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All Experiences Are Subjective –
A record of my impressions of the IDP camps

All experiences are subjective. And so I realized when nine of us visited some of the IDP camps last week and found that each of us had different feelings and observations about the experience. Perhaps this is because every experience is viewed through the prism of our personalities, value systems, cultural and educational orientations as well as our own life experiences. This may also be the reason why there are such diametrically opposing views expressed about the conditions in the IDP camps, for while some feel that the refugees are very well looked after, others feel that their conditions are dismal. All that I will attempt to do here is to describe my own observations, thoughts and feelings during my visit to the IDP camps.

I was one of five lay people of different religions and faiths, who joined a group of Catholic nuns on a mission of mercy. Like many others in the South belonging to every religion and denomination, these nuns had been hard at work gathering clothes, food items and other essential in order to ease the suffering of the displaced people in the North. On this occasion however, they were working in conjunction with a group of young school leavers to provide 1,300 families at Sumathipuram camp with what were referred to as "friendship packages". Since the government was supplying the camps with basic food items, each of these packages consisted of a bucket, a sarong, a dress, several pairs of slippers, siddhalepa, condiments, soaps, a towel, sanitary towels and toothpaste for each family. Some of the items in the package would have been used up in a week and would have barely scratched the surface of their needs. Still, as they say, something is better than nothing and even this something cost a tidy sum!

We left during the early hours of Thursday 16th July for the long drive to Vavuniya. Gradually the vegetation changed from lush greenery to dry scrub land. As we drew closer and closer to our destination I grew silent as I took in the scenes of neglect and devastation. It reminded me of a similar excursion to Matara that many of us in this very same group, undertook in the aftermath of the Tsunami, though it is difficult to compare the horrendous devastation we witnessed then along the southern coast with the desolate landscape that now lay before us. As a child, I had traveled overland through Vavuniya to Jaffna. However, I had no clear memories of the land that I was traversing, but felt very strongly that however dry and bare the landscape may have been before the war, there could not then have been this sense of sadness and defeat permeating the very landscape.

Tragedy

I was struck by the notion that tragedy leaves its imprint even on the very soil and that it would take a long time indeed for the Tamil people to regain a sense of dignity and pride in themselves. There might be some who might deem this a good thing. For they reason that as long as the Tamil people remain demoralized, they will not pose a challenge or a threat to the country. But the very converse is true. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too the nation will thrive only when its religious and ethnic minorities as well as its marginalized classes are strengthened and allowed to live and function as equal citizens in this land.

As I looked out I took in the scenes that whizzed past my window: the few, stray, emaciated cattle and goats grazing listlessly among the dry brown vegetation; the broken, straggly fences made of palmyrah leaves behind which were the dilapidated huts of the people, some of whom could be seen working in their fields under the scorching heat of the sun. Some fields looked parched and dry, the stalks of paddy standing up like dry brown twigs in caked mud, while others looked green, though even this green did not look as vivid and bright as do the paddy fields in the South, but had a deeper, somber hue, not displeasing to the eye. I caught a glimpse of a people struggling to eke out a living from this harsh landscape and felt an immense sadness for their plight. I realized anew and in a concrete manner that the Tamil people were in a worse plight now than they had ever been before the LTTE took to arms.

I pondered for the umpteenth time what the 30 years of war had achieved, at the cost of enormous suffering and many lives lost in every corner of this land from "Dondra Head to Point Pedro". History is the story of the victor, they say. The loser concedes to the victor territory, power and morale. The IDPs are the losers even though they did not themselves wage war. They are the flotsam and jetsam cast up on the shore as the army and the LTTE fought to the finish. Thus the IDPs in the North of Sri Lanka are dispossessed of their lands, powerless and demoralized, waiting for charitable hand outs from the South, waiting to be released from their prisons (for they are prisons, as long as they are not allowed to move freely in or out of them), waiting to be reconnected with missing members of their families, waiting, in other words, as they have waited for the past 30 years, for normalcy to return.

At Medawachchiya we were delayed for an hour and a half as our documents and our vehicle were subjected to scrutiny. After a few wrong turns, we eventually found our way to the convent at Chettikulam where we unloaded some of the goods we had brought from Colombo. The entrance to this convent was piled high with toys and other goods destined for the camps. However even without taking stock, we could see that these goods would not have been sufficient to scratch the surface of the needs of even one of the smaller camps. The nuns in this convent, who belonged to both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, then told us of their experiences in the camps.

Menik farm

They explained to us that the Menik farm complex housed the older and larger camps in which most of the refugees were to be found. Some of these camps carried names like Ramanathan and Arunachalam, names that were ironic reminders of those very different sites of residence in the idyllic surroundings of Peradeniya. Compared to these camps, some of which housed as many as 45,000 people, the Sumathipuram, Dharmapuram and Veerapuram camps which had been set up fairly recently, had much fewer numbers, somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 people in each. People were being shuffled about in these camps as the authorities traced members of the same family and re housed them together.

Tracing the families of 300,000 displaced people, located in several different camps, is a gargantuan task, especially in the context that concurrent arrangements had to be made to meet the daily needs of the refugees. To the inmates at these camps however, the process must seem agonizingly slow as they wait anxiously for news of members of their family. Some of the nuns had arranged for the collection and distribution of fresh milk to some 800 children in two of the camps. How did they pay for this, I wondered? One said that she receives funds from her brothers and sisters abroad and that she utilizes these funds to purchase essential goods for the refugees. Mostly, of course, there is the influx of goods from caring people in the South and from the outside world. The list of requirements seemed endless: the little children needed toys and milk in limitless quantities; the young teenagers needed clothes (as is the case with young people, everywhere) and books; and of course, there was the on-going requirement for the daily needs of life for all the people in the camps. The basic food items were being provided by the state, but every other need had to be met by others. The nuns had a practical, hands–on approach to solving these problems. When they were told of a need, they tried to meet this need, moving heaven and earth in order to do so until the next need engrossed their attention. I wondered how long it would be before they reached the point of exhaustion, but they obviously had not reached it as yet.

From Chettikulam, we drove on to the Puvarasankulam convent where we were to stay for the duration of our visit to Vavuniya. This convent provides a refuge for unwed mothers and orphaned children from the poorer segments of society. While the nuns stayed on in the convent, we, the five lay people in our group walked towards the large and airy building which housed the children. As soon as we walked in there, we were immediately surrounded by bright eyed little girls who wrested our bags from our hands and carried them upstairs to the airy, sprawling room in which we fashioned make shift beds for ourselves. I could not help but make comparisons between the lives of these children and those of our more privileged children in Colombo.

Feelings of contentment

They lived away from their brothers and sisters in the convent during term time; they had no TV, computers or toys (expensive or otherwise) to speak of; their daily routine was regimented – with regular prayer sessions, two hours of study after school and another two hours before bed time, as well as household chores which included helping in the kitchen, mopping the huge expanse of floor space on their hands and knees as well as tending and watering the large garden. In between all this they had a few hours of play, in which they tore round the back garden in a burst of high spirits. Yet, when I asked them whether they were happy to stay here away from their families, they all chorused yes, even the littlest among them. The reason they gave me was that here they had lots of children to play with. However I suspect that getting three square meals a day must also have had something to do with their feelings of contentment.

After breakfast the next morning, we left for Chettikulam, where the Sumathipuram camp is located. However, before we could enter the precincts of the camp we had to join forces with the other half of this enterprise – the young school leavers from Colombo, who had been instrumental in making all the organizational arrangements, as well as in parceling the "friendship package’ for each family. We were to rendezvous in Chettikulam, so while we awaited their arrival from Colombo, we went to another convent in Chettikulam where we picked up a nun, who could secure our entry into two other camps – the Dharmapuram and Kovaransankulam camps.

When we finally reached the Sumathipuram camp, it was mid- morning. As we drove up to the entrance to the camp in our small convoy of vehicles, I took in the barbed wire fencing surrounding rows and rows of what looked like plastic tents. I was told later on that these were not made entirely of plastic but of some kind of canvas, though the roof may have been made of plastic. As we stepped out, we were subjected to the scorching rays of the sun and inhaled the dust–laden air whipped up by a stiff breeze. The Colonel in charge of the camp said that though we had been told that there were 1,300 families in this camp, it had since increased to 1,800, as more families had been re–united. Though this was good news, it was a setback to us as we had brought only 1,300 packages. Still, we left these with the Colonel, who said that he would take charge of distributing them among the families, as otherwise there would be a stampede to collect these items.

We then piled back into our van while he and another army officer on a motorbike, took us on a guided tour of the camp. Some people stood outside their tents and watched silently as we drove past, while others went about their business, chatting to one another, tending their children or trekking to the water pump to collect water in buckets. We knew that access to the camps was restricted. We had been told that visiting relatives were not allowed inside the camps but were permitted to communicate with their families from outside the fence. I looked for evidence of this and saw a makeshift hut at the perimeter of the camp where a few people sat on rough wooden benches placed on either side of the fence and talked to each other. I felt both sad and angry at the sight.

My feelings of sadness were fairly uncomplicated, for I was sad that many who are innocent and powerless are treated with some suspicion, their daily lives fraught with the fear of harassment and the basic human need for nest–building, that is, for keeping one’s loved ones safe and secure under one roof, denied them. My feelings of anger however, were more confused and complicated, for I did not know who could or should be blamed for this state of affairs.

There is, for instance, the question of who was immediately and who was ultimately responsible for this state of affairs.

To trace the source of ultimate responsibility however would be akin to opening up a Russian doll, each one leading to another, and then to another. It would prove an impossible task, for it is a hotly-debated and contentious issue on which very few agree.

It can be said however, that extremist violence itself is, arguably, a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The disease is a sickness within the body politic of the nation, which successive governments failed to address in a meaningful manner, and which has led to several armed insurrections in the recent past, two in the South and a protracted one in the North.

The sources of immediate responsibility however, are the Army and the government who oversee the arrangements at the camp. The state is on a ‘weeding-out’ operation to root out terrorism. It has to be done: the country cannot afford the human, political and economic costs of another war. However it must be remembered that the LTTE itself is a spent force. To reason that because the LTTE was made up almost entirely of Tamils from the North, that all Tamils from the North must therefore be treated as possible LTTE suspects, is to reason fallaciously. It must not be forgotten that the IDPs are civilians who were trapped between a rock and a hard place. However late in the day, they responded to the invitation of the state and turned to it for succour and help. How the state treats the IDPs who are in its care will have far-reaching consequences for future relations between the two communities. The state should not leave room for speculation that the refuge it offered the IDPs as it fled the grasp of the Tiger, is akin to the invitation issued by the spider when it asked the fly to come into its parlour!

From Sumathipuram we proceeded to the Dharmapuram camp where the retired major in charge of the camp made us welcome. He spoke to us of his anxiety to promote the well–being of the refugees and of the arrangements he had made to make sure that the children in the camp received uninterrupted schooling. He also gave us carte blanche to wander at our will and talk to the people. Happily, and contrary to our expectations, most people in the camp seemed relatively cheerful. Their sudden release from the overriding fear of imminent death or disablement and the resultant sense of physical safety were reason enough for their relaxed demeanour. However, when we spoke to them, they all expressed an anxiety to get back to their homes and to their occupations. When I asked them whether their homes were still intact, they said that though their homes had been demolished, they would rebuild, once they got back home. One man I spoke to complained about the lack of variety in their diet, for they are given rice, dhal, brinjals and pumpkin for every meal, every day. His words of complaint were however accompanied by a smile, as if he were conscious of the irony of complaining about the lack of variety in his diet when, just a short while ago, he had had barely enough to eat to keep body and soul together. I asked him what he would like to eat and he replied "Bread" with a wry smile. I found out later on that he was a baker by profession!

Another told me that he had lost his parents as well as his brother and his wife as they all tried to escape from the Wanni, and was now very much alone in the world. One woman whispered to me that her young 14–year old son had been taken away and she was anxious for news of him. Reading between the lines, I surmised that her son was a possible LTTE suspect and as such had been taken in for questioning. I looked at her and recognized the pain that is familiar to all mothers, in her eyes. What could I say to her? I murmured some words of comfort but could do little else to soothe her pain.

We were soon surrounded by a group of men and women, each anxious to share their experiences. We just want to talk, they told me. But I could not linger. Our group was moving ahead and they called out to me to hurry up. Regretfully I hurried on to catch up with the rest. One fact that struck me forcefully as they all crowded around me was that none of them smelled unclean. In fact, we had passed some of the makeshift aluminium toilets on our way, and had not noticed any stench emanating from them. I do not know what the conditions are in the larger camps, but in these smaller, newer camps there seems to be an adequate supply of food and water.

As I hurried, I kept my eyes on the ground, as the stumps of trees which had been felled when the area had been cleared to house the refugees, were sticking up from the ground. This was another reason why there was an urgent need for footwear, though I saw many little ones running around barefooted. I caught up with the rest near the tents of their makeshift school. Five large tents were being utilized as a school. Soon we were surrounded by young girls and boys of different ages, who came out of their tents to speak to us. The children who were sitting their Ordinary Level Examinations this year, were concerned that they were not getting adequate tutoring especially in Mathematics and Science. Others made a request for more exercise books. When I asked them whether they have enough to eat, they said yes. One little girl who was about 10 years old said that prior to coming to the camp, she had slept in a bunker to escape the shelling, and used to fall asleep through fear, though her stomach was empty. At that time, she had subsisted on just one meal a day. Now she had three meals a day.

After going back to the Chettikulam nunnery for lunch, we had time to visit one more camp. Because a request had been made for bread, arrangements were made to purchase 150 buns and take these to the next camp at Kovarasankulam. This camp was located in the premises of the Kovarasankulam school. The Major in charge of the camp was a humane and kindly being, who jokingly told us to stay on at the camp site and help the people. As we stepped out of our vehicle, we were surrounded by a body of people who wanted to talk to us and we were struck once again, by the up-beat quality in their facial expressions and stance. One old woman kept embracing us and stroking our faces. Another, carrying a little toddler, told me that the child in her arms was the son of her injured son who had lost a leg due to shell injury. He and his wife were housed at another camp while she stayed on here to look after the little one.

The stories they shared with us were tragic, but as I had noted before at the Dharmapuram camp, they did not seem beaten down or depressed. As we had buns to distribute among the little ones, the Major asked the parents to take their little ones to the school hall and seat them in orderly rows on the floor of the stage. We were dismayed then to find that there were many more children than there were buns to go around. We managed to give a bun to every child seated on the stage, but there were others milling about in the hall who had to go without. The Major told us that these children were extremely well behaved and would not clamour for anything, unlike most other children. This we saw for ourselves, as they all sat quietly until we placed the bun in their hands. None of them reached out with their hands or even asked for one, if they had been inadvertently overlooked. One such little one sat with tears running silently down his cheeks, because he had been accidentally bypassed. Luckily this was rectified fairly quickly. The thought went through my mind that perhaps this kind of unnaturally good behaviour was the result of the trauma they had undergone in the recent past.

As we prepared to leave the camp, a sweet-faced, sixteen-year old found her way through the crush and spoke to me. I asked her, by way of conversation, whether she was still studying. She replied that she had completed her Ordinary Level Examinations. When I asked her whether she wanted to continue her studies, she shook her head vigorously. I want to go out she said and pointed towards the gates of the camp, an image that has left a cameo–like imprint in the recesses of my mind.

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