NYT: Is the World Ignoring Sri Lanka’s Srebrenica?

The New York Times today follows on the heels of Britain’s Channel 4 News by asking if Sri Lanka is becoming another Srebrenica.

Wounded civilians seek aid.

Wounded civilians seek aid.

Srebrenica refers to the July 1995 killing of an estimated 8,000 people, as well as the ethnic cleansing of 25,000-30,000 refugees in the area of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, by units of the Bosnian Serb Army and paramilitaries during the Bosnian War. Although the United Nations had declared Srebrenica a UN-protected “safe area,” it did not prevent the massacre.

A television report from Channel 4 News in London yesterday (see below), shows some of the scores of Sri Lankan civilian victims caught in the crossfire between Sri Lanka’s government and the rebel Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE).

Human Rights Watch says both sides in Sri Lanka’s conflict are violating the laws of war. Approximately 100,000 civilians are trapped in a government-declared “no-fire zone” in the northern Vanni region. Human Rights Watch has published an audio slide show of images from a makeshift hospital in Putumattalan that was treating survivors of attacks on April 8 and 9, 2009. Many were women and children who were waiting in a food distribution line in Pokkanai when artillery shells hit.

After the end of the two-day lull in fighting in northern Sri Lanka, intense fighting – including small arms fire, mortar fire and aerial attacks – has been reported in the so-called no-fire zone, the United Nations said yesterday. The BBC has a map of the area here.

The world body’s top relief official said that the 48-hour ceasefire in clashes between the Government and separatist Tamil rebels was inadequate in easing the plight of more than 100,000 civilians caught up in the conflict.

“Unfortunately, it is also clear that not only did this not allow more civilians to get out, there seemed to be less civilians getting out during the pause than before,” Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes said.

Amnesty International reports they contacted two medical professionals working in a health facility in the no – fire zone who described a scene of chaos. Urgent humanitarian aid is needed as reports emerge that food and medical supplies are running low.

One medical worker reports that 92 injured civilians have been brought to the hospital today and fighting is intensifying. Another medical worker reported 75 casualties had arrived at the hospital yesterday with gun shot wounds and at least 12 civilians were killed. Medical supplies are running low and the hospital had run out of anaesthetic, surgical blades and basic medications.

The United Nations today called on the island nation’s Government to speed up protection measures for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) welcomed the facilitation of short visits by friends and relatives to some sites, and the provision of telephone, telegram and mail services in almost all sites in the Vavuniya district, where a majority of those fleeing heavy fighting between the military and the LTTE have sought refuge.

Meanwhile, approximately 1,800 IDPs with special needs, particularly the elderly, have been released from the sites, and some 1,345 separated families have so far been reunited, according to the Government.

“While commending these initiatives, UNHCR calls upon the government to accelerate progress on other outstanding protection concerns,” Ron Redmond, spokesperson for the agency, said.

Those concerns, Mr. Redmond said, include maintaining the civilian character of the IDP sites and the separation of ex-combatants from the civilian population, expediting the screening process in IDP camps and subsequently allowing freedom of movement.

“UNHCR has made a number of concrete suggestions on how best to proceed and will continue to work closely with the government to ensure that minimum international standards are met at all sites,” he added.

The ultimate objective of the government should be to facilitate the safe and voluntary return of the displaced to their villages of origin by removing obstacles to return, such as explosive mines, he said.

In the camps in the Vanni region, efforts to construct shelter, clear sites and provide health care, among others, are continuing, but water and sanitation services have been identified as being inadequate.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the continued use of schools as sites for internally displaced persons (IDPs) continues to strain education services in the district, affecting both uprooted students and host students.

Mr. Holmes, who said he would have preferred a longer pause in fighting, said that the LTTE prevented civilians trapped in the no-fire zone from leaving during the ceasefire.

“Civilians should not be used as pawns or human shields in this way,” he stressed, calling on the LTTE to allow safe passage to those who wish to leave.

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