Sri Lanka
Misery, epidemic go hand in hand in troubled Sri Lanka
Jan 9, 2007 - 8:42:39 AM

New Delhi, Jan 9 - A widow at 20, she trekked through forests nine-month pregnant, gave birth to a daughter in a refugee shelter and almost got drowned with her baby. There is no end to misery in Sri Lanka's blood-soaked northeast, now enveloped by an epidemic that Tamils are calling a second tsunami.

One of the thousands of Tamils displaced by unending fighting between the government forces and Tamil Tigers, Jayanthi epitomizes the enormous suffering the vast majority of civilians are undergoing, more so in the island's east, caught up in a war they never asked for.

According to aid workers and activists who spoke to IANS over telephone from Sri Lanka, Jayanthi lost her husband when an artillery shell fired by the military fell close to her house in Sampur. Devastated and pregnant, she stayed in a camp for a while before trekking with relatives to the Tigers-held Vaharai in August.

She gave birth to daughter Kirthiha that month at a school in Kathiravelli, close to the river Verugal. Both miraculously survived a later military bombing of the school that killed dozens. Jayanthi suffered minor injuries.

On Dec 12 midnight, she took a boat to go from Vaharai to Valaichenai. But the vessel capsized. Luckily, Jayanthi rescued her baby, lifted it high above her head and waded through neck deep water for over five kilometres before reaching a government exit point from where she reached the eastern town of Batticaloa.

If the military is chiefly to blame for what happened to Jayanthi, who still worries for her parents she has left behind, Tamil boy Kumar, 15, also a refugee in Batticaloa, has a grudge both against the government and the Tamil Tigers.

Kumar lost his eldest brother and seven other members of his extended family also in the military bombing of Sampur. Kumar and his second elder brother Mohan and their injured sister later went to Vaharai, controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -.

Mohan, a talented youngster who aimed to become an engineer, was to sit for his Class 10 examination. According to Kumar, Mohan sought LTTE's permission to take the test in Batticaloa. The LTTE did not let him go. As ill luck would have it, he died in the Kathiravelli school bombing.

A rights activist working among the refugees quoted Kumar as saying: 'Mohan would not have died if he had been allowed him to go. Since April 25, I have lived in 12 refugee camps. I have walked miles and miles through thick jungles for days to reach this camp. Most importantly, I have missed nine months of school.'

Said another aid worker, speaking from Batticaloa: 'Every individual has a tragic story to say. Many are still searching for their missing family members. One refugee camp has 29 pregnant ladies but no medical care.'

The Tamil refugee crisis, activists say, is only getting worse. Thousands have been forced out of the multi-ethnic Trincomalee district. Some are being asked to live in tents at a cemetery at Sathurukondan, north of Batticaloa town. The authorities claim the cemetery is not used any more.

If all this wasn't enough, an epidemic of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne viral disease that causes high fever, weakens bones and in extreme cases can kill, has broken out all over Sri Lanka's northeast - and elsewhere in the country.

Aid workers and NGOs say the disease, which came from India, was first noticed in October 2006 in the northwestern district of Mannar and quickly spread all over the sprawling region that is at the heart of the Tamil separatist conflict.

In the Tamil majority district of Batticaloa, a vast majority of the 580,000 people and the thousands of refugees are affected. 'The Tamils are calling it a second tsunami,' said a resident, comparing it with the disaster that killed hundreds of thousands in Indian Ocean countries in 2004.

The main 700-bed hospital in Batticaloa is overflowing with over 900 patients, with many forced to lie on the floor. Even the staff has been hit hard. Another hospital at Aryampathy, south of Batticaloa town, is also facing a crisis.

Mobile medical teams are on the job, doing what best they can. But a key problem is the high cost of medicines the refugees cannot afford.

Worse, Tamil refugees are also beginning to suffer from diarrhea. This, aid workers say, is mainly because of the half-cooked rice served to them along with staple vegetables like pumpkin, pulses and occasional Soya meat.

The UNHCR, local NGOs and the World Food Program -, whose aid is channeled through the government, are the ones mainly working among the refugees.

'But this is woefully inadequate,' lamented one activist. 'Some Tamil children have turned beggars in Batticaloa. How long can this go on? There is real danger of someone or the other turning them into child soldiers. But who is bothered?'

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