Forgotten victims of war in Sri Lanka
With no end to Sri Lanka's 15-year long civil war in prospect, the plight of the nation's one million internal refugees is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe.
Fleeing from the ferocious battles along the road that leads to the northern city of Jaffna, hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils are living in improvised shelters without electricity, running water or sanitation, dependent on rations dispatched from the South.
The Colombo government disputes the claimed size of the population of Vanni, the northern region, and only sends rations for half that number. The result, according to a Christian Aid worker who recently returned to Colombo, is malnutrition on a scale unprecedented in Sri Lanka's history.
A recent survey of 16,000 children, found that only a quarter were properly nourished. More than a third were suffering from third-degree malnutrition, the level beyond which children exhibit distended stomachs and skinny frames. Anecdotal evidence suggests that small numbers of people have already died of starvation.
Malnutrition exacerbates the region's health crisis. Much of Vanni is dense jungle, and where the refugees have cut down trees to make shelters, malaria is now raging out of control. In the Mullaitivu district on the north-east coast, nearly 340,000 people were treated for clinical malaria in 1997, amounting to half of all outpatients seen. The Christian Aid worker said: "Every other person one meets in Vanni has contracted malaria at least twice. It is normal to meet people who have had malaria seven to nine times since they were displaced to Vanni."
The epidemic results in a breakdown of resistance to other diseases long banished from Sri Lanka, such as tuberculosis and typhoid, which have again become common.
This crisis is made worse by the government's embargo on medicines. Along with the rationing of food and other goods, the government has, since 1995, imposed tight controls on the shipping of medicines to the North. Even such basic medicines as aspirin and antibiotics are in short supply.
If images of northern Sri Lanka's internal refugee crisis were to reach the outside world, there would be an international outcry. But since the resumption of hostilities in April 1995, the government has enforced a strict blackout of independent coverage of the war.
Talking to people recently returned from the region, it becomes clear why. It is because the Government's writ runs no further than the areas which it has under direct military control. The far northern town of Kilinochchi, for example, which has been fiercely contested this week with up to 300 deaths on both sides, was formerly home to some 50,000 Tamils. When the battle for the town began in 1996, the entire population fled into the countryside.
This is in a sense a black-and-white struggle: where the government digs in, the population - 100 per cent Tamil - flees. The only exception is Jaffna, where half the 450,000 population has returned since the government retook the city in November 1995.
The government's plan to rebuild the historic Tamil Library there has begun the work of creating trust, as have the local elections held last month. But elsewhere the task of persuading the North's Tamils that they belong not to Eelam but to Lanka, has yet to begin.
- 1 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 2 Replica Back to the Future Hoverboard released
- 3 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
- 5 Modern society encapsulated in five seconds
Costa Concordia: Shipment of Mob drugs was hidden aboard cruise liner when it hit rocks off Italian coast, investigators say
Germanwings crash: Captain of doomed plane was only 'on board because he changed job to spend more time with his children'
Iran nuclear talks: Prospect of deal with Iran pushes Saudi Arabia and Israel into an unlikely alliance
A new (old) cure for MRSA? Revolting recipe from the Dark Ages may be key to defeat infection
Jeremy Clarkson 'could be given minder' ahead of a potential Top Gear return
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
£30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...
£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...
£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...
£45,000 - £55,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified accountant...