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
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.
trip to the north begins in
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Compromise to act
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.
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.
ongoing relief in the north please visit
savevanni.blogspot.com, or ask around.