Yesterday, I met up with a Catholic nun who shall remain nameless at a place in Colombo which too shall remain nameless. There were six of us present, of whom two were lay people. This nun was here on a short visit from the Wanni where she lives and works with the IDPs. Apart from this nun, I was the only Tamil present and hence she told her story in halting Sinhala as she didn’t seem comfortable speaking in English. She was here on a mission, not to disseminate information as such, but to gather together such necessaries as were needed by the people to whom she was ministering. We had recently made a collection of clothing which she had taken back with her to the Internally Displaced People. She was now back to collect more clothes, as well as other items - rubber slippers, which could be worn into the makeshift toilets used by the IDPs, sanitary towels with loops to be used by women who had no underwear, rudimentary medicines like panadols and Siddhalepa, to be distributed amongst the families and even some exercise books and crayons to keep the little ones occupied.
We listened to her tale with fascination tinged with horror. There were heartwarming stories amidst the horror stories. She spoke about the various camps to which only two nuns at a time were given permission to visit. There were altogether 10 members of the clergy, belonging to various catholic orders who took it in turns to visit and minister to these needy people. The largest camp, the Menik farm was the show piece that was displayed to visiting dignitaries. However, the parts on show were only a small portion of the whole. Whether the parts which were not on show are as good, remains open to speculation.
The government provides the basic food items like rice and dhal and the people in the camp cook the food themselves. All other items have to be found. The kachcheri van is allowed into the camp with biscuits and water and the clergy trails along in its wake, carrying in other items like clothing, panadol, sugar etc. The nun who was recounting this tale said that recently, while they were distributing cups of sugar to some of the families, a little sugar spilt on the ground. Immediately all the children in the vicinity went down on all fours, swiping the floor with the palms of their hands and then licking them off their palms. This nun said that she could not hold back her tears as their mothers explained that the children had not seen sugar in more than two years.
Though in the Menik camp, the people cooked their own rice and dhal, the other camps were more dependent on the good offices of the clergy and other well wishers. The nun spoke of another nun, neither old nor young, who visits the camps on her scooter. She is the only one, trusted implicitly both by the army and the LTTE, and allowed to cross the mental and physical barriers dividing the two. Everyday, she personally cooks (I presume she must have help from one or two others) and delivers 2,500 packets of food to some of the smaller camps. The ‘two members of the clergy at a time’ rule does not seem to apply to her as she is allowed to visit the camps and hospitals as often and whenever she wishes to. The others must abide by the rules. They do what they can, but two can do little to minister to the ills of the body, mind and soul of thousands. We asked this nun how the army viewed the activities of the clergy and about their attitude to the unfortunate people in the camps. Her answer was that the ordinary soldier was helpful and compassionate towards the people whom they were required to guard and protect. For instance she told us about the checkpoint at Omanthai. This is the entry point for the IDPs whose credentials are checked before they are sent to one of the camps. Because the checking process is necessarily slow and laborious, many thousands congregate there, without food or water, and without shelter from the scorching heat of the hot, noonday sun. The nuns bring them biscuits and soft drinks when there is insufficient water to go around. They even set up open fires, where they brew great quantities of hot sweet tea to refresh these weary people. The soldiers are usually helpful and compassionate towards the people and help these nuns to do what needs to be done. Once, they encountered a higher ranking official, who dismissed them brusquely saying, "no one can go there". The soldiers who heard him, muttered beneath their breath to the nuns saying, "Take no note of him. He is not right in his head".
The nun also spoke of the hospitals. Two members of the clergy are allowed to visit the main hospital in Vavuniya twice a day, for an hour at a time. Here are housed the latest casualties of war. It is not difficult to imagine the scenario that prevails here with critically injured men, women and children in their thousands needing treatment, with just three doctors to see to everyone. (One senior member of the clergy who was present on this occasion, reminded us that the numbers mentioned are unverifiable and that this nun could only be making an educated guess as to the statistics. I bear this in mind). Most patients who are not critically ill, are treated by the nurses and even by some of the nuns themselves, who prescribe medicines to the sick. She also told us about the "chicken pox" hospital. Within the crowded conditions of the camps, any communicable disease reaches epidemic proportions within a short time. A makeshift structure was constructed to house about 900 chicken pox victims (the numbers have dwindled down to about 600 now)- men, women and children. This was a rudimentary building with some poles planted on the ground covered by a woven cadjan roof. The structure must certainly have been far cooler than the alternative - plastic tents sent from Western countries, which are murder in the Sri Lankan climate, where it is hot, hot and humid!. However, when the rains started, they beat in on the hapless patients who had no choice but to endure this further onslaught.
In the hot and humid conditions in the Wanni, a bath becomes not a luxury but a necessity. When I asked the nun about this, she said that a bowser brings water to the camps and the people collect their share in plastic buckets. A daily bath is not possible, but most people manage to have a wash of sorts using the limited water available to them. Large areas of forest and scrub land were cleared to house the IDPs. As a result there are no trees to shelter the people from the blazing heat of the sun, and since the plastic tents would broil them during the day, as many people as could possibly fit into a small space, huddle beneath the shade of two trees which have been allowed to remain in one camp. The soldiers are helpful and run little errands for the people. Some of the people entrust their precious cash to the soldiers to purchase some much needed items. As I understand it, there have so far been no complaints by the IDPs of being cheated of their money by the soldiers.
Many of them left their homes clutching their precious worldly possessions to them. Since it is the Tamil custom to invest one’s savings in gold jewellery, many have valuable items of jewellery with them which need to be safely deposited in a bank. As I understand it, arrangements are being made to meet this need. One old man, this nun tells me, was clutching a pillow to his chest. On closer examination at the checkpoint, it was found to contain 5 lakhs of rupees that he had saved over the years, with labour and privation. He was encouraged to deposit his money in a bank that had been set up to meet such requirements.
While doing what they could to alleviate the suffering of these people, the nuns would chat to them. During the course of these chats, it emerged that all these people were more than willing and able to work hard and support themselves if they were allowed to return to their lands and their occupations. No one there wanted to live off the charity of either the government or even other charitable organizations and people, but they had no choice but to do so. The work ethic is an intrinsic feature of the Tamil psyche and there was a good deal of frustration at the enforced idleness of their present condition.
The nun’s task in speaking to us ended at this point. She had recounted her experiences and made her plea for help with procuring the essential goods needed for these displaced people. The rest of us were left to ponder on the imponderables. What would become of these people? What would be the fate of the people trapped between an armed force determined to prosecute the war to its bitter end and an intransigent, desperate and ruthless guerrilla force. This is a manifestation of that eternal conundrum - what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? The correct answer to that is that both cannot exist at one and the same time. It is a semantic impossibility. In real life however things are not that simple.
The Sri Lankan army has proved that it has the power to destroy the immovable object. But if it uses its power to decimate that immovable object, it will unleash a force that would boomerang and destroy it as well. For, if the Sri Lankan army as the representative of a democratically elected government ignores its obligations to safeguard its Tamil civilian population, then the Tamil diaspora would find an outlet for its justifiable wrath in new and perhaps terrible ways.
‘The radicalization of the Tamil Diaspora’ is a phrase that is on everyone’s lips these days. As a Tamil, with family residing in different parts of the world, I have some sense of what this radicalization means. As the margin of safety becomes narrower and narrower and time runs out for the men, women and children trapped between the LTTE and the armed forces, the diaspora is becoming increasingly agitated. For the many, who left after the excesses of 1983, the relentless prosecution of the war by the government regardless of the human cost, becomes a haunting reminder of the vulnerability of the Tamil people; for many who have close relatives and friends trapped in the Wanni, the fear and pain of loss and separation becomes almost unbearable; then there are the Tigers who manipulate the emotions of the vulnerable with information and misinformation.
But then there is information and misinformation disseminated by the government of Sri Lanka as well. The Sinhala supremacists and the radicalized Tamils make an emotional choice as to whom and what they will believe, fuelled by their ethnic loyalties. Each has access only to partial truths, which they believe are whole truths. In this lies their blindness. I write in favour of moderation - to see these partial truths for what they are and to recognize the fact that the whole truth will continue to elude us; to be ware of the rhetoric of hate and to refuse to become a pawn in the diabolical vision of either the nationalists or the separatists. For while the ultra nationalists and the separatists pursue their own ends, the people of this land of whatever ethnicity are being required to pay with their lives for the intolerance and intransigence of a bigoted few.