The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004 killed more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka and demolished the homes of thousands more. Two years later, many tsunami survivors are still homeless, still dying, and still searching for safer ground. They are not fleeing the sudden onrush of a massive wave, but the armed conflict that has engulfed this island nation once again after more than four years of relative peace. Many survivors are victims yet again.
Longstanding government oppression of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority has been at the root of the current conflict. For two decades the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, have pursued a policy of combat and killings to achieve an independent Tamil state. A 2002 ceasefire agreement with the government halted fighting that had left some 65,000 Sri Lankans dead, but failed to stop continuing human rights abuses by both sides.
Major military operations resumed in July. While government forces have gotten the better of the fighting, neither side showed itself capable of a decisive victory. The renewed hostilities have highlighted one disturbing similarity between government forces and the LTTE: very little regard for the protection of the civilian population. In June the LTTE blew up a bus killing at least 64 civilians, including many children. In August the Sri Lankan air force bombed a building in rebel territory that killed as many as 51 young women and girls receiving civil defense training from the LTTE. The LTTE has long used children as soldiers; government forces are now complicit in abductions by an anti-LTTE armed group.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian catastrophe has been in the making on the northern Jaffna peninsula. Since intense fighting there this summer, shipments of food, medicine and fuel to the embattled population of 400,000 have been sporadic. The LTTE is threatening to attack Jaffna-bound cargo ships. The government is only making half-hearted efforts to open the main roadway, which goes through Tiger-controlled territory. While both sides dither, shortages of necessities have placed much of the population at risk.
Yet another humanitarian crisis is developing in the eastern coastal area of Vaharai. This LTTE-controlled area has been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Tamils, who were displaced by the fighting, the 2004 tsunami, or both. The government has made it difficult for relief agencies to reach this population, while the LTTE has tried to prevent families from moving to government areas where assistance is available.
Since November the Tigers in Vaharai and government forces have fought a long-range artillery duel. LTTE forces fire their heavy weapons from the vicinity of displaced persons camps, effectively using civilians as shields. The army responds with indiscriminate shelling, showing little concern for the civilians who happen to be in the way. On November 8, this dynamic resulted in the deaths of more than 40 civilians and injuries to about one hundred others who had sought refuge outside a school. Fearful of continued shelling, more than 20,000 have reportedly been on the move, walking days through jungle or risking their lives on overcrowded boats. Despite advance warnings, the government has been unable to care adequately for the flood of new arrivals.
The United States has joined with the European Union and other donor countries to call on both sides to respect the ceasefire and return to peace talks. But short of a real ceasefire, which does not appear to be in the offing, the situation is likely to get worse long before it gets better.
Donor countries and UN agencies must work together to press the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to quickly ease the humanitarian situation. That means opening up both sea and land routes to Jaffna, ensuring relief agencies freedom of access to at-risk populations, and permitting civilians freedom of movement. There also is an urgent need for an international human rights monitoring mission under UN auspices. Such monitors would by their presence help deter abuses, investigate rights violations that do occur, and create an environment at the local level that would allow for greater civilian protection.
The world responded to the 2004 tsunami with a massive outpouring of concern and assistance. While political disasters are invariably more complicated than natural ones, the needs of those affected are just as great. If only a little of that post-tsunami attention were directed at Sri Lanka now, a great many lives could be saved.