"They just kept coming. It was like a flood. They were camping all over the place, by the side of roads, in schools, even in an unused cinema," Azar, who works with the aid group Muslim Aid, told IRIN.
Most of the internally displaced people (IDPs) have now left Kantale and returned to their homes. Nonetheless, a similar scenario has played out repeatedly in northern and eastern Sri Lanka over the past 18 months with tens of thousands of IDPs fleeing the fighting. Government and humanitarian agencies have had their hands full trying to grapple with this complex, fast-evolving situation.
In some ways, the conflict has diverted attention and resources from what not so long ago was the country's biggest challenge - trying to rebuild after the December 2004 tsunami. More than 100,000 houses, according to the Joint Report of the Government of Sri Lanka and Development Partners of December 2005, had been destroyed by the waves that hit 13 of the country's 25 districts, initially displacing some one million tsunami survivors. The greatest damage - over 60 per cent, according to the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), the main government body overseeing reconstruction - was in the north and the east.
The conflict started to escalate in December 2005 when attacks against government troops increased, and in January 2006 when five youths were murdered in the eastern harbour town of Trincomalee.
Back then, a year after the tsunami struck, reconstruction in the north and the east was already beginning to show signs of slowing - principally because there was a lack of land on which to build permanent housing for tsunami survivors, Ramesh Selliah, director of housing at RADA, told IRIN. In the southern parts of the country, reconstruction, while not without its own problems, was moving ahead.
However, the tsunami reconstruction process in the north and the east deteriorated between April and August 2006, with fighting in Jaffna and the north and later in south Trincomalee District. That is when government troops moved to dislodge Tamil Tigers (LTTE) from the Mawilaru sluice gates, a major conduit for irrigation in the region. The government soon after began an all-out assault on LTTE-held areas in the region.
IDP numbers rise
By the end of August, the overall IDP figure had risen to 217,000 from 69,000 in mid-July due principally to the fighting in the east, according to UNHCR figures.
A similar escalation in the number of IDPs began in March 2007, when the government began a new offensive against LTTE controlled areas in Batticaloa West. It forced some 90,000 people to flee their homes to 90 crowded welfare centres or to host families and relatives in eastern Batticaloa District. By April the IDP figure in the Batticaloa District alone had surged to more than 140,000.
Beginning in March, the government also started a resettlement programme in Batticaloa District - first with some 15,000 IDP returns to Vaharai Division, and in mid-May with nearly 30,000 being resettled in Porativu and Vellavelly divisions in West Batticaloa, according to government figures. An additional 60,000 are slated to return home before the end of the year, according to the government resettlement timetable.
"Ceasefire exists only in name"
Despite the resettlement progress, some humanitarian agencies are less than sanguine.
"Let's face reality. The conflict in Sri Lanka is an old one, over 20 years old. The 2002 ceasefire exists only in name and there is too much confrontation to be optimistic for the near future," International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Country Director Toon Vandenhoove said recently.
In the past 10 months the ICRC has struggled to effectively look after the needs of Sri Lankan citizens caught in the conflict in Jaffna and the north. In August 2006, the ICRC ceased accompanying supply ships to Jaffna when the Tamil Tigers said they could not guarantee their safety and it has recently ceased its operations on several occasions at the Uliyankulam and Omanthai crossover points which link government held areas with Tiger territory in the north, due to attacks and shelling.
WFP appeals for more funds
The World Food Programme (WFP) has its own battle to secure sufficient food supplies for the large IDP population and vulnerable groups. WFP has made two appeals in the last three months warning that without additional funding supplies to the IDPs would run out.
"We need longer-term commitments to keep supplies moving. We have extended the current emergency programme till September and will again have a look at it," WFP country head Jeff Taft-Dick told IRIN.
Japan, the United States, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund and, more recently, Australia and the UK have pitched in to keep WFP supplies moving. Nonetheless, WFP has had to occasionally cut down some of its going programmes to maintain food supplies to the IDPs.
"We have suspended the midday meal at schools and the one for pregnant mothers in the northeast," Taft-Dick said when supplies were tight in March. He said over 260,000 children were affected by the suspension of the school programme.
"Unimpeded access" needed
More recently, agencies have also warned that IDPs who are being resettled in the east are in need of assistance. The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) in a 25 May statement about returns in Batticaloa said: "The humanitarian community needs unimpeded access to provide support to the returnees and ensure effective monitoring of conditions in places of return.
The IASC urges the government to speed up access for international aid agencies to villages in West Batticaloa so that they can monitor conditions, and carry out relief and early recovery programmes aimed at sustainable return." In addition, the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) [http://www.humanitarian-srilanka.org/] has called for a thorough assessment of conditions where IDPs are returning.
"The ground situation requires a thorough assessment to identify at which level people need assistance and provide accordingly, rather than provide relief assistance in general. Tsunami reconstruction needs to be completed sooner than later," CHA said after a visit to the Vaharai area.
Conflict's impact on housing reconstruction
The Tsunami reconstruction effort in the north and the east, has, indeed, been a victim of the ongoing conflict over the past 18 months.
"The escalating conflict in the northeast has had a dramatic impact on housing reconstruction, restricting progress against targeted housing requirements to below 15 per cent in the east and 25 per cent in the north," RADA said in its two-year tsunami reconstruction progress report.
In Batticaloa District, only 839 of a total of 3,587 houses assigned to donors have been built, according to the latest RADA statistics. In Kilinochchi, which is under LTTE control, it is 143 out of 990; in Ampara, 958 out of 5,273; in Trincomalee, 712 out of 4,951; and in Jaffna, it is 781 out of 3,770.
There are still over 50,000 persons living in 13,000 tsunami transitional shelters in the northeast, RADA's Ramesh Selliah told IRIN. "We will have to assess the situation as it develops. There are bound to be more delays in the northeast, if not at district level, at divisional level. Nothing is certain there now," he told IRIN.