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Page last updated at 14:19 GMT, Friday, 24 April 2009 15:19 UK

Sri Lanka camps struggle to cope

Displaced people near Omantai
Officials have to deal with a massive influx of civilians

Tens of thousands of people are teeming towards government camps outside Sri Lanka's conflict zone but officials are struggling to cope with the mammoth task of feeding, clothing and sheltering them, writes Swaminathan Natarajan of the BBC's Tamil service.

Civilians who have just moved into the camps say the conditions are cramped and no attention is paid to individual needs.

In the past few days more than 100,000 civilians have made the risky journey from the ever-shrinking costal stretch of land controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

Sangitha Rajendiran says she has been inside the Vavuniya camp for the past two days.

"Whereever I look, I see a lot of people. More are still coming. Our family is divided; my husband has been taken for treatment to Colombo. I have not yet got any help; I don't know how to reach my husband.

"We have no food to eat. Compared to this, in some ways the living conditions in the rebel areas were better. In Vanni there is a shortage of food but still we managed to eat. Here I stayed under the trees for the whole night along with my children. The toilets are not in good condition."

She adds: "I have not taken a bath for three days. In the camps I have not got any clothes. I don't have any other dresses to wear."

Suicide attacks

Now is summertime in Vavuniya, where the thousands of displaced people are housed. The conditions are hot and humid, with the daytime temperature close to 35C.

One man, Muthulingam, who has been in the camp for about 20 days, says there is a continuous shortage for food.

"The food is really bad. Not much is given," he says.

I was not able to inform our relatives about my whereabouts. We could not speak to anyone,
Shri Gowri Bhaskaran, student

Muthulingam's father died on the way to the government-controlled area. His sister and mother are still in the war zone. He says at least 35 to 40 people he knows - relatives and friends - were killed in the recent fighting.

"We have suffered very much. There was heavy fighting. The army fires from one direction, the Tigers fire from the other direction and we were caught in the middle.

"In addition there were suicide bombers. I started my journey with my father, but he was killed on the way. In the camp there is tight security but we are not physically abused," he says.

Journalists are barred from visiting the camps and speaking to the displaced people is very difficult.

Injured in Vavuniya
The camps have to cope with treating the wounded

UN humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne, who visited the camps on Thursday, says teams were scrambling to feed, clothe, shelter and provide water to a vast amount of people.

"I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds and people dressed in the ragged clothing they've been wearing for months," said Mr Buhne.

"We need funds for all the basics like food, medicine, water, sanitation, nutrition, shelter and clothing. And we want to try to get kids as soon as possible back into school to give them some semblance of normality."

The Sri Lankan government has rejected an appeal by the United Nations to allow more aid agencies to reach civilians trapped in the war zone.

But Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse told the BBC that Sri Lanka would appreciate humanitarian assistance in the form of tents, water purifiers and sanitation equipment.

Moved by the plight of the displaced, local people have stepped in to help.

In some temples an appeal has been made for food and many locals came forward to gave whatever they could. The food was collected and distributed by local officials.

The Sri Lankan government has handed over control of the camps from military to civilian authorities. But many restrictions still remain.

Student Shri Gowri Bhaskaran reached the camp on Thursday. She says she is worried that others may not know about her.

"We got nothing to eat till this evening. We are staying under a tree. There are no shops. We are not able to move out. I was not able to inform our relatives about my whereabouts. We could not speak to anyone," she says.



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