Civilians pay for civil war in shortages

Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebel leaders are gearing up for a massive face-off along the line of control in the north of the island. The rhetoric has already been replaced by mounting body counts — in the last three weeks of July, more than 50 combatants died along the forward defences that separate areas held by the two sides in the north. As has been the case in the island nation’s over two decades of bloodshed, a helpless civilian population is once again caught in the middle of the fighting with nowhere to go.

At least five northern districts with a combined population over one million face supply shortages and rising prices due to the fighting, as well as new security measures. Relief agencies and civilian authorities in the districts of Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya have warned that any further escalation of violence would translate to adding more pressure on an already precarious humanitarian situation.

“The brutality of the conflict is appalling and major violations of international humanitarian law are perpetrated in a climate of impunity. Thousands of civilians are caught up in the conflict, with barely any chance of escape from the violence and massacres,” Louis Michel,

Commissioner of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), said soon after the commission released $21 million to ease the humanitarian crisis situation.

Of that amount, four million is set aside for food aid. Even before the current crisis arose, since last August almost 3,500 people have been killed in resurgent violence and 300,000 forced out of their homes, according to the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs. The irony is that the fighting has taken place during the longest ceasefire in the country’s history.

The Jaffna Peninsula, the cultural and the political nerve centre of the country’s minority Tamils, was cut off from the rest of the island a year ago when the only land link, the A9 highway, was closed by the government after the Tigers attacked forward positions last August. Though the supply situation was eased soon after the closure, food and fuel prices are higher than normal. Supplies are now moved on government chartered ships and the few UN charter flights.

When security forces discovered several cargo trucks laden with explosives trying to reach the southern areas from the northeast recently, the government initiated strict security measures. Now no trucks based in the northern Mannar, Kilinoc-hchi, Mullaithivu and Vavuniya can travel to the south. Instead they have to pick up goods at the central town of Madavachchiya where everything is unloaded, checked and reloaded at a newly created security point. The Peace Secretariat said that it was looking at the option of installing a scanner at the new checkpoint to streamline and expedite vehicle inspections. The suggestion is indicative that the stringent security would remain in place until fighting and attacks in the south de-escalate.

Instead of rapprochement, both sides have adopted a tone of “bring it on”. Military spokesperson Brig Prasad Samarasinghe last week said that the military had no option but to crush the Tigers if attacks continue. His counterpart with the Tigers, Rasiah Illanthariyan, matched the wordplay: “We are ready, let them come.” — IPS