Half naked children run about while, nearby, flies feast on a garbage dump. The earth, normally baked by the sun, is muddy from sewage water and the stench is excruciating. In these government run welfare centres, the children, they stare with an innocent ignorance in their eyes. For most of them, this is the only home they know of. Internally displaced persons are one of the most devastating consequences of the ongoing conflict. Out of Vavuniya’s total population of 144601 (Situation Report, District Secretariat of Vavuniya, November 2001), 70792 are internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Welfare centres are the first places of refuge for persons displaced by the ongoing conflict, which has been going on for more than 20 years. According to UNHCR reports of July 2001, there are 15 welfare centres in Vavuniya that houses approximately 4706 families consisting of about 18884 persons.
Most IDPs in Vavuniya arrive from Jaffna and Mannar districts among other places in the north and east. In these centres, each family, of however many, is given a plot of 10’ x 10’. While, overcrowded and unhygienic conditions are the norm, most of these IDPs can’t complain. Although living under devastating conditions, these welfare centres do offer the opportunity to live devoid of war.
Tharanikulam relocation site
While, some IDPs in Vavuniya have been relocated to their places of origin in the Mannar and Jaffna districts, others have been relocated within the cleared (government controlled) areas of Vavuniya. In order to ease conditions in the welfare centres, the government initiated a crash programme earlier this year for relocating families. Three sites were chosen for the programme: Tharanikulam, Sundarapuram and Maravankulam.
In Tharanikulam and Maravankulam, each family has been provided with ¼ or ½ acre of land with a house of 16’ x 12’ made of cement with heatproof tin sheets and a latrine. The government has also provided some of the most basic infrastructure facilities such as roads, wells and electricity.
Many local and international NGOs are also working to provide better facilities to IDPs in welfare centres and relocation sites. UNHCR, through its various partner organisations, has complemented the government’s efforts at the three sites by providing other necessities such as water facilities, school and educational facilities for children and income generation activities. Save the Children Norway too has implemented a children’s feeding programme at Poonthoddam welfare centre and is working in Sundarapuram relocation site as well.
Tharanikulam resettlement site
Earlier this month, Minister of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees Jayalath Jayawardane, speaking to a group of international local NGOs operating in the north and east, said that the ministry is in the process of planning a survey to collect accurate data on IDPs in Sri Lanka. He expressed that the survey will greatly help the ministry in attending to the needs of the IDPs.
Despite estimations of the number of IDPs, the exact number of IDPs in Sri Lanka still remains unknown largely due to the inability of collecting data in the un-cleared (LTTE controlled) areas. Now that the government and the LTTE are undergoing unilateral ceasefires and a permanent ceasefire is on the agenda, this problem may be overcome. As of June 2001, both UNHCR and CARE, two organisations that work in the un-cleared areas, estimated the total number of IDPs to be approximately 800,000.
Although not obvious by their appearance now, most of the IDPs have come from “much better” living standards and yearn to return to their homes. With the new peace initiatives, Sri Lanka’s IDPs are sure to be among the first to be optimistic and hopeful.
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