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The wretched of the earth

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Refugees displaced during the government’s military campaign in the East continue to live in poor conditions as a result of the scorched earth policy adopted during the fighting. The refugee camps they live in are over populated, with poor sanitary conditions.

In 1929, in a message to the Negroes of America, Gandhi was to say, 'There is no dishonour in being slaves. There is only dishonour in being slave owners.' It was this message that later earned him a permanent place in the heart of black America. Indeed it was the power of this message so easily applied to the horror I beheld, that came to my mind, as I walked into an IDP camp in the east, two weeks ago.
 
The Gandhian words of 78 years past, mediated to the suffering and strife of these disinherited people. So low, yet set up so high, as they attempted to wrest from life some grain of dignity.
 
Babies born in dirty tents
 
It is the despair in the eyes of the mothers as they clutched their new born babies - babies born under a dirty tent, on a mattress of sand, flies and mud - that would surely lift our eyes to the biblical hope of a world where men will beat their swords into ploughshares and their arrows into pruning hooks.
 
In the realities of Killivetti, a number of women gather near a tent with their young children. Some squatting, others standing. They are collecting their weekly rations of 140 gms of sugar, and 1.4 kg of rice. For those with children under one year, milk is included in the relief assistance.
 
For those under 18, clothing and even slippers are provided. Nothing is provided to those over 18 years of age.
 
A wizened old lady is looking distraught. She quickly approaches us when she knows we are journalists from Colombo. "My grandson was taken in by the army last Sunday (July 22)," the 72 year old Somasunderam Muttupillai moans. "His name is P. Chandrakumar. He is 35 years old, he has a wife and children."
 
For the old woman living under a torn tent in the transit centre, deprived of her familiar surroundings, this is more than she can bear.
 
Those in the camp are mainly paddy cultivators says one of the male members of the 900 families presently in the camp. However, there are several divisions within 50 metres. For example, the Ichchalampattu division and the Muttur division where the people are mostly fishermen.
 
Forcibly brought
 
He explains that in April 2006 they fled to Batticaloa from Sampur due to the fighting. Then they were brought to this transit centre.
 
We were brought here by force and through cunning, the man says angrily. Forty buses arrived with boards stating Sampur. Therefore we thought we were being taken back to our villages and our homes. But we were brought here to this transit centre instead, he laments.
 
"We can't go out. We are like prisoners. We like to at least go to Batticaloa but we can't. We are forced to stay here," he adds.
 
The children in the camp have had their education interrupted due to constant movement. Now they are attending the Killivetti Maha Vidyalaya close by.
 
Says one young woman, "We went to Batticaloa empty handed. We came here empty handed."
 
Later, the rest of the journalists and I proceed on our way in our air conditioned vehicle even as the irony and pathos of our mission hits me hard.
 
We reach the Alamkulam IDP camp in Vaharai where 480 families and 1615 people mark time endlessly waiting for their lives to be restored. Herded to this camp about five months after the eastern battle commenced, the IDPs hail from areas such as Vahaneri, Akurana and Kulattumadu.
 
Poor sanitary conditions
 
Approximately 3000 displaced persons live in three camps in the area.
 
A temporary school has been arranged for those in the camps in and around the vicinity. NGO activity is a little more prevalent in this camp. At least a mobile medical service visits them once a week. The Regional Medical Officer (RMO) Dr. Vivekandarajah paints a sorry picture of the situation in the camps. He says due to poor sanitary conditions and weak water supply diarrhoea is most prevalent among the IDPs. As with IDPs across the globe it is malnutrition that poses the biggest threat. The closest hospital is in Valachchenai. For an ailing IDP, sick in body, mind and soul, that's a lifetime away.
 
Having spent the night in Polonnaruwa, the next morning on July 27, we drive along the A15 road passing Kayankerni bridge towards Vaharai and Verugal.
 
Jungles scorched to the ground
 
We see jungles scorched to the ground by the military as it gets ready to hold on to land it has captured. This method of clearing the jungle area to prevent hideouts, we saw in endless succession - black stretches of land where before tall grasses swayed gently in the breeze sheltering under forest cover.
 
A forlorn tree sprouting a green leaf or two stands like a sentinel on the blackened stretch of land. Under the tree a soldier desperate to hide from the scorching sun above and weighed down by ammunition, stands guard.
 
Poetic irony
 
There is a poetic irony to the scene. The very hand that has been compelled by regime policy to destroy the tree in the name of war, now seeks its comfort in the name of humanity.
 
The flora and fauna, the habitats destroyed by this method of clearing the east, was heart wrenching to see.
 
But more devastation and despair were to meet us along the way juxtaposed with hope as we also saw sandwiched between the destruction, clusters of newly built houses. Little enclaves of hope and security - the work of several NGOs.
 
Tsunami houses destroyed
 
And then we saw it as we entered Panichchankerni. A row of houses built for the victims of the tsunami. Easily recognisable as tsunami houses, the villages had barely been resident in the houses for 10 days before all hell broke loose. They were bombed from above. We drove past houses peppered with the multi-barrel guns; a mortar embedded in the bark of a tree.
 
We later passed Panichchankerni bridge over Upaar lagoon and approached the Vaharai hospital.
 
The Senior Nursing Officer Jayeswaran and the visiting physician Dr. Daniel both explained that it was malnutrition and hepatitis which were most prevalent while there were many who came in complaining of vomiting blood.
 
The area including the hospital was under the control of the LTTE before March 15 this year. Now, a few yards away, a large army camp and check point prevailed.
 
Sections of the hospital had been damaged by the tsunami while a maternity ward had been aerially bombarded causing a large section to collapse, allegedly killing some 10 patients.
 
Aerial bombardment
 
There was ample evidence of aerial bombardment all around. Close to the ward was what appeared to be an abandoned bunker. Hospital staff vehemently deny it is an LTTE bunker. Civilians took refuge in the hospital premises during the height of the military offensive says a member of the hospital staff who did not wish to be named. The bunker was dug for their safety during bombardment.
 
Opposite the hospital a Catholic church stands as if in eternal memory of the suffering and strife of its people. The church had been damaged by the tsunami. Sure as they are that the bunker is not an LTTE one, they are also firm the church was not damaged in the bombings but only by the tsunami.
 
On the way towards Valachchenai and Batticaloa we see newly built tsunami reconstruction houses bombarded with shells. The roofs had caved in, the walls dotted with fire. Imagine for a moment the plight of those mothers, those school children who had entered their new homes with hope after losing everything to the tsunami only to lose it all once again.
 
As I said last week in the first installment of this eyewitness account of the east, little wonder the people of the east speaking to us from badly maintained IDP camps have lost faith in humanity.
 
Karuna dominates
 
I also saw the office of the Karuna boys standing by the wayside. A few metres away was an army camp. Side by side for the moment, it was obvious despite the stout and even asinine denials of certain members of President Rajapakse's cabinet, that the government was working with Karuna Amman and his men.
 
Meanwhile P. Karunakaran, claiming to be head of education and based at the Batticaloa office of the TMVP at Govindhan Road tells us that some 165,000 refugees have fled the LTTE in the north and have come to the east. He says the TMVP together with the NGOs are now helping to resettle these people.
 
Amidst government plans to develop the east, Karunakaran says they do not want big projects. 'We want to be with the people and win them over. We want to be like the south. We will rule here and help the people through elections,' he says.
 
Dressed in a white tunic, looking a little like the southern politician and speaking Sinhala with only a slight accent, Karunakaran talks of winning the children over.
 
We want to go to the schools and do projects with the children to nurture plants, to release doves, he says.
 
How, I ask him, can you plant a tree with one hand while you hold a gun in the other?
 
We won't go to the schools with guns, he tells me, rather facetiously I think.
 
However outside the room where Karunakaran is speaking to us, young chaps stalk the surroundings, armed with guns. Karuna and his men it seems, have no intention of giving up their most vital tool to power.
 
Karunakaran however praises President Rajapakse as a man of vision. A journalist in the group cannot help but ask how Karuna, if he claims to work for the welfare of the eastern people, could get together with a government that is seen to have inflicted so much pain and suffering on the people of the east through its aerial bombardment and its scorched earth policies.
 
There is a muttering under the breath and no real answer ensues from Karunakaran.
 
Justifies breaking away
 
However he is eager to remind us that the east always suffered under the Wanni leadership which never gave a place to the eastern people. It is because of the burden Karuna had for his people that he broke away, says Karunakaran defiantly.
 
Be that as it may, we beheld untold suffering in the camps both in Trincomalee and Batticaloa.
 
In all the camps we visited the water supply was poor and suspect despite a tank installed. Some lived in tents ravished by the weather even as others lived in shacks made of wooden planks. Many of the makeshift roofs did not keep the rain from beating down into the shack where grandmother to grandchild lived partitioning the tiny space with saris.
 
One enterprising man had set up a shop in one of the camps while many said their husbands who had been fishermen couldn't continue their livelihood anymore due to the restrictions.
 
Divisional Secretary Muttur, M.C.M. Sheriff said 17,000 families in 42 grama sevaka divisions had been displaced. After the war all department schools had remained shut for one and a half months and only in the latter part of September 2006 that people started to return to their homes in driblets.
 
State of neglect
 
Why, we were to ask him was it that despite the large amount of tsunami aid, survivors still languished in camps which were now not only run down and in a state of neglect but ill serviced with bad water supply.
 
Sheriff confirmed that 1249 houses had been allocated to be built and upto now only 343 were under construction. Only 193 had so far been handed over.
 
Sheriff confirmed that 11 divisions come under the high security zones in Muttur east or Sampur as gazetted by President Rajapakse. About 4000 families have been displaced he says. Most are in the Batticaloa District - in IDP camps, with friends and relatives.
 
Sheriff said he has not received any direction from the authorities on what to do with these people displaced by the HSZ. He however said that out of the 4000 families the government had established a transit camp in Pattithidel and Killivetti housing 324 families with 1050 members, and 548 families with 1798 members, respectively.
 
Some families still remain in Batticaloa where they fled to safety while others have winged it to India Sheriff said.
 
The GA has identified 105 acres of land in Ralkuli, Muttur west, and the Land Reform Commission has handed over to the Divisional Secretariat this jungle area to be cleared to build houses and relocate 500 displaced families, Sheriff added.
 
This remains to be said. As the pictures will demonstrate more than a thousand words, the people of the east are suffering. If they have been liberated from the Tigers as the government says they are now imprisoned by poverty and strife. They are not allowed to leave their IDP camps which are surrounded by armed personnel.
 
The government may hail the scorching of the east as victory under its belt for political mileage but for the innocent civilians of the east it is hell on earth.
 
This article was originally published on - August 12, 2007

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