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Page last updated at 15:30 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 16:30 UK

'Pain' of Sri Lanka aid pullout

Fears of a humanitarian crisis are mounting in northern Sri Lanka as troops press ahead with an offensive to capture territory from Tamil rebels. A week ago the UN and other agencies pulled out of the area, where more than 200,000 people are displaced by fighting. Here one aid worker describes how hard it was to leave.


During my last weeks in Kilinochchi there was a foreboding sense of a massive army approaching from the south-west.

Children have to cope with frequent air raids

The escalating war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government was bringing fighting closer to the town. It led to a massive movement of civilians in the region, known as the Vanni.

I never heard gunfire or sounds of close-quarters fighting, instead day and night there were constant thuds and booms of artillery and rockets fired from multi-barrel launchers landing in the distance.

Day after day, the constant rumble of heavy artillery got closer and closer. Twenty-four hours a day my office, bedroom, kitchen and bunker would be shaking with the thumps of shells landing. The sensation of the approaching doom was all too real with this kind of warfare.

As an aid worker I had been struggling to provide greatly needed assistance to the ever increasing number of people who had been displaced by the fighting.

They had fled from the unbearable noise and fear of the approaching artillery - at first this was happening mostly in the south-western areas of the Vanni. With few transport facilities families couldn't go far, just a few tens of kilometres, before they sheltered under trees.

As the military advanced the shelling caught up with them and often they had to move again after a couple of days. Many of these areas to the south-west of the Vanni were out of bounds for us as aid workers because of the high danger. But as the military advanced further the people moving ahead of them came closer to Kilinochchi, and we began to meet them and hear their stories of multiple displacements.


I saw children shaking with fear and mothers trying to calm them while they themselves were shaking with fear

They were hungry, tired, afraid and traumatised. The children had not attended school for months, fathers had lost their means of making a living, such as fishing boats, nets and engines. Mothers were dealing with the raw emotion of just not being able to protect, feed and educate their families.

As aid workers we tried our best to provide shelter, water and sanitation facilities to the people; we built emergency camps in areas that we predicted would be safe havens for people to gather, but as the days went by and the army approached Kilinochchi, the distant rumble of artillery rapidly escalated into a constant roar of shells raining down, in and around the town. Our own security was jeopardised and we were unable to continue to provide further assistance.

The security situation spiralled to emergency levels; artillery and air attacks on Kilinochchi became a frequent event. The Sri Lankan government had put pressure on us to leave as they could not ensure our safety any more in the town. We were 10 international staff there by that time and we had to begin the heartbreaking task of trying to close our offices and relocate to government-controlled areas.

Sheer panic

Emotions were very high through those days, we were dealing with the guilt and frustration of having to leave at the time when humanitarian assistance was needed the most by the community that we had all got to know and develop strong relationships with. Stopping our programmes was professionally hard, but our staff became the focal point of our emotional state.

map

The LTTE has a pass system for those who want to leave the Vanni for government areas. Many of our staff members were simply refused a pass for one reason or another.

The passes are granted to individuals, not families, so those who were granted one had a heartbreaking decision to make, whether to leave their spouse and children behind under a barrage of shells and air attacks to come with us to continue to work and earn money, or to stay behind with their family and face the possibility of being forced to join the LTTE and sent to fight.

To manage, advise and counsel our staff through this process was the hardest thing emotionally I and many of us had ever dealt with. As the roar of the shells got ever closer to Kilinochchi the urgency of the decision-making increased and staff had to begin to move to government areas, leaving their loved ones behind.

I remember one morning when an air attack happened very close to me. I managed to get into the bunker quickly and narrowly escaped being hurt. I will never forget the noise of that fighter jet, the unbelievable sound of the engine as it swooped from the sky and the explosions of the bombs dropped close by.

But the lasting image I have is of the sheer panic and traumatised people when I emerged. As aid agencies we have concrete fortified bunkers, but the population of Kilinochchi has muddy holes in the ground. I saw children shaking with fear and mothers trying to calm them while they themselves were shaking with fear.

We shared tears, we shared the feelings of terror and intense guilt, and we left

We were scheduled to leave Kilinochchi on Friday, 12 September but large-scale protests were held outside our compounds. The people were chanting "Don't Leave, Don't Leave".

The demonstrators were so polite and respectful to us. They were not angry, they were desperate. They understood that we needed to end our operations, and told us that they would manage themselves with shelter and water.

It was the prospect of our physical departure that terrified them. With no international presence and no witness to the conflict, they believed that many atrocities would occur and no one would see this.

For three days the protests continued. We all understood and felt their fear but our hands were tied. The situation was becoming incredibly dangerous; some international aid workers had to leave their compounds and move to "safer areas" as artillery shells were landing within a few hundred metres of our compounds.

For the final two days in Kilinochchi we spent much time in our bunkers as the artillery and air attacks intensified in and around the town. The sound through these days was tremendous, everything would shake and the air implode as the shells landed. In the near distance we could hear the terrifying sound of helicopter gunships, firing rockets.

The residents of Kilinochchi town began to leave, moving further north, away from the approaching artillery. It was clear we would have to go too the following day or we would be stuck there.

Shame

On the morning of 16 September we lined our vehicles up at our compound and under heavy shelling and air attacks, wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets, we drove out of Kilinochchi town and headed for the government areas.

Soldiers patrol a street in Vavuniya, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northeast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008.
Troops are now near Kilinochchi

We left a number of our staff, who could not get passes, behind. We shared tears, we shared the feelings of terror and intense guilt, and we left.

I remember feeling deep shame as I drove past civilians who were watching me from the side of the road, in my ballistic vest, heading for safety, as they stood there in their trousers and shirts and saris. We drove through the site of a fresh air attack on the A9 road and once again saw the devastation it caused and understood what may come for Kilinochchi and its civilian population.

Although I appreciate and respect the security rules that govern aid workers and understand why we had to leave, I still have to deal with a great sense that I abandoned those people. There is the pain and guilt of saying goodbye and good luck to our staff who had worked so hard and with such passion for the victims of war in the Vanni - and leaving them behind.

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