Sri Lankans wearied by tsunami, war

Many displaced people got their first look last week at homes destroyed by renewed fighting.

Jamaldeen Waleed, a Sri Lankan fisherman, has lost his home for the second time. In 2004, the tsunami washed away his seaside house in Sampur. Though the tools of his trade – his boat and nets – were taken by the waves, he managed to rebuild his life again in the nearby town of Muttur.

Then came the resumption of fighting between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government forces. Most residents of Muttur returned to their destroyed community last week where close to 250 homes were badly damaged – including Mr. Waleed's.

"This conflict is far harder to bear than the tsunami," he says, remembering his perilous two days' trek with his family to the refugee camp in Kanthale after the Army moved into Muttur in early August.

More than 217,000 people have fled to refugee camps in Sri Lanka and another 13,000 have escaped to India since fighting resumed in April, despite a 2002 cease-fire. The shelling, aerial bombing, and retaliatory attacks are a setback – both material and psychological – for a people still trying to recover from decades of civil war and the devastating 2004 tsunami.

The UN refugee agency, as part of a joint UN humanitarian action plan for Sri Lanka, is appealing for more than $5 million to help provide shelter, emergency supplies, and reconstruction.

"To swiftly and successfully meet the needs of people uprooted from their homes by recent fighting, it is vitally important that we have the necessary funds," said Amin Awad, UNHCR's representative in Sri Lanka.

"As the situation protracts and shelter and other needs increase, we need the help of donors more than ever. This is why so much hinges on this appeal," he added. Access has been difficult in parts of the country, hampering the work of humanitarian agencies, aid workers say.

In relief camps in Kanthale, agencies are helping with shelter needs and distributing essentials such as kitchen utensils, towels, bed linens, jerry cans, tarpaulins, mats, and soap. But residents in the camps complain of food shortages.

A tangle of garbage-choked lanes meander through an endless sprawl of tents. Even in tents covered by tarpaulin, incessant rain in the past few weeks gathers into fetid pools. Flies besiege the place. Many like Deena Uma, a widow from Thoppur with three young daughters, worry about the drunken men in the camp.

"I desperately want to return home," she says. "We don't feel safe here."

As fighting appears to abate for the moment, many are returning home – especially since Sampur, a key strategic town overlooking Trincomalee, slipped from Tiger control last week.

The government is actively encouraging displaced people to return, and is arranging for their transportation. A rickety government-run bus loaded with anxious residents entered the town of Thoppur last week, the first sign of civilian life here in many weeks. For over a month, as northeast Sri Lanka writhed in the grip of clashes between rebel and government forces, soldiers occupying houses or hiding behind sandbag bunkers were the only sign of life in this deserted town.

After spending 36 days in a refugee camp in Kanthale, Abdul Wahid, a local mason, returned to find devastation where his house once stood.

"Everything is lost," he says. "I had taken a loan to build this house. It fell in a day. It'll take me years to rebuild."

As the government continues to ply buses to areas around Muttur – more than 40 bus loads left by the last weekend – aid workers, including those from the UN, don't think that's a prudent move. The rumble of fire exchanges still reverberates in Trincomalee.

"With isolated incidents of killings still happening, we're not absolutely confident the situation is completely calm yet," says an aid worker from a leading nongovernmental organization.

In one squalid quarters named Peace Camp, residents and aid workers say that the water supply was abruptly cut. It's a method, complained an aid worker, to pressure people to return home. Sri Lanka's minister of disaster relief services, Ameer Ali Shihabdeen, insists that if any displaced people fear going home, the government wouldn't force them. The minister admitted, though, that Kanthale was feeling the burden of the added people. Many schools have been shut since August, to house the displaced, he says.

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