Civilians Blocked From Leaving Embattled Sri Lankan City

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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Amsterdam/New York, November 11, 1999 — The emergency medical organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has learned that the Sri Lankan army is preventing civilians from leaving the northern city of Vavuniya, which is expected to come under military attack from the Tamil Tigers. Those denied departure include 300 families (about 1,700 persons) in a displaced persons center, whose travel documents are only good for Vavuniya. MSF has also had difficulties securing the departure of 45 patients in the Vavuniya hospital who do not have documentation.

"Preventing the departure of civilians from a combat zone, in effect using them as part of a military defense, is a clear and very serious violation of international humanitarian law. The Sri Lankan army must immediately allow these people to leave," says Operational Director Marcel van Soest. It is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the civilian population has already left Vavuniya in anticipation of the fighting.

MSF strongly urges the Sri Lankan army to allow all civilians, whether holding the proper documentation or not, to leave areas where they might be at risk from combat and to travel to areas where they would be safe. MSF reiterates its concern to all parties to the conflict that they abide by international humanitarian law, particularly those provisions affecting the well-being of the civilian population.

MSF teams in Mallavi and Puthukkuydiyiruppu are still isolated from the south of the country, but they can still accomplish some work. It is unclear how long the teams can continue with their existing supplies. Last week the organization called on all parties to guarantee front-line passage for relief goods and access for other humanitarian agencies.

MSF has been working in Sri Lanka since 1986. MSF has a program in the Mallavi hospital (surgery, pediatrics, gynecology, and lab research) and a malaria program in Puthukkuydiyiruppu. Additional teams operate in Batticaloa (surgery, mobile clinics, and rehabilitation of the hospital), Vavuniya/Murunkan (Murunkan hospital and mobile clinics), and Jaffna Teaching Hospital (pediatrics, maternity, and hygiene education). There are a total of 31 MSF international volunteers in Sri Lanka.

MSF is the world's largest independent international medical relief agency aiding victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters, and others who lack health care due to geographic remoteness or ethnic marginalization in more than 80 countries.