Summer 2009: Sri Lanka - Working to bring aid amid overwhelming need

Dear Friends,

This edition of Alert comes to you in the aftermath of major violence and upheaval for civilians in northern Sri Lanka. Many were killed and injured during the first months of this year in a war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan army.

A narrow strip of jungle and beach in the northeastern Vanni area was transformed into a devastating conflict zone where hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped under heavy fire. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other aid agencies had been forced to leave the Vanni in September 2008 by Sri Lankan authorities. That left people with little or no access to medical care.

Many of those who escaped and needed urgent treatment reached the region’s main hospital in the Vavuniya district, 50 miles south of the conflict zone, with injuries caused by bullets, landmines, and other explosives. MSF teams worked around the clock alongside Ministry of Health medical staff to save as many lives as they could. In May, the 450-bed Vavuniya hospital saw its patient load rise to 1,900 patients.

In recent years, we have witnessed a worrying trend of gross disregard for the protection of civilians during armed conflicts, and a lack of access for humanitarian organizations to provide lifesaving assistance. You will find more details about the challenges of delivering impartial and independent assistance in Sri Lanka in this issue of Alert. You will also find an article about MSF’s activities more than 20 years ago in Afghanistan, another war zone where civilians were trapped with little access to humanitarian assistance. The Photographer is a critically acclaimed graphic novel about photographer Didier Lefèvre’s time with MSF’s medical teams in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. A primary figure in his story is Dr. Juliette Fournot, a founding board member of MSF-USA. We invite you to take this opportunity to learn about Lefèvre, who sadly passed away in 2007, and about the courageous MSF medical teams who crossed the mountains of eastern Afghanistan to bring urgent medical assistance to civilians injured in the Soviet bombings.

While it is frustrating that in many ways things have not changed for so many people, we know that our presence, our medical action, and our commitment—all possible due to your support—have offered millions of people a lifeline, and very often a reason for hope.


Sophie Delaunay
Executive Director,
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)