Food shortages, abductions – Jaffna feels the pinch


Jaffna : Last year at this time 16-year-old Jeevun Kumaraswamy, who lives in 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.

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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 UN's humanitarian news network IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) said.

The closure of the only highway linking Jaffna with mainland Sri Lanka 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.

But for Jeevun and his mates and their families there is a bigger concern. With abductions in the area on the rise, Jeevun's father, Sinnathambhi Kumaraswamy, said: "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, 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 my brothers or me 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," he says. "My brother and I can't even step out of the house."

Various groups have been accused of carrying out child abductions in Sri Lanka, including the LTTE and the pro-government Karuna group, a breakaway faction of the Tamil Tigers.

There have even been allegations – denied by the government and the military – of army or government involvement.

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 on a weekly basis is collecting information on missing persons and abductions. The cases have only been increasing in the peninsula."

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 LTTE, "the problems at Jaffna University campus have continued".

Students and staff have been receiving death threats aimed at people with LTTE affiliations. This has caused considerable fear and led to the closure of the campus, the SLMM said.

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 guesthouses 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.

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 conducting its food assistance programme in Jaffna, has been able to ship only 20 percent 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 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 tonnes of food per month since August," WFP Country Director Jeff Taft-Dick said.

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

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."

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." "Very soon our children will starve 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 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.