Communal clashes and ethnic tension between Tamils and Muslims have been disrupting humanitarian work in the eastern Batticaloa District of Sri Lanka since 22 May, UN and other relief workers said.
Two Tamils and five Muslims have been killed. Relief officials told IRIN they were reluctant to send staff into the field for fear of getting caught up in the violence.
"I have been unable to travel out since 22 May," Rev Sylvester Sritharan, head of the Eastern Human Economic Development Centre, affiliated to the Catholic charity Caritas, told IRIN.
"No one wants to take the chance of getting on the road and being unable to turn back," he said. "We can't send out field staff, contractors, labourers, no one, we can't take that chance."
Humanitarian agencies are assisting 18,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the district and 124,000 former IDPs who have been resettled in their former villages since mid-2007, Thandie Mwape, head of the Batticaloa field office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN.
"They [relief organisations] have been engaged in relief work as well as helping the newly returned regain a sense of normalcy," she said.
|No one wants to take the chance of getting on the road and being unable to turn back. We can't send out field staff, contractors, labourers, no one, we can't take that chance.|
Relief and recovery efforts were disrupted for a week in late May, the Inter Agency Standing Committee (ISAC) reported in its 30 May situation update.
"Humanitarian operations were disrupted in the district between 22 and 28 May as a result of the clashes," the report said. "As the southern route [from Batticaloa] through Kathankudi and the northern route through Eravur remained flash points during the week, with curfews imposed at times, most agencies limited their movements."
“A week of tension”
A local Tamil working with an international agency was attacked by a mob on 26 May in Eravur town north of Batticaloa City, which is 300km east of the capital, Colombo, heightening agencies' reluctance to send their staff into the field, Sritharan told IRIN.
"It was a week of tension and agencies restricted movement," Mwape said. "Public life was also at a standstill with no transport and government and private offices closed."
Clashes were triggered by the 22 May killing of two members of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), the prominent Tamil political party in the district, in Kathankudi, a Muslim majority town south of Batticaloa City.
"There is a history of tension between the two communities and the killings of the TMVP members added to it," according to Mujeeb Rahaman, information officer of the Colombo-based Muslim Information Centre (MIC) rights group.
Two Muslims were killed on the same day in Kathankudi and another Muslim woman died during mob violence in Eravur on 26 May, according to police.
Photo: UN OCHA
|A map of Batticaloa District in eastern Sri Lanka|
At least 300 Tamil families from Ariyampathi, a village near Eravur, sought shelter in schools and churches between 27 and 29 May, fearing reprisals, Sritharan said.
The situation was finally brought under control with the direct intervention of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the head of the TMVP and chief minister of the new Eastern Provincial Council.
Despite Chandrakanthan's intervention, tensions rose again on 1 June after the body of a Muslim was recovered in Kathankudi.
On the morning of 2 June, residents of Eravur and Kathankudi remained indoors and public transport was limited, Sritharan told IRIN. Muslims in the two towns had also called for a general work shutdown to protest against the latest murder.
"Under conditions like this how can we take a chance to go out?" he asked.
"People are still scared and nervous, and rightly so," MIC's Rahaman told IRIN. "The killings have not stopped, that is where the fear is."
UN officials in Batticaloa said that if the high-level discussions between the two communities continued, calm could be restored in Batticaloa.
"We hope that the dialogue continues," OCHA's Mwape said. "It will help to bring down the tension and restore trust between the communities, and hopefully enable us to get on with our relief and reconstruction activities."