Braving gunfire, bombs, and artillery rounds, a fact-finding team from Sri Lanka's independent Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies in early August made its way into Muttur in the besieged northeast. The army of the Buddhist-dominated country and Tamil Tiger rebels, who seek autonomy for mainly Hindu Tamil-majority areas, were fighting intensely around the small coastal town.

On Sunday, August 6, the team arrived at the office of Action Against Hunger, a French charity, to find the corpses of 17 local Tamil aid workers. Someone had carefully arranged 15 bodies, each with a gunshot to the back of the head, face down on the front lawn. Two more workers who apparently attempted to flee were found shot dead in a car.

"The sight was too much to handle," one team member told Sri Lankan media.

Ceasefire Breaks Down

This year, the new fighting has taken more than 1,500 Sri Lankan lives and displaced 200,000 nationwide in the worst violence since 2002. Much of the fighting occurred in the northeast around Jaffna, Trincomalee, and nearby Muttur.

Near Trincomalee, Tigers cut off the water supply for 60,000 people. The army counterattacked aggressively, causing a mass exodus. A Methodist pastor in Muttur, Albert Suvarnaraj, joined villagers who were fleeing the violence by the tens of thousands. Speaking from a camp near Trincomalee, Suvarnaraj said he is still overwhelmed by the trauma of a 20-mile trek to safety. Persistent shelling, gunfire, and targeting of civilians caused a heavy loss of life.

Suvarnaraj told Christianity Today, "While we were taking rest in [St. Antony's Catholic] church compound, a shell fell on the courtyard. A child died in its mother's lap along with two others. I picked up the child soaked with blood. This memory still haunts me."

In another camp, a mother of two, Chandra, sat under a shade tree and described for aid workers from Seattle-based World Concern how her 68-year-old father was slain near his shop. As the entire community fled, there was little time for a proper funeral. His body was quickly buried, then she and her family escaped. "He was a wonderful father," Chandra said grimly. "Nothing can ever bring him back."

In Muttur, more than 300 people died and 50,000 were forced to flee. Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo visited Muttur to assess emergency needs. He told CT, "What I saw was a ghost town." The bishop said the fight seemed to reinforce existing divisions. Minority Tamils fled to rebel-controlled areas. The largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority took shelter in a government-controlled area. Displaced Muslims found refuge with other Muslims.

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During the conflict, many people left their homes to take refuge in local churches or schools. But such facilities were not spared. Near Jaffna on the far north coast, a shell landed on the Catholic Philip Neri church on the Allaipiddy islet on August 13. Fifteen people died, and many more were injured.

The next day, Sri Lanka's air force bombed an orphanage, killing 61 schoolgirls reportedly being trained to provide first aid in a Tamil-majority area. Military leaders accused Tigers of using the orphanage to prepare fighters, a charge Tamil leaders denied.

Later, reprisals in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, took more civilian lives, including one 3-year-old girl.

Fervent Plea for Peace

The staggering civilian fatalities stirred the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka to make a fervent plea to the government and the Tamil rebels. In a statement, the council said the two sides should "put an immediate halt to their hostilities and sit together and start talking to each other."

"Any further prolongation of hostilities could easily lead the whole country into irrevocable chaos," the statement read. The church council includes Sri Lanka's eight major Protestant organizations.

"Violence has already brought and will continue to bring misery and hardships to innocent civilians," the council noted.

The fighting has virtually ended the historic ceasefire that Norway brokered in 2002. Since civil war began in 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) have been waging a violent campaign for autonomy for ethnic Tamil areas in order to escape discrimination from the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority.

Sinhalese Buddhists account for nearly 70 percent of the island nation's 19 million people, while ethnic Tamils (mostly Hindu) account for 17 percent. Christians and Muslims account for the remaining 13 percent.

In total, the bloody civil war claimed nearly 65,000 lives and displaced 1.8 million people prior to the 2002 ceasefire. The fragile peace process has been steadily slipping back into bloodshed after Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential election last November with strong support from Sinhalese nationalists.

Relief Efforts at Risk

For weeks, the conflict complicated the flow of aid. The situation was most hazardous for the 350,000 people in Jaffna.

Some 40,000 army soldiers were struggling to maintain government control. Tigers blocked all roads into the Tamil-majority region. Jaffna residents were faced with an acute shortage of food and remained indoors due to a stringent curfew.

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"We want to help the people as much as we can, but our hands are tied now," Yu Hwa Li, country director of World Vision, told CT from Colombo. "When there is no access to most of the conflict zones, how can we reach relief to the people?"

By late August, the first batches of relief supplies under U.N. supervision arrived in Jaffna via ship. The Sri Lankan army also allowed convoys of relief supplies to cross over from Vavuniya (400 miles north of Colombo) into the Vanni region that rebels control.

"We are glad that the government has now cleared U.N. agencies to carry out relief work [in the conflict zones]," Baptist leader Kingsley Perera, chair of the National Christian Council, told CT.

Perera, who is also head of the Baptist Council of Sri Lanka, said that the government decided to allow U.N. relief supplies to people trapped in the conflict zones after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke to President Rajapaksa on August 20. Perera said, "We were worried about the fate of the people in Jaffna."

World Vision's Li pointed out that aid workers are more cautious about entering conflict zones following the massacre of aid workers in Muttur. Li said, "As long as this war goes on, suffering of innocent civilians will only get worse."

Following the December 2004 tsunami, which took 31,000 Sri Lankan lives, international aid agencies, including many Christian ones, poured resources into the region. Li said most international charities, including World Vision, have suspended their tsunami relief and rehabilitation programs in troubled Tamil areas.

Li also noted that the government has banned transportation of construction materials like cement and iron bars into rebel-held areas.

Kathleen Rutledge, World Concern country director in Sri Lanka, e-mailed CT saying, "Pray for the children, men, and women caught up in this. This is not their battle—they desperately want peace, life, normalcy—and now they have been reduced to survival."

In the meantime, human rights activists have demanded that the government set up an independent investigation into the slaughter of the relief workers.

Anto Akkara is a journalist based in New Delhi, India.

Related Elsewhere:

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