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Lest we forget – the Ranaviru

The beginnings

By the beginning of the year 2000, thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and police personnel had sacrificed their lives and body parts in the defence of the peace, unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of our beloved Sri Lanka.

Then came the Elephant Pass debacle in April 2000. There was a threat that 45,000 troops stationed in the Jaffna Peninsula will be slaughtered by the LTTE brigands. Her Excellency the President realized the enormity of this intended massacre on the morale of the whole country if it came to pass, with 45,000 grieving families in every hamlet, village and town. Fortunately the brave soldiers at Elephant Pass with heroic action by the Air Force extricated themselves and although a huge disaster was averted it was at a severe cost of life, mind and limb and the isthmus that joins the peninsula to the rest of the country was lost to the hands of terrorist forces.

The President got her trusted and efficient Advisor Dr. Tara De Mel to immediately organize a psycho-social unit called the Ranaviru Surakum Ekakaya (RSE or Human Intervention Unit) to cater to the needs of the demoralized Service and Police personnel, grieving widows and mothers, and the differently abled at strife and to drum up support and solidarity, both financial and moral, from the citizens of Sri Lanka for their brave defenders. It was a small unit within the Presidential Secretariat consisting of an Occupational Physician, a Clinical Psychologist, a Sociological Biochemist, and a Computer Operator (Dr. Narme F. Wickremesinghe, Psy. Shehani De Silva, Dr. Visaka Dissanayake, and Ms. D.L. Maduka Chaturani) with several voluntary workers and counsellors (three of whom were family members of Service personnel Missing In Action). They obtained specialized advice from a ‘Cell’ that met once a week with the RSE and consisted of a Consultant Psychiatrist (Dr. Damani de Silva) and three Clinical Psychologists (Gameela Samarasinghe, Kalhari Hewage – De Silva, and Rushika Amerasekara). There was also another grassroots Advisory Body that met monthly consisting of the Welfare and Medical Directors of the Armed Forces and Police, representatives of four organizations of the families of those missing, killed and disabled in action, Brig. Ananda Jayawardena of the Defence Ministry, Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya, Psychatrists and Psychologists. A prominent role in this Advisory Body was played by Visaka Dharmadasa, Druki Martenstyn, Lali Kobbekaduwa, Asoka Dayaratne, Charmaine Mendis, Drs. Tara De Mel and Padmini Mendis, Psys. Piyanjali de Zoysa, Nayomi Kannangara, Parwani Pinnawela, and Eshani Kalpage.

Thousands of communications flooded the RSE (and later the RVSA). Every letter and telephone call was actively pursued for a solution and replied. A ranaviru help desk was established in every Government Ministry and Secretariat throughout the country (and in the Army transit camps and hospitals) to facilitate problem solving, minimize post traumatic reactions and for the quick processing of compensation claims – breaking down bureaucratic barriers, with a personal thrust by the President. Needs assessment surveys showed that much of the morale problems besetting the combatants, disabled and their families emanated from social deprivations.

Ranaviru Day (-Strife Heroes Day)

Thus was born the Rana Viru Seva Authority (RVSA) on 07th June 2000 with Dr. Tara De Mel as the first Chairperson, to attend to the social needs of Service and Police Personnel, the differently abled and their families, on public donations alone. The President declared June 7th each year to be commemorated as Rana Viru Day, and called upon the public for financial support to conduct welfare programmes for the ranaviru. On the first Ranaviru Day in 2000, Ministers, Parliamentarians of all political hues and other VIPs met at the Presidential Secretariat in honour of the strife heroes - living, disabled, missing and killed and their families who had given all for our Motherland and on our behalf. Then they dispersed to collect funds in every electoral district. At Mt. Lavinia, tragedy struck - a terrorist suicide bomber let go his venom in the midst of a procession collecting funds led by the amiable Minister C.V. (Puggy) Gooneratne. He and his wife with many others including children were killed on the spot. Large numbers were injured.

Ranaviru Seva Authority
(-RVSA)

Undaunted, Dr. Tara de Mel organized the Rana Viru Seva Authority on modern management lines - minimum staff, maximum output, ruthlessly cutting down on bureaucracy, adopting a participatory approach and the cooperation of the private sector. For its first three years, emoluments of staff cost less than 10% of the total output - a feature no other Government Institution had achieved, and the cost of welfare projects output was from donations only. Unfortunately the picture has changed drastically during the last few years with politicization, and staff numbers have nearly trebled (and their wages paid from interest on unutilized donations) and ranaviru welfare activities reduced. The funds from the Ranaviru Lottery are now kept by the Treasury!

Dr. Tara De Mel recruited a small band of graduates with post graduate management training in the private sector and without any State sector experience, to do the massive work load for the welfare of those who maintain the integrity of our nation, on a scientific basis of need rather than a Government bureaucratic approach.

Young Priyantha Kulatunga was appointed as the Projects Manager. The projects were established under a single youthful project officer - Housing (Chrishanthi Marambe), Educational Scholarships (Chandima Kosgahakumbura), Skill Development (Manoj Kumara - later R.M. Wijeratne), the Disabled (Manjula Senadeera), Media publicity (Sirimalee Liyanagama), Transit camp & Remembrance Park (Chamil Samarasinghe) and Legal (Suhada Gamlath and Indra Baduge). Graduate field officers (Bonnie Gamage, Kapila Nonis, Shanthasri, Kamalsiri and Wimalaratna) travelled throughout the country to report on the progress of the projects, supervised and paid by private sector experts. There were no clerks or labourers. A.L.D. Gunaratne and Rajindra Perera, of the Presidential Secretariat advised the Chairperson on Government financial and administrative procedures. Tulani Dewamitta and Maduka Chathurani with volunteers handled the correspondence, Priyanga Ratnayake, Sisira Kumara and Priyanga Padmasiri did the transportation. Two officers from the Petroleum Corporation (Priyanka and Niroshan Hapuarachchi) were seconded.

Professional committees assisted the Project Officers to give a rational methodology to project work. Prominent among them were Armyne Wirasinhe, Cubby Wijetunga, Charmaine Wijesnghe, Lal De Mel, Prof. Kumudu Wijewardena, Lt. Gen. Denis Perera, Vijaya Malalasekara, Lakshman Nugawela & Drs. Padmini Mendis, Thiloma Munasinghe and Narme Wickremesinghe. The RSE continued its 'Healing Minds' and 'Family Help' Projects and after 1 ½ years was amalgamated with the RVSA, with Dr. Visaka Dissanayake as the Projects Coordinator.

Meanwhile the business community contributed lavishly towards the welfare projects and got actively involved in the Housing and Skills (especially Mr. Armyne Wirasinghe). The Ceylon Tobacco Co. was actively involved in setting up of the National Remembrance Park in Mailapitiya, off Kandy and expended 7 million rupees. The Sri Lankans abroad, especially those in Saudi Arabia led by Lakshman Waragoda and Lalith de Silva (now a Director of Srilankan) were the main contributors to the Educational Scholarships Project amounting to nearly 12.5 million rupees. The President’s Fund contributed 100 million rupees to the Housing Project and loaned 07 million rupees to the National Remembrance Park Project. Large numbers of expatriate Sri Lankan's responded to the RSE web site and contributed 5 million rupees to the Psycho-social Project. However it must be stated that people of all walks of life gave their mite to all the projects and did not forget the sacrifices of the ranaviru. For some unknown reason up to date there have been no contributions from any politicians - including those who shout themselves hoarse with war cries!

The Staff, volunteers, and advising professionals of the RVSA showed a rare commitment to ensure the welfare and empowerment of countless war affected persons outside the strife zone. The working motto was 'Care for those who dare'. There were no claims for overtime, although they worked outside working hours. This enthusiasm was infused by the dynamism of Dr. Tara De Mel, who sadly resigned in a few months to become the Secretary, Education Ministry. Her successor as Chairperson, Dr. Narme F. Wickremesinghe, continued the same Projects using the same methodology from November 2000 to May 2003. He was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Neil Dias, then Col. Lalith Gunaratne, and now an Acting Chairperson Maj. Gen. Palitha Fernando. It was also in 2003, that two serving Government bureaucrats were appointed full time for the first time to the RVSA to streamline the administration and financial management, but ever since the welfare projects seem to have come to a near standstill.

Housing, Scholarship & Disabled

All work of the RVSA in the first three years was done on private donations and returns from the Jayaviru Lottery (NLB). The major social project was housing, selecting 25 recipients in each District on a strict marking scheme without any outside influence. 2,000 housing units were built with the participation of the recipients and their neighbours in all Provinces outside the North and East. The Project is now politicized and barely active. Similarly around 1,000 scholarships of rupees five hundred per ranaviru child per month in grades 11 - 14, for two years, was awarded, linking the donor family to the recipient family.

Occupational training and psychological empowerment training for the differently able ranaviru and strife widows was conducted in the first three years. There are over 10,000 disabled at strife but most of them are still retained in the Armed Forces and are provided marketable skills training for use when they retire by the Army's Ranaviru Sevana. However Police disabled are prematurely retired and receive a pittance. Few are bed ridden and some are speech disabled but trained at the Army Hospital to return to near normalcy by Dr. Shirani de Saram the Speech Pathologist assisted by other volunteers from the Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa Trust. The RVSA provided funds and made arrangements for the water supply to five ranaviru gammana which houses the differently abled and strife widows. 161 telephones, 41 three wheelers, 08 computers, 500 mobile toilets and 86 houses were provided or facilitated for them by the RVSA.

Presently, most of the welfare projects for combatants, differently abled and families of the lost are done only by the Seva Vanitha Units and the Welfare, Rehabilitation and Medical Directorates of the Armed Forces and of the Police. Additionally under His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksha a separate Ministry has been established for welfare work.

Psycho-social Project

Perhaps the most successful project in terms of the original objectives in the formation of the RSE and RVSA was the psychosocial project, sadly no longer fully active. Women's empowerment training (including skills training by Sarvodaya) for strife affected women was conducted in 16 Districts to overcome unresolved grief and to get on with life. Psycho-sexual workshops for women soldiers and attitudinal seminars for arrested deserters were also done. Several workshops for women soldiers and attitudinal seminars for arrested deserters were also done. Several workshops for relevant personnel in the Armed Forces and Police with international resource persons were organized with the assistance of the late Psy. Dr. Padmal de Silva, Dr. Athula Sumathipala and Dr. Anula Nikapotha of the Institute of Psychiatry. Kings College, London, and the Sri Lanka - UK Trauma Group. Nearly 700 befrienders in seven Provinces were trained.

A project proposal for the re-integration of retiring combatants and of the disabled into civilian life was developed with the assistance of the International Labour Organization. Although the RVSA itself has dropped this project which was part of the Government's Triple R Peace Programme, it was later partly implemented as a pilot Project by the International Organization for Migration. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has listed this Project to be done by the Disaster Management Ministry. Soldiers from the Psy-Ops Directorate and Special Forces were trained in the aspects they requested, and personnel with psychological problems were attended to daily. The psycho-social project also attended to a huge volume of correspondence, visits and calls on personal problems where the requests were seen to a definitive conclusion - done by six ladies (Jayanthi, Ganga, Shirani de Alwis, Champika, Rasanjala and Attorney Indra Baduge). Legal and land matters were facilitated by this project, and mobile clinics organized. This work has now been handed over to politicized cells in the Districts and welfare work takes a back seat.

National Remembrance Park (NRP)

The Project that leaves a permanent mark for posterity of the nation's gratitude to the Armed Services and Police is the National Remembrance Park (NRP), established on the theme 'Peace and Life has come from Death and Strife' and which was dedicated by the President on 03 October 2002 in the presence of about 10,000 strife victims and VIPs. Personnel from the Armed Services, Police, Ceylon Tobacco Company, RVSA, District Secretariat, Presidential Secretariat, Mahaweli Authority, and Architects (Mano Ponniah, and the late Turner Wickremesinghe), enthusiastically joined together to set up this Park at Mailapitiya, Kandy. It would not have seen the light of day if not for the dogged persistence and perfectionism of Gen. Denis Perera. The names of 21,361 heroes killed and missing in action since the Independence of Sri Lanka in 1948, are inscribed in granite (and now much more have been added) in a serene ecologically sound environment, with a unique artistic steel monument and four religious shrines at the entrance. This Rupees 25 million project proposal envisaged an independent Trust to continue its maintenance and development with the Services Commanders and IGP as the trustees. The Trust Deed was approved by the Attorney General and the Judge Advocate General to the Forces, Rs. 4 million collected as donations for the Trust, and the deed signed by the Trustees and by all those actively involved with the establishment of the NRP, but bureaucracy thwarted the Trust Deed from being registered. However the NRP continues to be maintained unofficially according to the provisions of the intended Trust Deed. It is hoped that an independent trust without State bureaucracy will be established for the future development of the National Remembrance Park including the planting of a tree for each one missing in action, who have no specific place of remembrance.

The same project handled improvements to the Transit Camps. A new Womens Transit Camp was established in Galkissa and new billets were built at Anuradhapura. Land was obtained for a new transit camp at Ratmalana and Rs. 15 million collected, but again administrative bungling has thwarted further progress, and soldiers proceeding to the North continue to experience untold suffering and go angry to the theatre of operations.

Conclusion

The words of Her Excellency President Chandrika Kumaranatunga at the dedication for the NRP is relevant for all time: "Let it not be said that in our earnest quest for peace that we left behind forsaken, like a spent force, our soldiers and our police. Let it never be said that we used them and forsook them."

For the same occasion, the then Prime Minister the Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe wrote: "At this time when peace is to reign I am glad that the RVSA and the CTC have joined hands to give leadership to the public and private sectors to honour the heroes of the Armed Forces and Police".

The ballad of Bill Ray Cyrus adapted and sung at the Memorial Service for the late Lt. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, remains apt:

All gave some, some gave all,

Some stood through for a nation so true

and some had to fall.

And if you ever think of me

Think of all your liberties and recall

SOME GAVE ALL

Let us continue to honour and give priority to those who defend the peace and integrity of Mother Lanka.

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