A harrowing tale from the depths of the Eastern Province

Alex Van Arkadie, received 30 January 2011 via Victor Melder, sending us a “Summary [re] a visit to meet war displaced families in the Welegakandya  dwelling and Chenkalady village, Batticaloa District, North-Eastern coastal belt of Sri Lanka”

During our visit to Sri Lanka last August, my spouse and I joined three members of the National Fisheries Solidarity (NAFSO), Negombo, viz. Mr. Herman Kumara (Director), Ms. Geetha (Secretary), and Mr. Jesudasan (Committee member).

 Few years back (and as Coordinator of the Project Appraisal Group for well over two decades), the Lankan NGO NAFSO coordinated closely with our Rome 1% for development fund to secure funding for a successfully yet on-going women’s inland fish farm project in Polonnaruwa.

 Riding a 4-wheeler at 07:30 a.m. that morning, our little group left Negombo, a major fishing village on the Western coast.  Nearly a quarter of our 9hr. journey (one-way) continued across the Central Dry Zone expanse on bumpy roadway and rugged gravel track. To arrive at the lagoon town we drove exactly eastward in the arid heat past shattered homes and huts, public schools, health clinics, workshops, market yards, places of diverse worship, abandoned irrigation channels and ruined tanks. Even the scanty vegetation scattered in between an occasional waterhole or oasis alongside their sturdier palmyrah plantations which once thrived in this region had not been spared the ravage of the brutal ethnic war.  

 Our single stop 7-hrs. later for a hurried make-do lunch was at a wayside eatery in Batticaloa Town. From there it took us over an hour driving inland to cover 60kms. There, we were received by a group of about 30 men and women. Not only are these people a living witness to the scars and inflictions suffered from a long war between national military forces and Tamil separatists, but bear vivid testimony to the social discrimination, civil abandonment, and indifference that have arisen thereafter and therefrom.  Most aged parents (widowed or otherwise) — by prevalent tradition — live and depend on their married children for sustenance and survival. 16:00 hrs:   Repeated security checks by military staff and road blocks or deviations for construction works delayed us from reaching Welegakandya community dwelling, lying approximately 20km. from the Maha Oya river basin.  Our open-air ‘meeting point’ lay alongside the main Batticaloa/Dambulla Roadway. Seated on a tattered tarpaulin sheet in the shady coolness and refuge of a single tree, their spokes-person apologized for a larger group of community representatives from the neighbouring Chenkalady village settlement who had to leave just before we reached them.

 The Amparai District Coordinator, Mr. Jabbar, was also present with lead spokesman for the community, Mr. Sundara. The latter then showed me a type of log book with name list of the community group, meeting notes from sessions already held, and aims of their community project for resettlement on their land. I noted that they have an elected Working Group comprised of a President, Secretary, Treasurer, including a Committee of 18 young and mid-aged women.

 When their turn came for individuals to share from past and present experiences, they spoke as though in one voice of their mounting emotional despair provoked by hopeless abandonment, isolation, and varying degrees of ethnic indifference or segregation.   

 One woman openly wept: “After the war, the military picked us from our refugee camps and brought us in trucks. We are here by the roadway because they warned us to stay within the boundaries for ‘war displaced persons’.” Another aged man held up his identity card to lament aloud, “though we are not far from where our homes stood, we have been ordered to remain right here until help comes. But it is more than a year now, and nobody has come yet.”

 Another feebly intervened, “It is true our homes are no more. But we want to return to our land. We will grow grain, pulses and rice. Elders and our grand children will help raise animals and livestock as we used to do before.  We can build our houses and latrines, tidy up our wells, and send these children to school. This is the only way our people can survive together.”

 Their community leader next affirmed, “few of us took turns to visit the village. Already 3 of the 9 drinking water wells have been cleaned. But, our major irrigation channel is damaged and needs repair. Today, we are assembled here to prove that if we receive some funds we will go back and restart our plantations and animal husbandry. There will be enough food for everybody.”               

 In an effort to answer their appeal, I summarized that I had volunteered to visit them of my own accord. I promised to share with my colleagues in Rome their helpless status.”

 We closed at 17:30hrs.

 When we headed back homeward, the first golden rays of a setting sun in the distant Western horizon began to gently unfold across the Batticaloa plains.

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Filed under life stories, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil migration, unusual people

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