Over the last few weeks, renewed violence between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) has forced thousands of families to flee their homes and villages. Estimates place the number of displaced persons close to 60,000. Many of these families are tsunami survivors that Mercy Corps has been helping over the last year and a half.
Mercy Corps' emergency teams have been delivering relief items, including food and water, to families displaced by this recent crisis. Our field staff has also delivered essential relief items such as hygiene supplies, tarpaulins, mosquito nets, mattresses, camp stoves and milk powder for infants. The agency is committed to serving the short- and long-term needs of vulnerable Sri Lankan children and families.
Mercy Corps Sri Lanka Country Director Josh DeWald recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions about the agency's recent work in crisis-torn areas of the island nation.
What is the general mood in the areas where displaced families are concentrated?
Josh DeWald: On one hand, it's encouraging to see that displaced people have maintained a strong sense of community, even in the temporary camps where they have now concentrated. This helps to keep alive a spirit of optimism, which in many ways is as important as any assistance that organizations like Mercy Corps can provide.
However, there is also definitely a sense of uncertainty and fear among the displaced; many anticipate that it will be months before they can even think about returning home, and many are still shaken by the violence that caused them to flee their homes. In some sites, there is also a sense of frustration among displaced people that aid efforts have not addressed the full range of needs that exist.
What are the biggest needs now?
Needs shift almost daily. In most sites, basic food, water and critical household items have now been provided, but these relief supplies need to be maintained. There are also some sites, particularly those that are less accessible due to insecurity, where these needs have not been met.
Current urgent needs include food items (such as fresh vegetables) to supplement staple commodities; water and sanitation as camps become overcrowded; and temporary shelter as displaced people settle down for a prolonged stay.
What has Mercy Corps been doing in the affected areas to promote civil society and peaceful change?
Mercy Corps' work in the Trincomalee District, which is now heavily affected by conflict and the focus of our relief efforts, originally focused on tsunami response and later changed to recovery and development for both tsunami and conflict-affected communities. Our recovery and development work in these communities helped families, businesses and community groups to re-initiate or improve economic activities; rehabilitate infrastructure; and drive community development.
In particular, our community work uses a conflict-sensitive approach that aims to reduce tensions while addressing practical community needs. Our approach also emphasizes partnerships with local non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations and local government.
Unfortunately, since early 2006, these program efforts have been delayed and hampered by consistent insecurity, although they continue in other parts of the country that are not as heavily affected by the conflict. In the current security environment, the future of our recovery and development projects in the Trincomalee District is uncertain.
This is the case not only for Mercy Corps, but also for other local and international agencies involved in important recovery and development activities. It's a sad example of what happens to the longer term hopes and efforts of families and communities caught up in the midst of conflict.
What are the biggest anticipated needs?
This depends largely on how the situation develops. However, it's likely that future needs will include psychosocial and educational support for displaced children and also support for rebuilding houses and re-establishing livelihoods. The local Sri Lankan organizations that are so integral to these types of activities will also need to be supported.