Sri Lanka: Children paying a heavy price in conflict

Children are being killed, witnessing their family and parents killed, being separated, and suffering injuries including burns, fractures, shrapnel and bullet wounds.
Children caught in the intensified conflict in the north of the country are paying a severe price in death and injury and being traumatised, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have warned.
“The Secretary-General is extremely concerned over the deteriorating situation for civilians trapped in northern Sri Lanka,” Ban’s office said in a statement released on 5 March. “He strongly deplores the mounting death toll of civilians in the area of fighting, including a significant number of children.”

“Children are being killed, witnessing their family and parents killed, being separated, and suffering injuries including burns, fractures, shrapnel and bullet wounds,” UNICEF said in the Humanitarian Update for Sri Lanka, released on 4 March.

The agency said the lack of food, clean water and health facilities had affected overall nutritional levels in the displaced community.

“There is a dire lack of clean water, food, proper sanitation and medicine. In turn this has further worsened the nutritional status of affected populations, with malnutrition rates in the north higher than the national average,” the report stated.

Heavy fighting since mid-2008 between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the northern Vanni area, which includes Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu districts and parts of Mannar and Vavuniya districts, about 300km from the capital Colombo, has forced tens of thousands to flee. More than 36,000 have escaped the fighting into government-controlled areas since January.

However, UNICEF estimated between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians to be caught in the rapidly shrinking area of fighting. The Defence Ministry said the LTTE had been pushed into a narrow area of about 55 sqkm by 3 March.

Underage recruitment

UNICEF raised concerns about LTTE recruitment of underage children: “Recruitment of children by armed groups continues to be reported and is assumed to have increased over the past months in the north.”

The statement by the UN Secretary-General’s office urged the LTTE to stop child recruitment and remove armed cadres from areas of large civilian concentrations.

“The Secretary-General calls on the LTTE to remove its weapons and fighters from areas of civilian concentration, to cooperate in all humanitarian efforts calculated to relieve the suffering of civilians, and to immediately cease recruitment of children.”

Education disrupted

Tens of thousands of children have been unable to attend school as they have been forced to flee on multiple occasions as fighting advanced, UNICEF stated.

“The conflict has further left more than 60,000 children of primary school age out of the education system. Many of the children have been displaced up to 12 times over the past year and have been living in bunkers and trenches for weeks on end.”

In addition to disruptions in the Vanni, the education of 16,000 school children in the northern town of Vavuniya has been disrupted due to schools functioning as transit centres for the displaced.

There are 16 transit centres in Vavuniya. The government said it was constructing four model villages for the IDPs with education, health and other public amenities although no date has been given for the IDPs to move.

Ban called on both parties to allow civilians to move safely out of the combat areas. “The Secretary-General renews his call to the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to suspend hostilities for the purposes of allowing civilians to leave the conflict zone, and allowing immediate humanitarian access to them,” the statement said.

The government and UN agencies have accused the LTTE of forcibly stopping civilians from leaving the areas of fighting.

06 March 2009

Source: IRIN