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On The Spot


What Iíve seen... 

People have been pouring in to the IDP camps
and (inset) Many kids have never played with a toy

By Indi Samarajiva

I have been to the hospitals in the north. Not that far and not into the camps or the warzone, but I can tell you what I saw. I say this not to shame the government but to support it. Government servants, doctors and armed forces are working very hard and providing direct relief in these areas. It is both patriotic and pragmatic to support them at this time, and I believe it is right. This is our flag. May it give our people shelter.


Any trip to the north begins in Colombo, and it begins with access. Without approval from one or more ministries you cannot go. Many in the international media are calling for full and unfettered access. This I hope for, in time, for all Sri Lankans. However, the war has only been over for only a few weeks. This has been a terrorist war, one which preys on civilian networks of transport and communication. There are very legitimate security concerns and any pragmatic concern for this nation must acknowledge that.

With that respect, access is possible. With access you can actually make a difference. Whatís interesting is that access is now much easier for Sri Lankan citizens than foreigners. Suddhas used to often have easier access via branded SUVs, but no longer. I suspect this humiliates many aid workers and reporters, perhaps unnecessarily. It doesnít bother me too much.


From Colombo you travel with all the relevant letters and National IDs through Anuradhapura to Medavachchiya. The midpoint. People are directed into specific areas, Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar, Padaviya. Access to most points is through Medavachchiya.

Medavachchiya is hot, first off, and thereís a lot of waiting around. Every single truck is checked, thoroughly. Lorries circle through a makeshift depot, being checked under, over and inner. Because they have to. In my experience security forces go through almost everything, down to whatís inside boxes, and whatís inside that.

There are lorries bumper to bumper, WFP, Red Cross, UN. Carrying food, water, supplies. There is also plenty of civilian traffic. People gather around with their documents, waiting for approval, to pass. There are communication kades to get a Ďreload,í photocopy documents. Did I mention that itís hot?

The road to Vavuniya

There are two ways I know out of Medavachchiya. One to Vavuniya, and the other to Padaviya. There are of course more, but this is what I know. The roads are surprisingly good. They say an army marches on its stomach, via its supply lines. On the Vavuniya road I didnít see too much traffic, but we were in an armored bus.

There isnít that much you can see from window slits, but there is life on the way to the town. It is not abundant and houses are few and far between. The buses stop and idle at checkpoints, but life goes on. Vavuniya town, however, is a proper town. Thereís a Food City supermarket (if I remember correctly), a large petrol shed, billboards, a town. The Vavuniya Hospital itself is quite big and impressive, in a grey Stalinist kinda way. Itís a storeyed complex, with an elevator.


The Vavuniya Hospital is large. When I went it was about double capacity. Since then it has almost doubled again. There are both immediate casualties and their familes. In these times, there is separation from life, limb and loved ones amongst almost everyone there.

Rather than lose their family indefinitely people stay together in the hospitals. Unfortunately, the hospital is not built to be a hostel and some were sleeping besides on the floor. This was less on a second visit, as we and others bought mats. There are many women and children and few men. Walking through the hospital, most injuries seem to be to limbs. They are bandaged, many amputed. Many have external fixatures, metal rods fixed to arms or legs. The doctors need more of these.

If you walk through the Lady Ridgeway in Colombo there are some similar scenes.  But, itís not that drastic. Here, in Vavuniya, there are families waiting in the corridors between wards. There arenít enough wards, but they are building more. Near one of these I saw a little girl pushing a wheelchair. A boy smiled, his arm in a sling. He pointed to his chest and said he had something there, a wound. In between broken Tamil and smiles I figured out that his father had died, sister died. ĎAppa naí he said.

Looking around, there werenít complete families. I suspect that someone in everyoneís immediate family was dead or gone. It is heartbreaking, really. Beyond the lost limbs you see, there are the phantom limbs on thousands of family trees.

The doctors and nurses, of course, are working very hard to preserve and improve lives. They work tirelessly, 20-hour days, little rest, little respite. Despite this, they work. I spoke to a doctor there, Sinhala if it matters, about whether the work is hard. He said they enjoy it. Iím amazed, and proud.

The Tamil doctor in charge was very busy but the place was well run and the work was well done. They need support, of course, but itís a far cry from the neglect portrayed abroad. There is care, under great duress.

Vavuniya: Immediate needs

Since the LTTE is no longer around to keep human shields, there are far less human casualties coming in. However, there are cases of chickenpox and hepatitis. And many have pneumonia. Many also have malnutrition and there are an awful lot of children. We are trying to take up the relevant medicines and also begin helping directly in the Vavuniya camps.


Another way out of Medavachchiya leads to Padaviya. This is in the Anuradapura District ó it is closer to the erstwhile warzone. Though I reached from the south, most patients came there via Pulmudai, direct from Mullativu. From torment they were ferried out by the Red Cross to Pulmudai, then to the transit hospital in Padaviya.

Padaviya itself is in what seems to be a mostly Sinhalese town, as much as that matters. Most of the nurses and doctors were Sinhala and there were also soldiers warded there. The way up to Padaviya is much more populated, and dotted with what seem like new houses. Simply because I could see out the window I saw convoy after convoy. Literally counted tens of them, container trucks, heading back. And there were many going up.

The hospital is small, about 500 patients there at the time. However, as a transit hospital, it got large batches of wounded and then directed them out, to places like Vavuniya. I was there at a lull, just as the war ended when the incoming patients were few. Not because there were no casualties, but because the Red Cross ship had stopped going to the warzone. After we left there must have been a deluge.

Padaviya people

Because it was a lull, there was a chance to visit and even talk to some of the people there. As much as possible. They were almost all unilingual Tamil, though a few spoke some Sinhala and English. At the hospital there were many children, and mothers. One woman was standing outside with her four children. We gave them some toys, cars and things. She said her husband was gone. Dead.

Another old man smiled and spoke in English, about who he was, where he was from. He smiled because he seemed happy to talk to someone new. Near the hospital there is a makeshift residence in an old garment factory. There, through an interpreter I spoke to an old woman. She said sheíd gotten some clothes once off the boat and not much since. She was most concerned about finding her family, sons and daughters, who she was separated from.

The factory floor itself was full of beds. In fact, many beds unoccupied, perhaps because it was a transit point. Outside the children were playing cricket. I felt like a fool, but I spoke that Sri Lankan language and smiled. I was fiddling with my phone and a child inquired what it was. I told him Twitter and drew a blank. Said, Internet, also a blank. I showed him some games. Army presence was always close by.

Common language

Being there, you are struck by the need to speak a respectful amount of Tamil. The children taught me some. When we got beyond the non-verbal curiosity they taught me to count to 10. They already knew that much in Sinhala and English. I tried to teach them some French but the very nation drew a blank. Pranchasay?

In the midst of this there was one woman crying, wailing, to the side. That was the only emotion of that sort that I saw there, but beneath the survival there must be that, emotion. The children know, but they are also able to play cricket and move forward. For those older it is harder, but in the young, I pray, lies the hope.

Padaviya: Immediate needs

Some of the children had scabies, I saw upon their faces. This can be mitigated with better living conditions, clean sheets and clothes. And medicine of course. Weíre trying to gather the same. They need intravenous drips, water mattresses, basic things. The pressing need seems to be communication, finding each other among the displaced. That still seems far away.


Beyond there is the heart of the matter, the inaccessible. The media attention was on the warzone then, now it is on the camps. Groups I work with have got access, but they are quiet about it, they just serve. I feel that a lot of the attention is simply posturing. LTTE supporters abroad, for example, seem to wave every image of a crying child or grieving mother like a flag.

I have seen these images for real, and it makes me more inclined to humility and compromise. I have seen children crying, children who will never walk properly and whose parents are gone. I have seen parents who bear the terrible loss of a child. Yet here, on the ground in Sri Lanka, these are not photo-ops. They are not the postcards of vengeance.

These are people. They are Sri Lankan. They are not beggars, and they are not fools. They are my fellow citizens who have fallen on hard times and need help. The sooner they can be resettled the better for them, and for the government as well. The sooner our children can play cricket together the better, and we need to see them healthy first. Rather than blackguarding the people able to deliver relief, I think we now all have to use the access we can get as Sri Lankans to help each other.

Right now there really does need to be more access to the camps, simply to treat and feed and shelter the people there. Beyond that there needs to be communication and resettlement. However, this has to start with respect, beginning with Sri Lankaís right to exist, and to unite. Despite all the noise preceeding it, the recent UNHRC resolution was quite clear in this regard. They backed Sri Lanka and offered support. Which is what we need right now.

Compromise to act

The view from the north, what little Iíve seen, is personally less bad than itís made out to be. Not that the human suffering isnít terrible, it is. Itís just that they make the situation out to be hopeless and the government to be enemies and itís absolutely not like that. There is hope and the government is providing relief. Can they do better? Of course they can do better, but yelling at them and taking them to international courts isnít actually productive.

What is productive is working with the ministries here to find out what help they need. Rather than just telling them to do this or that, perhaps help shoulder some of the burden and expense of a very difficult task. What is right is thanking the soldiers standing all day in the Medavachchiya sun searching stuff, because Sri Lanka is under threat. What is good is reaching the people in the north through a sovereign Sri Lanka that offers a better future for all of us.

Perhaps this isnít the most exciting story. Itís not the gory details and it doesnít shock the senses. Itís just what I saw and what Iím comfortable to tell. But Iím not looking for a scoop and Iím not looking for ratings. The people I know doing the most relief work keep quiet and just do it. In that same way, I encourage you to help your neighbours in whatever way you can. The West may have the luxury to condemn and change the channel, but we donít. We have to compromise, we have to treat each other with respect, and we have to act. I have seen the suffering in Sri Lanka, but I have also seen the compassion. I believe we can.

For ongoing relief in the north please visit, or ask around.









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