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Appendix 09: Sri Lanka – Victims of Natural Disaster and Civil Strife
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

December 2007

While the 2004 tsunami drew the eyes of the world to Sri Lanka as well as other nations bordering the Indian Ocean, three years later other events have claimed our attention. The tragedy of Sri Lanka, however, transcends the tsunami, causing JRS presence as part of its mission to serve, accompany and defend the rights of refugees and forcibly displaced people. Sri Lanka abounds with forcibly displaced people, primarily because of civil conflict which began decades after Britain surrendered its colonial mandate for Ceylon as it was known in 1948.

The visit to this tiny island nation, located off the southeast coast of India in December 2007, nearly three years after the tsunami devastated much of its eastern and northern coasts, indicated that financial support from JRS/USA helped to rebuild homes and lives of the victims.

Most of the people served by JRS in Sri Lanka are Tamils, although the dominant Sinhalese group also receives JRS services. Since the British departed in 1948, the Sinhalese majority has run the government and enacted laws, which the Tamils have felt to be discriminatory. Such feelings by the Tamil minority have led to bloodshed as they formed several paramilitary groups to defend themselves, most notably the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Thousands of people, mostly Tamils but Muslims as well, have been driven from their homes during the conflict. Many fled to avoid having children conscripted into the LTTE and similar rebel groups. JRS stepped into this situation in 1994, although a Jesuit presence existed far longer than that time. JRS worked with these displaced people and thus was on hand when the tsunami struck in 2004. Yet, JRS has also paid a price for its involvement. In September 2007 a diocesan priest, who served as a district coordinator for JRS in northern Sri Lanka, was killed by a remotely-detonated Claymore mine.

JRS has helped to construct more than 300 homes in various parts of the island, acting alone or in conjunction with Catholic Relief Services, both along the northwest coast and on the east coast where Fr. Gavin inaugurated and blessed a new housing development funded with JRS/USA support.

We also interviewed people who have been displaced due to the conflict. Several of those with whom we spoke had been displaced as many as seven or eight times within a five-year period. One man, presently working for JRS, saw his uncle and two brothers murdered before his eyes when he was thirteen years old, prompting him to join a rebel group in retaliation. Another man related that he and his family fled their home because the Tigers approached their town, forcing young boys to become child soldiers. In order to protect their sons, they fled their home and took up residence in a small village in Mannar District. While they await a JRS house (three rooms plus a kitchen area and toilet facility) they are living in a ramshackle hut with their children and grandchildren.

Certainly their children and all of the children in Sri Lanka concern JRS. In its mission to accompany and serve the victims of civil unrest, JRS believes, as do the parents of these children, that education plays the greatest role in freeing them from a life of second class citizenship. The English Academy, which educates adolescents in Mannar, serves as a case in point. During his comments at the dedication of the Academy, Fr. PS Amalraj, S.J., Regional Director of JRS South Asia, emphasized the importance of speaking and understanding English for their future careers.

JRS-sponsored education, however, occurs at every level, except college.   Nearly 380 pre-school and elementary education programs exist throughout the country. In the eastern districts as well as Mannar we visited several of these facilities. Yet, vocational training may be the most important service that JRS offers, particularly to young women who frequently must fend for themselves. They are trained, therefore, as tailors, bakers and cooks, marketable skills in Sri Lanka. JRS has also provided start-up funds for income generating activities, like raising poultry for the market place.

The struggle for a better life remains a great challenge for displaced people in Sri Lanka. When this article was written, the ceasefire had ended bringing immediate tragedy. A Tamil parliament member was assassinated in Colombo, the capital, which has seen increasing violence in the last six months. On the following day the Tamils bombed a military bus killing four soldiers. Since then a government minister was assassinated and bombings have claimed the lives of hundreds of people riding public buses, including a group of schoolchildren. There is no end in sight. Meanwhile, organizations, like JRS, continue to work to ease the lives of thousands of displaced people in a country that was once primarily known for tea production.

Since this article was written in early 2008, much has changed in Sri Lanka. Government forces (Sinhalese majority) overcame the resistance of the "Tamil Tigers," or LTTE, finally defeating them in June 2009. In the interim tens of thousands of people were killed, and more than 300,000 have been left homeless and internally displaced in the country.