03/19/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Religious visit the refugees, prisoners in the camps

by Melani Manel Perera
A delegation from the Conference of Major Religious Superiors visits refugees in Vavuniya. They describe a dramatic situation in the account sent to the bishops, and call for an action of solidarity from the Church on the national level. It is not enough to collect food and money, missions must be conducted among the population in the north.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - Children abandoned and separated from their parents, injured people without assistance, refugees held prisoners in the camps, dramatic health conditions. Nine members of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors (CMRS) have written to the bishops' conference of Sri Lanka about what they saw during their three-day visit to the refugees in Vavuniya.

From February 26-28, they visited one of the areas hit hardest by the twenty-year conflict between the army and Tamil rebels, talking with the refugees, the people who assist them, and the local clergy. "Despite the written permit obtained from the A.G.A. Office in Vavuniya, we almost did not make it to any of the [government] camps, except for one." Only members of the military and some NGO's that answer to the government in Colombo are allowed to enter the 13 camps run by the army. Even the bishop of Mannar has been unable to visit the camps, in spite of the fact that they are in his diocese.

The refugees are not allowed to leave the centers, and the religious say that many of them "regret that they heeded the government’s plea to go to military-controlled areas." Far from everyone, the refugees have heard nothing about their relatives who remained at home, nuclear families are often divided, and many of the children are without their parents. The health and nutrition conditions in which the refugees are living are dramatic. The religious are afraid that these conditions could continue for a long time, even years.

During their trip, the representatives of the CMRS also visited the general hospital of Vavuniya. They recount seeing injured people without assistance, because of the situation of emergency at the hospital. "Most of them have lost their limbs," "all of those who have fled the fighting area had seen people die in front of them." Those who have been hospitalized also face the drama of having no news about their friends and relatives, and the terror of not knowing where they will go once they are released.

Education is also one of the sectors hardest hit by the emergency. Many schools have been turned into refugee centers, so it is not only the refugees who are not going to school, but also the children who are supposed to study there. There are no teachers in the camps, and not even religious of any faith to bring people comfort.

The religious are asking the bishops of Sri Lanka to prevent the situation from worsening and promote an action of solidarity by the Church on the national level. "The issue is not simply the collection of money and goods for the refugees," the religious say, "but our mission and evangelization in this land."

The representatives of the CMRS are very critical about the camps run by the government. In spite of this, they reiterate the willingness of religious orders to provide aid for the refugees in the centers, saying that this "is a critical collaboration." They do not intend to contribute to "an unjust system," nor to tolerate a situation of emergency that threatens to become other than temporary.

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