Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Food shortages, fear of abductions - Jaffna residents feel the pinch

News and Press Release
Originally published
COLOMBO, 31 May 2007 (IRIN) - Last year at this time 16-year-old Jeevun Kumaraswamy, who lives on the isolated Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka, was on top of the world. His school, Jaffna Central College, was competing against traditional rivals St. John's College in the centenary game of their annual cricket match. Jaffna was decked-out in flags. The kids were dancing in the streets.

This year there's anything but dancing for Jeevun and his friends: Since all-out conflict began between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) the climate has been tense - tense enough that even the big school cricket match had to be cancelled.

The closure of the A-9 highway in August 2006 has also meant most essential supplies, including food, could no longer be delivered from the south in the volumes necessary. Families like Jeevan's have been feeling the economic and nutritional pinch as only scant supplies can be imported by ship and air.

Fear of abductions

But for Jeevun and his school mates and their families there is a bigger concern. With abductions in the area on the rise, Jeevun's father, Sinnathambhi Kumaraswamy, told IRIN "I am scared to live here because I have three young boys to look after. I don't know when they will go missing." He said: "I have seen many young boys abducted and now I am seeing their parents suffer."

The worried father says he won't even allow his sons to leave the house for fear they could be abducted. Eighty people, all males, were abducted in Jaffna between January and April 2007, according to the Human Rights Commission, a semi-autonomous government body.

Young Jeevun says he is particularly fearful because he witnessed the abduction of a close friend just five months ago.

"I will never forget my friend's last scream," says Jeevun. "Passers-by just stared at the commotion while he was forced into a white van by four unidentified men. I certainly don't want myself or my brothers to suffer like that."

"I love playing cricket with my friends and I had really been looking forward to this year's big cricket match, but now it seems everything has just died," Jeevun says. "My brother and I can't even step out of the house to be with our friends."

Various groups have been accused of carrying out child abductions in Sri Lanka - including the LTTE and the pro-government Karuna group, which is a breakaway faction of the LTTE. There have even been allegations - denied by the government and the military - of army or government involvement.

Seeking help

Some Jaffna residents who have had family members abducted seek the help of the local branch of the Human Rights Commission. It records their cases and conducts its own investigations. Families of victims have also lodged complaints with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which is monitoring the situation and is in touch with all parties to resolve complaints.

ICRC Spokesperson, Davide Vignati, told IRIN: "The ICRC, currently, on a weekly basis, is collecting information on missing persons and abductions. The cases have only been increasing in the peninsula."

Jaffna university

Even academic work at Jaffna university has been affected by fear of abductions and other intimidation. According to the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which monitors the truce between the government and the LTTE, "the problems at Jaffna University campus have continued.

Students and staff have been receiving death threats aimed at people with LTTE (Tamil Tiger) affiliations which has caused considerable fear and led to the closure of the campus," the SLMM said in a situation report dated 14-20 May 2007.

The threats and abductions are occurring in a city that over the past year has faced increasing isolation and economic challenges due to the conflict and the A9 road closure. Just two years ago, even though there were breakdowns in talks between the government and the Tamil Tigers, Jaffna was making the most of the tentative ceasefire.

Jaffna residents who had fled the violence more than a decade earlier, like some from the local Muslim population, were returning to their former homes and businesses. Goods were freely available and guest houses were opening up to the increasing number of visitors. Even private airlines and mobile service providers were lining up to get a piece of the action.

A9 road closure

All that has now changed and today, principally because of the A9 closure, Jaffna is now a city marked by shortages of basic commodities and medicine and, most critically, food.

The World Food Programme (WFP), which is currently conducting its food assistance programme in Jaffna, has been able to ship only 20 per cent of its total food allocation for internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and vulnerable people to the peninsula due to the A9 road closure.

"Through the food assistance programme, WFP is required to send 1,000 metric tonnes of food to Jaffna every month. But due to the closure of the A9 road and the lack of space on government vessels, WFP has been able to ship only 200 metric tones of food per month since August," WFP Country Director Jeff Taft-Dick told IRIN.

Lack of ships

"Our biggest concern is the low number of ships available to transport food," Taft-Dick says. "With the monsoon expected, we will face more difficulties."

WFP says it is in consultation with the commissioner general of the Essential Services Commission to increase the number of supply ships as soon as possible. The government did increase the number of ships last year when supplies thinned out in the peninsula.

"Food prices were quite high several months ago," says Taft-Dick, "but they have come down now. It is a little better now because some private traders are also bringing in food from India," he said.

"Very soon our children will be starving"

However, some residents feel that economic conditions in Jaffna are so dire that the cost of commodities, including food, are priced beyond their reach.

"Prices keep increasing weekly." Rosy Theyagarajah told IRIN. "A fixed rate on commodities is not maintained and shops sell goods at whatever price they want," she complains. "Very soon our children will be starving as we no longer have money to buy food."

Rosy Theyagarajah has been living in Jaffna for the past 32 years and says the current situation is the worst she has experienced. She says some children are now suffering malnutrition. "Even during the 20-year war between the government and the LTTE, we had food to fill our stomachs," she says. "But today we have nothing. My husband is out of work and my children only get one meal a day," she adds.