Sri Lanka: churches help reunite families in war zone

  The Church in Sri Lanka is helping desperate families looking for loved ones missing in the civil war that is raging in the country.

The chaotic situation on the Jaffna peninsula where government troops have cornered Tamil separatists has forced around 200,000 people into refugee camps.

In the mayhem, many families have been split up and have little or no way to find mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, or even to discover whether they are dead or alive. A further 50,000 civilians are trapped in rebel territory unable to flee. Colombo has refused to bow to heavy international pressure to suspend fighting long enough to get them out.

"One nun took me from camp to camp to find my father and my sweet younger brother," said Niroshini, 21, a university student, who had already lost her mother to the tsunami and her other brother to the war.

This time, however, she was one of the lucky ones and finally found her brother and father in one of the camps. "I just hugged them!" she recalled of their meeting.

But thousands of others have not been so fortunate and Church workers are facing unprecedented problems when trying to trace people in refugee camps spread out across thousands of hectares.

"We are working in little-known remote areas with difficult transportation and communication problems with the Sinhalese soldiers," a nun of the Good Shepherd Convent in Vavuniya said.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which wants to establish a Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, launched an independence struggle against the Sinhalese-led government in 1983. The conflict has since claimed up to 80,000 lives.

Father Santhiapillai Emilianuspillai, parish priest of St Anthony's church in Vavuniya, is also concerned about the mental health of the victims of war.

"This is the worst-ever fighting in the region and there are thousands of people on the streets looking for kith and kin," he said. "They have suffered acute trauma."

The Church relief workers have developed an informal tracking system. Priests and nuns who visit the camps with food and medical provisions take details from families they meet and try to locate their missing relatives at other camps.

Others are trying to find their loved ones themselves flocking to the region from all corners of the country to find family members in the war zone. Each day, thousands gather near the camp gates in the Cheddikulam area, 30 kilometers southwest of Vavuniya, in the hope of picking up some information about their missing relatives and friends.

Few can enter, however, as the camps are ringed with barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. Again the Church has to step in, providing information and directions to other camps. In some case nuns are allowed to escort people into camps to look for their relatives themselves.

Father Emilianuspillai has organized a program with parishioners to provide food and shelter for people arriving from elsewhere in the country.

One man, Anthonippillai Arulanantham, 67, a retired manager of a pumping station praised the work of the Church in helping him and said he still has faith.

He said that Saint Anthony "will help me to find my grandchildren and people from my village," following Mass at St. Anthony's church.

He has collected details of the possible whereabouts of his grandchildren but has yet to find them in the two months since the International Committee of the Red Cross rescued him from the no-fire zone on the northern coast.

Soldiers guarding the camps are forbidden from talking to the media, but one told UCA News that the mass exodus from the battle zone had put "a massive strain on the state's welfare and administrative system."

Source: UCAN

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