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Page last updated at 23:11 GMT, Wednesday, 20 May 2009 00:11 UK

Sri Lanka's humanitarian challenge

People have been celebrating on the streets of Colombo - flags hoisted, fire crackers going off. But those who fled the fighting in the north-east face an uncertain future after months of trauma. Tony Senewiratne, national director for Habitat for Humanity in Sri Lanka, has just returned from a camp for displaced people and describes the humanitarian challenges ahead.

Sri Lankan with national flag
There have been scenes of jubilation in Colombo

As we grapple with not just the end of the war but also its origins, we must also focus on the psycho-social repair of a whole population of people - the so-called "IDPs" - internally displaced people.

IDP is a term that has been thrown around haphazardly over the last few months.

These people are not refugees in the conventional sense of the word - they are not a segment of society that we hope will just go away - they are Sri Lankan citizens.

All 250,000 of them.

It is easy to forget that each and every one of these people has a face, name, story, smile and aspirations.

The label "IDP" enables us to forget their names and would-be smiles and convert them into a number.

This is where Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka (HFHSL) hopes to step in, working with other agencies and the Sri Lankan government to assist in the resettlement and rehabilitation of this traumatised community.

Three refugee camps have been set up in Sri Lanka's north-east, providing a temporary home at present to 190,000 people.

The reality of their circumstances has not yet really begun to filter through - right now they are just happy to be safe and secure

Tents and shelters have been flown in from abroad, from the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration.

To date, Habitat for Humanity has also donated 448 shelters to the IDP camps.

The tents are big enough to stand up in, but are very hot, which is not good in the current circumstances.

The shelters come in the shape of cabins - they are not much bigger than the tents, but they are more open and better ventilated.

But with temperatures regularly above 35C, combined with the humidity, they are also very hot and difficult to live in at this time of year.

Generous people

The other concern is that the short monsoon is due any moment now.

If it rains, it will turn the camps into a muddy pit, and with the tents on ground level this will pose many problems.

Camp in Vavuniya
The number of refugees in the camps could swell to 250,000

The short monsoon sometimes bypasses the north-east, so we are hoping for the best this season - that there will be no rain until the bigger monsoon in October.

The $1m question now is how long people will have to stay in the camps.

No one knows how long it will take - at best it will be a few months before anything begins to happen, but no one really knows.

The refugees have come out of a very difficult situation.

They are now in a new situation, but the reality of their circumstances has not yet really begun to filter through - right now they are just happy to be safe and secure.

Perhaps the stoic patience which they show is because of the trauma of the past months where they were caught in the middle of a conflict and each day or hour could be their last.

As time goes on, though, expectations will shift from emergency aid and support to rehabilitation expectations.

The Sri Lankan people have been very generous over the past few months - sending food, supplies, clothing and other necessities wherever possible.

Aid agencies and ordinary families have been gathering necessities with all the goodwill and donor pledges they have left, post-tsunami.

But for the hundreds of thousands of IDPs this saga will not end with the sounding of a cracker or the hoisting of a flag.

In fact, their suffering will continue long after the tears rolling down their burnt faces leave our television screens and eventually our minds.



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