Fifteen Humanitarian Workers Killed in Sri Lanka
On Sunday, August 6, 2006, Action Against Hunger's offices in Paris confirmed the deaths of 15 of the organization's aid workers in the Sri Lankan town of Muttur. Benôit Miribel, Director-General of the organization described the disaster as the worst in Action Against Hunger's 27 years of existence.
The killings occurred on Friday, August 4, 2006, in the northeastern town of Muttur, where Sri Lanka's army has been engaged in heavy battle with the rebel Tamil Tigers. Before the killings, Action Against Hunger had 15 expatriate workers and 224 Sri Lankan employees in the country. (The organization employed 3 expatriates and more than 50 Sri Lankan staff members in the district of Trincomalee where Muttur is located.)
The aid workers, 11 men and 4 women, were found dead, lying face-down in their office compound, by Jeevan Thiagarajah, Executive Director of the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies, who identified them by their Action Against Hunger T-shirts. The workers were involved in post-tsunami relief work and could not be evacuated due to the fighting. The Sri Lankan army holds the Tamil Tigers responsible for the killings. The Tigers blame the army.
The fighting, following two decades of civil war, was sparked by a conflict over water. The rebels claim that the government failed to uphold its promise to provide them with water towers, and that in response locals shut off the water supply from a reservoir inside territory controlled by the Tamil Tigers. The government then launched four days or air strikes. This, according to the Tigers, amounted to a declaration of war.
For more than a week, fighting between the Tigers and the army ravaged the town of Muttur. On Friday morning, August 4, all channels of communication broke down. Contradictory information circulated, but on Saturday, August 5, Action Against Hunger received confirmation that 15 employees had died, apparently executed. All employees were wearing T-shirts that clearly identified them as Action Against Hunger's humanitarian staff.
Action Against Hunger's Human Resource Director has immediately left for Sri Lanka. The priority for the teams in Sri Lanka is to have access to the area to recover the bodies and return them to their families for burial. The bodies have been recovered and are on their way back to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
Action Against Hunger's Director-General Miribel has offered deep condolences to the families of the victims and to the organization's remaining staff in place. Sri Lanka's human rights minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe told the news agency, Agence France Presse, that there will be a "very high priority investigation."
In this region, Action Against Hunger helps about 1,000 families by providing healthcare and improving water and sanitation, especially access to clean water. Additionally, the organization has programs to provide agricultural sustainability and other economic activities to aid the tsunami victims of December 2004.
Action Against Hunger has been assisting Sri Lankans since 1996 in response to the humanitarian consequences of the civil war, and since 2005 after local populations were devastated by the December 2004 tsunami. The organization has halted all activities in Sri Lanka (at bases in Batticaloa, Jaffna, and Trincomalee) and is reexamining its presence in the country. This morning, the president of Action Against Hunger, Denis Metzger, said: "This massacre illustrates again the difficulties encountered by humanitarian actors in conflicted areas. The humanitarian values defended and everywhere shown by Action Against Hunger-neutrality, impartiality, free access to victims, independence-is yet again ridiculed. This act, with its horror, illustrates once more the challenge to humanitarian action such as the one defended and carried out by non-governmental organizations such as Action Against Hunger."