UCAN: Sri Lanka church assists villagers displaced by war after rescue effort
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (UCAN) – The Church is supporting Catholic villagers in the northwest who were trapped by fighting but eventually were able to flee while their diocese was trying to arrange safe passage for them.
A week after 850 Tamils fled Mullikulam village on foot, the church is providing assistance to them in a nearby area.
The displaced people from Mullikulam, a coastal village 270 kilometers (about 170 miles) north of Colombo, are living for now among 6,000 other people, mostly Catholic fisher folk and some Muslims, in Murunkan and Nanattan.
In Nanattan, local schools are housing the villagers, while in Murunkan, villagers are staying at St. Anthony's Church, the Salesian-run Don Bosco Vocational Center and in temporary huts.
A government offensive seeking to clear the area of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels trapped the Mullikulam villagers at the beginning of September. Government forces targeted the area after overrunning Silavathurai, the neighboring coastal village six kilometers to the north.
The current offensive came after the army claimed victory over the rebels in eastern Sri Lanka in August. Government troops are now focusing on LTTE-held areas in the north and northwest.
As the army advanced on Mullikulam, Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a Sept. 5 letter to allow the church to evacuate residents of the village. He explained that the jungle surrounding the village on three sides is mined and susceptible to LTTE ambushes. He sent copies of his letter to the military and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The bishop wrote: "Urgent action must be taken to save and rescue these innocent civilians in Mullikulam. They remain isolated with no means of food or medical supplies, and are dangerously exposed and insecure." He asked that the army allow a cChurch rescue mission, but authorities turned down his request.
As the tension built, the villagers grew desperate. According to an unnamed villager who talked to the BBC Tamil Service in a Sept. 6 broadcast, "We are starving (and) we do not know who controls this area."
Bishop Joseph then turned to the rebels, who reportedly agreed to permit the church to evacuate the villagers by bus.
Father Surendiran Ravel Leenus, secretary of the bishop's house, told UCA News the bishop visited a military camp in nearby Thalladi, Mannar, on Sept. 7 to arrange transportation by bus if possible, or by boat if necessary.
Events moved quickly, however, and on Sept. 7 evening, the military captured Mullikulam. It opened the government-held road to the north to the fleeing villagers, who walked about 17 kilometers to Murunkan.
Villagers expressed their appreciation for the church's help. Staying in a Nanattan school, Nirmala Joseph, 24, said she was "grateful" to the priests for their support. "But we left everything at home," she told UCA News Sept. 7.
Father Jeyabalan Seemanpillai, parish priest of Arippu, which serves both Mullikulam and Silavathurai, spoke with UCA News by telephone on Sept. 10. He too is staying temporarily in Nanattan.
All his Mullikulam parishioners fled the village. "The church and some humanitarian agencies help them survive," he said. "But some people are still missing. We are waiting for them."
He also reported that 12 people who headed south along the government-held road toward Mullikulam to escape the government offensive in Silavathurai were killed by a mine explosion. The bishop and priests rushed to the hospital and consoled grieving relatives.
Vasantha Croos, 35, told UCA News by telephone that the bishop and priests "blessed and encouraged us while we were crying."
On Sept. 13, Bishop Joseph and Sri Lankan Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, Rome-based secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, visited other displaced people. The prelates went to government-held and LTTE-controlled areas.
According to the Mannar bishop's house, Bishop Joseph hoped to meet the president in Colombo after the assessment.
The LTTE has been fighting since 1983 for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority. The long war of attrition between the Sinhalese-led government and the Tamil rebels has killed 70,000 and displaced more than a million.
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