In Sri Lanka, aid agencies say there are currently an estimated 300,000 civilians enclosed in a space of about 250 square kilometres. The area is controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and has now been encircled by the army. For weeks, there has been heavy fighting between the two sides. The government says that the rebels, who have been fighting for an independent Tamil state for 25 years, are close to defeat. The International Red Cross has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe. Civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict, especially women and children.
Children and their mothers are the innocent victims of the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka
For months now, civilians in northern Sri Lanka have been on the run. But now there is nowhere for them to go. The conflict zone, which is small, has been surrounded by soldiers. Foreign aid organisations have put their work on hold.
Only the Red Cross still has access to the region. It has been evacuating the weak and wounded via a sea route and providing emergency supplies. Women and children need the most support, says Frederik Barkenhammar from the German Red Cross.
“We are giving out aid packages that cater to women’s needs, with nappies, towels, soap and the like. As well as medicine and protein-rich food for undernourished children. It’s very easy for a child to not have enough to eat and to not get the enough protein and become undernourished,” said Barkenhammar.
Civilians are dying in artillery fire and air raids on a daily basis -- an estimated 2,000 people are thought to have died in the last weeks alone, including many women and children.
“Tamil Tigers are not aliens”
Vishaka Dharmadasa from the Association of War-Affected Women in Sri Lanka, says many women are traumatised, fearing for their lives and those of their children. It is often hard for them to leave because they do not want to leave their husbands or sons behind.
“The LTTE is not some alien from another planet. They are the sons and daughters of these very people. So even if they are told to go, it is a matter of a person deciding whether: ‘I am dying with my child or I am leaving it alone’.”
Dharmadasa, who is Singhalese herself, lost her son to the conflict. He never came back from the front. 10 years ago, she founded the Association of War-Affected Women to bring both sides, whose pain is equal she insists, together.
She has campaigned for a peaceful solution ever since and always tries to represent the interests of women in her negotiations.
The fight for a just cause cannot be won through arms
Dharmadasa understands why the Tamils want autonomy but she rejects the use of terror by the LTTE: “We know that there was a just cause behind their movement. The way that they used to meet their ends were wrong, we don’t agree with that at all.”
Now that the LTTE has been overpowered by the army, she has called on them to surrender: “We want to remind the LTTE about Nelson Mandela. We want to remind them that you can be behind bars but for a rightful cause that you fought, that can be won, even from behind bars. So it is a matter of laying down arms and stopping the bloodshed.”
Dharmadasa says the conflict cannot be resolved by military means alone. A peaceful solution will only be found if the government agrees to comprehensive talks about the status of Tamils in Sri Lanka, as well as about the demobilisation of the Tamil Tigers and their reintegration. She also says that the voices of women have to be listened to if there is to be peace.