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Sri Lanka Refugee Crisis: Emergency Aid Worker Reports from the Field

  • June 18, 2009

After 25 years of civil war in Sri Lanka between the government and Tamil rebels, peace is slowly being restored. But for families still living in refugee camps, the war is far from over.

An AmeriCares relief worker reports from the field where he has been helping displaced families in Sri Lanka. 

Refugees in Sri Lanka have no place to go except crowded camps like Manik Farm, which provides shelter for nearly 200,000 people. Fields that once grew their food are now riddled with landmines. Villages that were once their homes are now burnt rubble. They must rely on humanitarian aid for their basic needs.

Shortly after the end of the war, I left Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo for a series of aid deliveries throughout the affected areas. My co-workers and I worked hard preparing relief supplies for thousands of families who fled violence during the final months of the war. The families have gone weeks with little food, medicine and shelter. They’ve witnessed unimaginable suffering. To help them, we brought medical aid and relief supplies to camps, hospitals and health clinics in and around the former conflict zone.

Our first stop was Padaviya Hospital, which has treated thousands of patients from the former war zone. While we were there, we saw nearly 180 wounded people waiting for treatment. The hospital’s situation has improved since the end of the war and our donations were greatly appreciated. AmeriCares donations included equipment to transport patients, monitor blood pressure, administer IV medicines and help surgeons perform operations.

It was difficult to see so many people injured in the fighting. Some had open wounds; others had arms or legs amputated. Thankfully, AmeriCares will soon open a workshop in Sri Lanka to make prosthetics for people who have lost limbs in the war or horrible accidents.

Our next visit will stay with me for a long time. We were overjoyed to make a delivery of shoes to three adorable children who were representing a group receiving the donation. Thousands of barefoot children made the long trip from their villages to the refugee camps so we knew the shoes would make a difference. They were so sweet and gracious despite all they had been through. We were heartbroken to learn that one of the children’s parents had later died in the hospital.

Next, we gathered more supplies and carried on to camps that have become home to the displaced families. At Manik Farm and other camps, there were people everywhere – huddling under sparse trees for shade, sweating in the heat of the midday sun. It was overwhelming.

Thousands of children have been orphaned. Conditions in the camps are harsh and they don’t have their moms and dads to comfort and care for them. Others are sick or injured from their harsh journey. Many of these little children ran for their lives as their villages were under attack.

Adults, mainly women and the elderly, were frightened and bewildered, yet grateful to have escaped to the relative safety of the camps. Thousands mourn family members who were killed in the war zone; their grief deepened as many had to flee before giving their loved ones a proper burial. While we traveled, our Sri Lanka office organized clothing, food and toy drives for children at the Vavuniya Hospital in the former conflict zone. People wanted to help and made donations around the clock.

When we returned to Colombo, we found the hospital swarming with patients. Their maximum capacity is 400 patients, but there were over 2,000 the day we visited. Patients waited without food and barely more than the clothes on their backs.  They looked shell-shocked; many suffered injuries from the bombings. Their eyes were vacant. Luckily, through our donations, 500 families in the children’s unit received much-needed supplies. The hospital also received additional medicines and supplies for the sick and wounded.

Further into the affected zone, the stories we heard from patients at the health clinics were heartbreaking. A poor widow lay listless in the dirt waiting for help; suffering from fever and malnutrition. Her small, frightened children surrounded her. We were quickly able to negotiate transport for her to the local hospital for urgent care. At that moment, it re-affirmed what AmeriCares is all about – helping vulnerable people in their dire time of need.

Exhausted from our travels, but energized from helping people in desperate need, we returned to the capital to continue meeting with the Sri Lanka Ministry of Health (MOH). They are working very hard to coordinate care for the people in the camps. Despite the many challenges they face, the MOH is doing the best they can with the resources they have. Their biggest concerns are controlling the spread of disease, treating the injured, and addressing the lack of medicines, medical staff, equipment and supplies in the hospitals and clinics. Hospitals are stretched thin; more medicines and medical equipment are also needed.

We are hopeful, but desperately need more help to ease the suffering.

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