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Tamil civilians endured horror

As Tamils flee Sri Lanka's conflict zone, details of their situation emerge.

According to an aid worker in Vavuniya, the town where at least 40,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from the Vanni are already living in camps, the government is "completely unprepared." Coordination with aid agencies, they said, is "nonexistent" and no one knows yet where the massive influx of new IDPs will be put.

"When there were 40,000 they couldn't give food and water," said one Tamil resident in Vavuniya. "The new people are sleeping on roads and buses and in open areas. It's a very sad thing."

This week, hospitals in Vavuniya were reportedly overflowing with the number of injured and sick being brought in.

"Our hospital has got about 450 beds, and we’ve now got more than 1,700 patients in the hospital — on the floor, in the corridors, and even outside," said Paul McMaster, a surgeon with Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) in Vavuniya. "Buses that bring these people down, people are dying on those buses, and bodies are being taken off the buses sometimes as well."

There are also increasing concerns that the newly escaped civilians are being submitted to screening by government-backed paramilitary groups. At the Omanthai checkpoint in the North, for instance, where people are placed on buses to be taken to Vavuniya, paramilitary members are reportedly present, pointing fingers at those they believe to be LTTE members or sympathizers.

Thus far, aid groups have not been able to monitor what happens to civilians as they leave the war zone, raising fears that many could be swept up in the government's hunt for combatants.

Although the current conflict between the government and LTTE appears to be in its last days and even hours, the future for the war-afflicted civilians remains a difficult one.

"Those who left in past days and hours are totally devastated after months of exposure to the fighting and after the loss of close relatives and property. They face much uncertainty about their future, personal security and family members left behind in the combat zone, who may well be missing," Krahenbuhl said.

(Maura R. O'Connor recently returned from a reporting trip to Sri Lanka sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

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