January 29, 2009

Nearly 250,000 people remain trapped under heavy bombardment

Yesterday, 226 sick and wounded civilians, 51 of them children, were evacuated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN from the Vanni district of Sri Lanka's Northern Province after being wounded during fighting between government forces and rebel group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Delays at a government checkpoint in the town of Omanthai, in Vavuniya district, meant that patients were arriving throughout the night and into the early morning at Vavuniya Hospital, where Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing support. Some of the patients were wounded during the recent fighting while others were suffering from festering wounds up to two or three weeks old.

During the fighting, many patients lost limbs due to shrapnel and shells. “I saw one man with a missing leg and a missing arm, a young boy with two missing arms, and countless others. Most have been wounded by shrapnel. One young boy stated that all of his siblings were killed from a shell,” MSF deputy head of mission Lisabeth List said from Vavuniya Hospital.

MSF is providing medical and logistical support, and will deploy a surgeon at the request of the hospital. MSF also provides mental health counselling for patients traumatized by the fighting. People are in shock, and extremely worried about the relatives they had to leave behind. Most people lost everything but the clothes on their backs as they fled to safety.

Nearly 250,000 people remain trapped under heavy fire in an increasingly small area in northern Sri Lanka. MSF has received information that nearly 600 civilians have been treated in small hospitals inside the LTTE-controlled area for conflict-related injuries since the beginning of January. Hospitals are overburdened and in need of medical supplies and medical staff. If needed, MSF will deploy mobile medical clinics to provide assistance in the conflict area of the Vanni, or outside it if civilians are able to move to safety.

Reports suggest that in Puthukkudiyiruppu, on the northern coast of the Vanni, there are still between 300 and 400 wounded patients in a hospital needing urgent transport to Vavuniya, and that people are still seeking safety on the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital grounds.

Humanitarian assistance in the Vanni has been extremely restricted since the government forced all NGOs and UN agencies to leave in September 2008. Though the UN has been permitted to send food into the area, the amount has not been adequate for the needs of the population. “We supported a severely malnourished child whose father is dead, the mother very thin, he has two other siblings, and the grandmother had an amputated arm. They all arrived in the hospital together. We expect that there will be more severely malnourished children to arrive eventually. We hope to do a nutrition screening of all of the children in the hospital and admit malnourished children into the feeding program,” List said.

MSF provides mental health support in the Vavuniya area and has been working for some time in Vavuniya Hospital, providing laboratory support. Until March 2008, MSF had a surgical team in the hospital. MSF also runs ambulatory feeding programs for malnourished children in the Vavuniya area. MSF is also working in the Point Pedro hospital in Jaffna Peninsula, at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, with medical and surgical activities, obstetric and gynecological treatment and training of hospital staff.

Read more about MSF's mental health assistance in Vavuniya

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