are overshadows any sense of relief. Some families have been displaced for up to nine months, after the recent upsurge in the conflict. Others have not had a place to call home for months, having been forced to flee every time the fighting changed direction in a civil war which started more than 25 years ago.

Most of the children who are arriving in Vavuniya are suffering from stress caused by the near-continual shelling and having to flee to safety. Some may not even have their mother or father to comfort them. Save the Children believes that all of them will need specialist care to help them overcome the trauma they are experiencing.

The Sri Lankan government is providing displaced people with food, water and shelter, but conditions in the camps - most of which have been set up in schools and other public buildings - are not ideal; they are overcrowded, there are not enough toilets and there is little privacy.

As more people arrive from the conflict area over the next few weeks, the situation is only going to get worse. One of the biggest challenges is going to be where to house them all. The government is proposing to build relief villages for people to live in temporarily, until they can return to their villages but for the moment public buildings are being turned into camps.

Five schools have been closed in Vavuniya - and the number is likely to increase. This means that not only has the education of displaced children been seriously jeopardised, but so has that of children already living in the district. Experience has shown that we need to ensure children continue to receive education during emergencies to help them retain a sense of normality and reduce the risk of them dropping out of school altogether which would leave them with little chance of being able to escape a life of poverty. The Government is working with humanitarian agencies in order to make sure this is happening.

Save the Children is calling on the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE to ensure the safety and security of all civilians, especially children, many of whom have never known peace in their short lives.

In collaboration with the government and other agencies, we have already given thousands of children and their families clothes, bedding, hygiene kits including soap and toothbrushes and other basic items and our warehouses are stocked full of aid for the thousands or more people who are about to arrive in Vavuniya and will desperately need our help.

While the priority at the moment is ensuring children have food, water and shelter, in the coming weeks and month - for as long as it takes - we are committed to get them back to school, get over their ordeal and give them a chance to enjoy what's left of their childhoods.

Save the Children has worked in Sri Lanka for more than 30 years. For more information go to www.savethechildren.org.uk or call 0044 (0)207 012 6400.

Photo provided by Save the Children