23rd  March  2003  Volume 9, Issue 36

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Landmines: the crippling statistics

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

Rights, seem to be a much used expression that has been emphasised in many ways with everybody speaking of human rights, animal rights, women's rights, the right to speak freely. The list is endless. But in the rush they seem to have forgotten the right to life, liberty and security of persons.

Putting an end to the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel mines that kill or maim hundreds of people every week, mostly innocent and defenseless civilians and especially children, has not yet received the attention it should.

 Or at least not in Sri Lanka. With the signing of the MoU by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), de-mining received some prominence and then the matter seems to have been left solely to the local and foreign non governmental organistaions. The opening of the A9 highway and the removal of barbed wire barricades marking the forward defence lines of each party have created a sense of relief and a slow return to normalcy. Unfortunately, the sense of relief experienced by the people in these areas has been short lived as they now have to face another nightmare -  to  learn to live with landmines. The two-decade conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE has left many scars on people, especially those in the north-east region. Apart from the psychological trauma, most of them have to deal with physical trauma as well. Landmines are nothing new to them and they have learnt to live with them.

According to a report by UNDP on landmines, the conflict has resulted in an unquantifiable number of UXO (unexploded ordinance, which includes small arms, ammunition, mortars, rockets, grenades, etc. as a result of heavy fighting in affected areas, considered to be very unstable and highly dangerous) and mines abandoned or deliberately left in the northern and eastern districts of Sri Lanka. The report further states that of a total population of 19 million, the conflict has directly affected areas where approximately 2,500,000 people live.

UNDP has received (December 20, 2002 - January 2003) approximately 1,000 minefield records and sketches and an additional 1,000 minefield locations from the Sri Lanka Army. They are still waiting for minefield records and locations to be provided by the Sri Lanka Navy, Sri Lanka Air Force and the Police Special Task Force.

Leonie Barnes from the UNDP District Mine Action Office in Vavuniya (covering Vavuniya, Wanni, Mannar and Trincomalee), has recorded around 3,000 minefileds except those in the High Security Zones (HSZs). She explained that recording minefields is no easy task as most often the person who plants the mines keeps the map in his pockets and in case he is killed during the conflict, the map is lost with his life.

Barnes explained that since 2000, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) has cleared 94,000 anti-personnel mines while the army had cleared 60,000 anti-personnel mines since Novemebr 2002. As for UXO, the Humanitarian De-mining Unit (HDU), operating under the TRO has cleared 163,000, while the army had cleared 6,686 UXO.

The LTTE has so far claimed to have lifted mines laid in the government controlled areas, but whether they have conducted this humanitarian demining 100% is still being evaluated.

As for the time it will take to see an end to all this pain caused by mines, Barnes explained that it is a long and tedious process, which takes time as the standard of clearance required for humanitarian demining is 100%. According to her, it will take at least five years to bring it down to a manageable level. Explaining further, she stated that mine clearance teams operating in Thalaimannar, which is infested with mines, have recorded that 30,000 mines have been laid in 32,000 sq meters. Speaking of mine clearance, Barnes observed that the process includes four sections - general mine action assessment (a basic socio economic survey to assess the impact of mines and UXO on communities), technical survey (a dangerous area identification), mine clearance (may be conducted immediately based on minefield records provided by the army or LTTE) and quality assurance (process ensuring a high standard of security).

"All this takes time because we need to be 100% sure of the task we do. One mine means one limb and each mine that is lifted means a limb saved," Barnes said. At present, people are moving back to their homes in de-mined areas in the former Vavuniya HSZ.

The social and economic problems caused by mines and UXO are being addressed through the combined efforts of numerous governmental, non-governmental organisations and the United Nations (UNDP and UNICEF) with the support from national and international bilateral and multilateral donor agencies.

Banning anti-personnel landmines has received much prominence internationally with many countries signing a convention to prohibit the use of, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines. Article 1 of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, which covers the aspect of general obligations states, "each state party undertakes never under any circumstances: a) To use anti-personnel mines; b) To develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, anti-personnel mines; c) To assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a state party under this convention. And each state party undertakes to destroy or ensure the destruction of all anti-personnel mines in accordance with the provisions of this convention."

Although Sri Lanka is not a party to the aforesaid convention, the Sri Lankan government has shown its interest in signing the convention. The LTTE, as a non-state party, in such an event may sign a deed of commitment, which would be formally lodged in Switzerland.

War, as we all know is cruel. A war in any country affects every person in that country, but some are more affected than the rest. It is sad to know the number of innocent civilians who suffer as a result, even when the conflict comes to a halt. UXO and landmines in affected areas are a further torment to those who have survived a bitter war. This also hinders the repatriation of refugees as when they do go back, what welcomes them to their own homes or what is left of it, is an injury (if in luck) caused by an unforgotten mine buried in the compound.

Roads have opened and barriers have been removed symbolising a path to peace and freedom, but whether this path is safe to traverse is the question that needs to be addressed.

Definitions

Article 2 of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, defines several terms associated with mines.

1. "Anti-personnel mine" means a mine designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill one or more persons. Mines designed to be detonated by the presence, proximity or contact of a vehicle as opposed to a person, that are equipped with anti mine handling devices, are not considered anti-personnel mines as a result of being so equipped.

2. "Mine" means a munition designed to be placed under, on or near the ground or other surface area and to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person or a vehicle.

3. "Anti-handling device" means a device intended to protect a mine and which is part of, linked to, attached to or placed under the mine and which activates when an attempt is made to tamper with or otherwise intentionally disturb the mine.

4. "Transfer" involves, in addition to the physical movement of anti-personnel mines into or from national territory, the transfer of title to and control over the mines, but does not involve the transfer of territory containing emplaced anti-personnel mines.

5. "Mined area" means an area, which is dangerous due to the presence or suspected presence of mines.

 

*  * *

Campaign to ban landmines

Antipersonnel landmines kill or maim thousands of people each year. Most are civilians. Many are children.  Long after wars in different areas of the world have ended, the indiscriminate use of land mines continue to deny the right to life and liberty of a large numbers of civilians.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), launched in 1991, brings together over 1,400 groups in over 90 countries who work locally, nationally, regionally and internationally to ban antipersonnel landmines.

The broad range of these groups is noticeable. They specialise in human rights, women's and children's rights, peace, disability, ex-combatants, medical expertise, humanitarian mine action, development, arms control, religion and the environment.

However ICBL has reported that the governments of Burma, Russia and to a lesser extent Nepal, Somalia and Georgia continue to use the device.

Campaign history

In 1991, several non-governmental organisations and individuals began to discuss the need to coordinate initiatives and ban antipersonnel landmines.

Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Mines Advisory Group, Physicians for Human Rights, and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation came together in October 1992 to formalise the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).

The campaign calls for an international ban on the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel landmines. It also proposes increased international resources for humanitarian mine clearance and mine victim assistance programmes.

Governments around the world responded to the campaign by negotiating the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction.  The Mine Ban Treaty prohibits, in all circumstances, any use of antipersonnel landmines.

It also requires that stockpiles be destroyed within four years of the treaty's entry into force, and that mines already in the ground be destroyed within 10 years.

Signatories

The treaty entered into force on 1 March 1999. As of 25 September 2002, 145 countries had signed or acceded to the treaty, of which 129 have ratified. The most recent accession was Afghanistan.

The ICBL said more than a dozen governments, among them Greece, Indonesia, Turkey and Yugoslavia, had announced their intention to join.

In contrast, the United States, Russia and China are among 50 countries that so far have refused to sign the treaty. The US is believed to have a stockpile of 11.2 million landmines.

Plan of action

Today, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines network represents over 1,100 groups in over 60 countries, who work locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally to ban antipersonnel landmines.                                           - BBC


  A point of view  

Is there enough reason for war?

What are the consequences of  the US military strike on Iraq? What would emerge in its wake and who would be the beneficiaries of this war which many in the world see as a war for the sake of war without any valid legal, moral or other justifications, but would only help the 'merchants of death' in the arms industry to flourish?

Will the   world be a safer place in its aftermath? And how can the US, which turns a blind eye to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's crimes in the occupied Palestinian lands, talk of Saddam Hussein's crimes? Will the US which waged war on Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime in Kabul and allowed mass murderers, hooligans and thugs to control a major part of the country in the name of bringing democracy,  introduce democracy to Iraq without harming its friendly, but oppressive regimes, in the Middle East.

These are few of the many questions constantly raised in many regions elsewhere in the world.

All indications are that the US backed by UK, will launch its destructive war for what an admant US President George Bush described as "regime change" in Iraq. Assuming Saddam Hussein is removed or killed, his regime toppled and a new pro US regime installed in Baghdad, who would govern and maintain law and order in the country known for its centuries old and deep rooted religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts?

No easy task

This is not an easy task in a volatile country like Iraq with its vast territory.  Will the US employ its soldiers to do this job? Daunting task involving high risks? And what would be the fate of hundreds of thousands of Saddam's armed forces - carefully screened and recruited from amongst Bathist members? Eliminate them as they did in Afghanistan?

Certainly the new regime will not be able to exercise control beyond Baghdad, as in the case of President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul.

Hundreds of thousands of people whose loved ones were eliminated by Saddam's oppressive security forces   will certainly try to exploit the opportunity to take revenge - as it happened in Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in 1978 - and turn the country into a killing field.

Frightened Iraqis will flee in their thousands causing refugee problems in the neighbouring countries and already Jordan has taken preventive measures. 

Initially   the US will solely depend on its airpower to minimise its casualties and to make the campaign effective. Already there were reports of the US planning to drop 3000 tons of bombs a day continuously for seven days in a three pronged attack on Baghdad in particular, and Iraq in general. Thus, it will be fierce, massive and indiscriminate bombing killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. But the casualty figures will never be known, as in Afghanistan in 2001 and during the Gulf  War 12 years ago, though many Western sources expected it to be between 500,000 to a million.

It is not known to what extent the government to be installed by the US in Baghdad, in the aftermath of the war, will be able to wield power over the south dominated by Shiites and the north by Kurds. In fact Iraq was virtually divided into three - Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the centre and the Shiites in the south - ever since   no fly zones were introduced   in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991.Since then Kurds were enjoying a relative period of calm,   prosperity and some kind of autonomy and they are scared that a regime change would turn this into a short lived dream.

In the event of   Kurds   and Shiites enjoying little more freedom, the Kurds in Syria, Iran and Turkey may be tempted, or encouraged, to ask more autonomy from their own countries,  triggering off bloody conflicts. Already Kurds in the north of Iraq have warned Turkey of a bloody conflict in the event of Turkey despatching troops to their territory. Shiites in the south always had their hearts closer to Tehran, which is bound to   forge closer links paving the way for new developments and challenges in the Gulf. Rebel troops trained and armed by Iran are simply awaiting for a US military strike to enter Kurdish areas in the north and the Shiite areas of south of Iraq.

A regime change in Baghdad will also place both Syria and Iran in very   vulnerable positions.  Iran will be sandwiched between US installed governments in Kabul and Baghdad while Syria too, known for its radical views which were not so friendly to US and Israel, will be squeezed by a 'pro US Baghdad' and Israel.

Iran is already  having problems with its Afghan border     and Iran's Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani recently accused the US of inciting Afghan bandits to create trouble along Iran's eastern fronts. A weakened Syria can also be blackmailed to tighten the Shiites fighters in South Lebanon to the benefit of Israel. And, if provoked, cornered Iran and Syria, with their proven capacities to unleash violence and wreak havoc, may   resort to such activities with unpredictable consequences. Frightening scenario.

The importance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many other countries in the region will be minimised changing the political map of the Middle East   overnight with Israel emerging as the strongest power to further destabilise the entire region for years to come.

After all in its current     military designs for the region, the US hardly cares or respects the Arab opinion as they realised that contrary to all predictions, the Arab streets, kept under tight control by Arab dictators, did not explode as predicted following the outbreak of the second intifada triggered by Ariel Sharon's visit to Masjid Al Aqsa premises, accompanied by more than 2000 policemen supplied by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Serious repercussions

And all these developments are bound to have very serious repercussions on the geopolitical situation of the entire region including the Gulf. Battered, traumatised and starved Palestinians will be the biggest losers as Israel will intensify its oppression, increase new settlements for Jews and force Palestinians to flee. Already   more than 80,000 left West Bank and Gaza during the first half of last year.

Ideal breeding grounds for future conflicts and violence! This frightening scenario was already highlighted by the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed during the recent meeting of Non Aligned countries in Kuala Lumpur.

Besides the regime change in Baghdad will have its own, open and secret, economic dimensions as Iraq, the second largest oil producer in the world, will be manipulated   to change its oil policies to suit US, and  of course Israeli designs and interests as against the GCC economies.

Saddam Hussein did not become a dictator yesterday. He had been an oppressive and ruthless dictator for almost a quarter century. Yet when it suited, the US backed him and turned a blind eye to all his crimes even against his own people.

In many ways Saddam Hussein had been a great blessing to the West and the US, as all what he did went in their favour and helped destabilise the region, causing untold misery to his people. in this regard it is worthy to note that a 45-minute BBC documentary on Saddam Hussein in October 2000, spoke in detail about the role played by the CIA to bring Saddam Hussein to power.

For example by unilaterally tearing off the 1976  Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq  to share the Shatt al Arab waterway and declaring war on Iran in 1980 Saddam   helped the West to arrest the rising tide of   what was described as an Islamic revolution in Iran. The eight year war ended after killing more than a million people besides billions of dollars of damage to the economies of the two leading oil producing countries, often described as the richest war in history as only the enemies of the Arabs and the arms industries in the West benefited. It also made the eastern front safe for Israel and encouraged it to invade Lebanon in 1982.

In the aftermath of the war in 1988 when the Iraqis began to recover from their long suffering, Saddam Hussein once again despatched his troops to Kuwait and destabilised the entire Middle East, paving the way for the US to get a foothold in the region. Many still believe that he did so encouraged by the conversation he had in Baghdad a week before with the US Ambassador April Glaspie.

Once again who benefited? The US, Europe and Israel.

Now  the US which managed to subdue the countries in the region under the guise of fighting terrorism, is trying to exploit the opportunity to change regime in Iraq and redraw the political map to suit its and Israel's interests. Already President George Bush warned that  "action will be unavoidable" if UN fails to disarm Iraq. But so far UN weapons inspectors have failed to produce any tangible evidence to show that Iraq is still hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Yet President George  Bush and his team  in Washington were hell bent on unleashing a destructive war on Iraq under the guise of regime change to implement their designs on the Middle East as a prelude to carry out their designs on the region.

Blindly supporting this view the British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that "Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should leave the scene paving the way for a new government in Iraq."  But so far the world was not convinced, as there was no proof to substantiate this claim.

Warning the US against military strikes, former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter said "Iraq is not a threat to its neighbours, as it is not acting in a manner which threatens anyone outside its borders. This was confirmed by the UN inspectors who, during seven years of their intensive inspections, found no evidence to show that Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction. Reiterating this view David Albright, former consultant to UN nuclear weapons inspectors said the "evidence now discussed is ambiguous at best and it is not strong enough to make a case for pre-emptive military action."

While the US makes its final preparations for the war on Iraq, the former US Marine General, Anthony Zinni, former National Security advisor General Brent Scowcroft and Commander of Operations during the 1991 Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf have expressed their opposition to a military strike.

No one in the world, least of all the Arabs including Iraqis, is   going to shed tears at Saddam Hussein's demise.  But all in the region are questioning the motive behind the military strike while allowing the equally worse tyrant in Israel, Ariel Sharon, to carry out his daily crimes on the Palestinians.

But who cares? Backed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and others together with powerful lobbies such as Jewish and Christian pressure groups that control US politics, President Bush has gone a long way in his campaign for military strikes to back down without losing face. On top of all, the much anticipated military campaign also helps divert attention from the declining US economy

The question is where will these destructive manoeuvrings end?  Who is next on the list? And what next after Saddam? Aren't they creating fertile breeding grounds for future conflicts?

- Latheef Farook


That life should be so cheap
and bread so dear

By Hemamala Wickramage

The radio presenter reads on. A never-ending list of names, ages and  identifiable physical characteristics of all the missing persons for  that particular day. Around four to five girls between the ages of 18 and 20 are amongst the list. They are from all over the place. Some from the south, others from the north and certain others from the hill country. The list also includes a few youth in their early teens plus two women in their mid 40's whose husbands have reported them missing. As you go on listening you can't help but wonder where on earth they could be? What on earth could they be doing? Have they gone missing because someone's taken them away forcibly or have they left their loved ones on their ownfree will? And at the same time who is bothered - apart from close family of course ?

The Police Public Relations and Media Unit does help to break the silence to some extent for the families of missing persons. Publicity given through 'police news' on radio is one such measure. It is broadcast with the hope of tracing the whereabouts of the missing people. But how effective can this publicity campaign be? If the amount of public response to police news is a yardstick then the whole exercise is carried out in vain. "Apart from the inquiries made by the near and dear of the missing there is not much of a response," said a police officer at the police PR unit. "People caught up in their daily struggle to survive don't really pay attention to this sort of thing. You might hear the news on radio somewhere and that is about it. People these days tend to prioritise their own personal needs over helping somebody in distress," added the police officer.

According to police sources, currently news on missing people is only broadcast over government radio. "Earlier there were a number of private radio stations which came forward offering air time free of charge. They no longer do it. May be the stations are pressed for air time and they can no longer allocate time for police news," said a police officer.

For police, the definition of a missing person is anyone who's whereabouts are unknown and where there are fears for the safety or concerns for the welfare of that person.

"When the local police station informs us we forward it to the radio station," said the police officer.

In most developed countries the issue of missing persons is given a far greater share of prominense. For example the police in those countries would have a separate 'missing persons' unit and in certain countries there are 'national missing persons' weeks' declared.

Not just the authorities and welfare organisations but the public awareness and assistance in this regard also seem to be on a much higher level. Prominence is given as it is considered a community issue.

But in the Sri Lankan context the issue of missing persons is given rather lukewarm treatment. According to police sources public awareness of  the issue lies at a very low point. "Let alone the general public's response, even the families who inform us of the missing fail to inform us if they happen to turn up at any point after the notification," said a police officer. As a result the statistics on missing persons show a regular rise. It seems that the information more or less goes into a black hole. Statistical evidence on the missing people for the last few years proves this. For the year 2000 the number of women reported missing had been 609 with a total of 980 men reported missing. The next year's figures show an increase with 715 women and 1048 men reported missing. The numbers for last year - again on the increase - are 981 females and 1155 males. However families who have been grateful enough to inform the police if and when they happen to find their lost loved ones stands at a mere 14 out of the total 2146 people who had gone missing last year.

The main reasons

As for this year there has been a total of 170 people reported to police as missing during January and 194 for last month.

"The issues of poverty and lack of resources is the main reason for our country to have such a low quality support network for missing people and their families. People simply are not interested in responding to such requests, " said most of the police officers The Sunday Leader interviewed.

The times that we live in are such that life has become cheap while bread and wine are dear. "The blame cannot be totally placed on the public," said one police officer. "People would want to get to work on time or take their child to the doctor on time rather than stop and match the description of a missing person to people on the streets."

According to police sources reasons for most young people to go missing is attributed to various situations ranging from family stress - rebelling against parental authority, escaping adverse circumstances, or eloping that results from love affairs. "Then there are the older people who might be suffering from mental illnesses and would wander off and get lost," said the police. There are many others who go missing in response to personal tragedy or when they are faced with insurmountable problems. Some are reunited with their families and there are other cases that sometimes end in tragedy. "There are times where we are asked to match the descriptions of the missing to the unidentified dead bodies  which turn up on  an average of around four to five per day," said a police officer.


Sands of time change the face of Weli Oya

By Marianne David

Few people appreciate the ben-efits the ceasefire has wrought than those living in Weli Oya. These are people for whom bunkers were an absolute necessity - people who listened to the sound of gunfire on a daily basis until it became background noise.

For these people, who expected attacks constantly and lived in fear and uncertainty, everything depends on the ceasefire and its continuity. This is their fervent hope: that the ceasefire holds and there will be no war again.

The long years of war have left their mark. In most places only the skeletons of houses remain. Barbed wire is everywhere. Police and army personnel and check-points are all over the place but the environment is no longer hostile.

Hope is prevalent though the fear and doubt that this peace may not last can be seen in the faces of the people. "Do people in Colombo even know what it is like here?" some of them question. But there is no anger, only hope that things will only get better from now on.

Right now, they say that their living conditions have improved remarkably. No longer do they have to constantly run for cover; no longer do their children go to school unsure of whether they will be sent back halfway through; no longer do they fear stepping out of their houses once darkness falls.

There is one bunker for every three houses they say. "Even the smallest child knows where the bunker is and how to get there fast. They learn that from the day they are born."

"Peace is good. We are very happy about the ceasefire. We can stay in our houses and we can go on the roads without fear," is what most of them said.

However, peace is just one aspect. The people of Weli Oya are still undergoing a lot of hardship. Water, medicine, transport, education, housing, electricity. the list goes on and on of what these people need.

Empty promises

"Before the ceasefire, we lived in the jungle most of the time and we suffered a lot because of the war. Our houses were ruined and nothing is left. We have got no compensation at all though successive governments have promised to do something for us. All the governments are the same. They say they will give us water but it never happens. There is electricity only in a few places."

There is a hospital but very few nurses and doctors, the people complain. "There are enough wards but no one to see to the patients. It even has a mortuary but no ice," said one woman. "Even if a child is born, we have to go to Anuradhapura to get a birth certificate."

W. Piyasena, a home guard who has been living in Weli Oya for the last 18 years, is grateful that at least now they can go out on the roads after dark without fearing for their lives.

"A lot has changed with the ceasefire. Now the main problems we have are the lack of water, transport facilities, medicine and education. When there are no rains we really suffer. There is no transport available. There is no way to study beyond O/Ls or A/Ls."

According to Piyasena, the schools have about 400 students with only around 12 teachers. "We don't have enough teachers."

As for medicine, he says that in case of an emergency there is no way to go to a doctor except by bike - if there is one that is. According to him, sometimes it takes over two and a half hours to get treatment even in an emergency.

The lack of water is a big problem the people of Weli Oya face. "There is no water here by August each year and then we have only the tube wells. That water is not good to drink. There is no Mahaweli water coming here either," they lamented.

M.D. Ariyadasa and D.W. Wijekoon came to live in Weli Oya in 1984. They say that in Weli Oya, marriage when one is quite young is common because parents cannot afford to spend even on their children.

Education

Most people in Weli Oya work as farmers or labourers. A few are fishermen or home guards. "Our children like to study but there are no jobs. There is no place for a person with education here," they say. According to them, the majority of the people in Weli Oya have studied only for a few years or upto their O/Ls with only a minority doing their A/Ls.

It is only during the last one year that the children of Weli Oya were able to go to school regularly and study without the sound of guns. "During the war the children used to be sent home all the time."

Fortunately, when there is enough water, there is enough to eat as well. "Everything grows here except leeks," they say. One only has to look around to see vegetables and paddy fields everywhere, lush and growing despite the effects of endless years of war.

For these people, the ones who have really known the destructiveness and terror of war on a day-to-day basis, their one hope is that things stay this way and that they will be able to build their homes and lives up again through the charred remains and shattered dreams.

In this place where one wakes up to the sound of peacocks calling, this place where everything grows although the sun glares down unmercifully and the wind is filled with dust, the ceasefire and the silence of the guns is all that matters.


What is this pain in our stomachs?
It is called hunger...

By Ranee Mohamed

January 5 is a day they ought to have celebrated - their second birthday. But there was nothing to celebrate, because it is the same day on which their mother, 30 year old Shanthi Perera, died at the De Soysa Maternity Hospital due to alleged medical negligence in 2001.

But these two year old twins, Malith and Malithi had to live. And for two years they have struggled to eke out a bare existence. From help received after articles in this newspaper, they managed to survive when they got milk food for the first year of their lives after Asoka Bandara from Nestle's respond on behalf of the establishment. The twins also received baby clothes and cereal. The children of Minhal International School in Wellawatte also brought them some essentials and milk food when they were babies.

 After the first year, it was their father Lalith Perera, who had to work as a labourer everyday to feed his offspring and the two grandmothers. Sixty five year old Leelawathie is Shanthi's mother, weak and frail, the woman who has been trying her best to give a better life to her daughter's babies. Seventy year old Charlotte, mother of Lalith Perera, also joined the family to help bring up these children.

A forgotten birthday

It is March 2003 and the twins did not even know that they had passed a  birthday which made them two years. "These children are starving," Charlotte tells me. "My son is in remand custody after he got involved in a squabble involving his sister and now there is no way we can feed these little children," she cries.

Leelawathie is crying. She is old and she is poor. She cannot bear to look at her daughter's children. "What is this pain in our stomach" they often ask her. At first Leelawathie had been worried, but they complained of 'that pain in their stomachs,' only at meal time.

There is no food and no kerosene. The house is full of gloom. There is no laughter from the children, only cries punctuated with sobs. Their older brother, Ashan, just seven years old sits on the ground helplessly. He loves the little twins, they bring him happiness and consolation, but he had to give his mother up to get these two. Ashan views them with mixed feelings.

The world outside is full of good things. There are toys for these children, dolls, jeeps, tea-sets, mini cars, all ideally made for toddlers like Malith and Malithi. Seven year old Ashan wants a telephone to play with. Not only are there toys, there are clothes too, tailor made for this little trio, but nothing filters down here, for they are so poor. They have nothing to eat and nothing to drink, so hunger-stricken are they all the time that they have no thoughts for other things.

It is sad, so sad that the world is full of so many things made just for children in these ages.

It is ironic, these little children need to be looked after and the two grandmothers need to be looked after too. They are in the evening of their lives, a time when they ought to be sitting down and enjoying a cup of tea. But seldom do they even have a cup of tea to keep their hunger away. Their bodies are old, tired and weak and hunger in the children mean that there is a greater hunger in these two women. "We barely eat and if we do get anything to eat, we give it to these little children," point out Charlotte and Leelawathie.

The space they call their kitchen is shockingly bare. There is not a little bit of flour or sugar in the house, let alone a biscuit.

Their house is at No. L25 Navagampura in Orugodawatte. It is past the Orugodawatte junction when one approaches from Borella and  at the turn off is a building, possibly a garment factory. On the way to the house is a temple. This is our third visit to the house in two years. For most of us, time heals, but  each year there seems to be more poverty and more heartache and tears here. Very soon it will be time for these motherless twins to go to pre-school, but it is very unlikely that these children will ever be able to go to school   without some help from those who can help.

Picture on the wall

The only happiness in their lives is the warmth they receive from their grandmothers and their older brother. What a happy family they would make, if only they had food to eat and some bare essentials of life.

On their bare walls hangs a picture of Shanthi Perera, who had great plans for the babies and who died allegedly at the hands of inexperience.

At the mention of the word 'mother,' the  toddlers get up with difficulty from the floor and run unsteadily towards the picture on the wall. "Amma, Amma," they cry. But nothing happens. They touch the wall with their little fingers and their tears take time to stain their cheeks as they look up. They begin to cry softly for their mother, but there is no response from the cold wall.

Lalith Perera who watched his wife wake up at 5 a.m to go to maternity clinic at the De Soysa Maternity Hospital was told that she had died after these babies were delivered via caesarean section. It is alleged that Shanthi Perera did not receive the basic 48 hour aftercare that such patients are afforded.

The future

What kind of a society do we live in? How can we bring so much misery and suffering into the lives of poor helpless people like these and then relax as if nothing has happened.

What is the future of these twins? Can society take their mother away at birth and then ignore them? Is there some authority, somebody who will make life better  and bring happiness for these motherless twins, whose father too is today behind bars. "I am not a strong man, but the thought of my children, especially the twins keeps me going. I will do everything I can to bring up these babies," Lalith Perera once told me. That was all he could tell me because he was shaking with uncontrollable sobs.

The babies do not understand why they do not have a mother. They do not understand why their father is missing for the past two months. From time to time they hold their stomachs - they do not understand the pain inside, they only wish it would go away.


Heart disease in post - menopausal women

There are several studies which suggest that Hormone (oestrogen + progestogen) Replacement Therapy (HRT) could prevent Coronary Heart Disease (C.H.D.) in post-menopausal women. But according to randomised trials (HERS study and WHI study) HRT does not lower the risk of C.H.D. (heart attacks) in women who used HRT (i.e.  oestrogen and progestogen).

HERS (Heart and Oestrogen, Progestogen Replacement Study) investigated the risk of cardiac events (e.g. cardiac death and new heart attacks) among 2763 post-menopausal women with documented C.H.D and showed that the risk of heart attacks increased by 29% after administration of HRT.(JAME,1988,28,60513). When HRT (combination of oestrogen and progestogen) was given it had been shown that progestogen has been shown to adversely affect serum lipid profile (i.e. caused elevation of bad cholesterol).

In WMI Study (Women's Health Initiation Study) HRT was used in 16608 healthy post menopausal women who were taking HRT. This study showed a significant high  incidence of invasive breast cancer. Thus, in both above studies the cardiac events (heart attacks and cardiac death) increased when a combination of oesteogen and progestogen (HRT) was used.

Dr. Nicole Cherry of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada carried out a study using only oestrogen to find out whether oestrogen alone is helpful in the prevention of heart attacks in case of post-menopausal women. The above trial was carried blinded, placebo controlled and randomised using only oestrogen (without progestogen) and 1017 post-menopausal women aged 50-69 years who have survived a first myocardial infarction ( heart attack) were used. Patients were recruited from 35 hospitals in England and Wales. As mentioned earlier the purpose of the trial was to find whether oestrogen therapy helps these females to prevent (a) a second heart attack (b) cardiac deaths and (c) all- cause mortality.

It was found that oestrodiol valerate does not reduce the overall risk of further cardiac events such as re-infarction and cardiac deaths (secondary prevention) in post-menopausal women who have just survived a heart attack.

- Dr. D. P. Atukorale

 

 

 

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