Now that hostilities have been declared over, everything possible has to be done to facilitate access for humanitarian aid agencies so they can help hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Monica Zanarelli, the International Committee of the Red Cross‘ deputy head of operations for South Asia, explains the current challenges.
Can you describe the humanitarian situation in the conflict zone in the past few days?
Tens of thousands of people trapped in the zone of fighting have had to endure unimaginable hardship over recent weeks, because there was hardly any place left that was safe, and access to medical care, food and water was totally inadequate. Last Sunday morning, we lost contact with our team of some 20 national staff still in the zone. We therefore have no first-hand information about what has happened in the area since then. Yesterday, a few of the staff on the ground were able to send word that they were alive and outside the area where fighting had been taking place. We are still without news of the others and their family members.
Have all remaining civilians and casualties been evacuated from the area?
The last time the ICRC was able to evacuate people – a group of 516 wounded and sick persons and family members – was on 9 May. Since then, we have been trying unsuccessfully to return to that area to provide any needed further assistance. The ICRC is in touch with the authorities and will seize any opportunity that presents itself to go back.
What has happened to those detained?
The ICRC has so far been able to meet with over 1,800 LTTE fighters who surrendered to the armed forces, and draw up lists of their names. The ICRC has had regular access to prisons and temporary detention places in Sri Lanka for many years.
Is it true that some senior LTTE leaders asked the ICRC to serve as an intermediary in surrender negotiations?
The ICRC has maintained contact both with LTTE representatives and with the Sri Lankan government for many long years, and forwarded messages from one party to the other whenever requested to do so. As a neutral and independent humanitarian organization, the ICRC does not reveal the content of confidential talks held bilaterally with either side to a conflict.
How many people have been wounded? Are all of them now receiving medical care?
The ICRC is not in a position to provide figures or even to know whether all casualties are receiving the care they require. Under international humanitarian law, the lives of all those who are not or are no longer fighting must be spared. Wounded and sick people must be immediately collected and cared for, and detainees must be treated humanely. Between mid-February and 9 May, the ICRC evacuated almost 14,000 wounded or sick patients and accompanying caregivers. An ICRC surgical team is currently deployed at Mannar hospital. In response to the influx of hundreds of patients over recent days and weeks, the ICRC helped the health authorities extend the ward capacities of Mannar and Vavuniya hospitals, adding some 500 beds in total.
What help has the Red Cross been able to provide to the displaced so far?
According to government figures, there are more than 250,000 displaced people (IDPs) in some 20 camps. The ICRC, together with its partners in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, has been distributing drinking water, food packs, personal hygiene kits, baby-care parcels, emergency household items and kitchen utensils to around 40,000 people in the biggest camp, Menik Farm, near Vavuniya. Furthermore, tents and plastic sheeting have been distributed to serve as temporary shelter for around 17,000 people.
Is it true that the ICRC currently has no access to the biggest camp, near Vavuniya?
Since last weekend, the authorities have restricted the entry of vehicles into Menik Farm, the biggest camp, which houses over 130,000 displaced people. The restrictions have led to a temporary standstill in the distribution of aid to the camp. The ICRC and other humanitarian aid agencies deplore this unacceptable situation, in particular because it is having a severe effect on the thousands of newly arrived displaced people who until very recently had to endure unimaginable hardship merely to survive in the conflict zone in the north-east. Together with the authorities, the ICRC and other aid agencies are trying to find a solution that will make it possible for distributions to resume as soon as possible.