Lakshi Abeysekera of Sewalanka, August 2010
This memo was written on my request after I stumbled upon the fact that Omanthai had been used by the SL authorities as a staging post for the mass of IDPs (mostly Tamil) bussed from the Vanni Pocket in a massive logistical operation with fleets of hired buses [with two soldiers as guards on each bus] bringing the dehydrated, exhausted and diseased body of IDPs (including some Tigers posing as civilians) to areas where they could be detained and housed. Here the military authorities assisted by the GA Vavuniy, and the World Food Programme had assigned Sewalanka, a lcoal NGO, the task of feeding the IDPs, while other NGOs were tasked with the construction of toilets and other ancillary amenities. The principal organsisers were Annet Royce and Thamilalagan (both Tamils), who headed the Vavuniya Office of Sewalanka. But Lakshi Abyesekera, DeputyDirector, came down from Colombo to assist and mediate relations with the authorities. On my request she penned an account of this activity from her point of view. That report is buried within my previous post; but I consider it appropriate at this momentous juncture to provide SEWALANKA with the spotlight that it deserves. Web Editor
The fighting raged in its highest intensity in the early months of 2009. The people of the Wanni were cornered within a small area of Puthumathalan towards the north-eastern coast of District Mullaithivu. People had moved constantly from place to place for more than eight months from the west of the Wanni to the East and were finally trapped in the limited area of the No Fire Zone. They were trapped in here as the LTTE prevented them from moving to the safer areas that were under the control of GOSL.
However some people fled in small groups in the first 3-4 months of 2009. Later, larger numbers fled across the lagoon towards the areas where the army personnel assisted them as they entered an environment to which they were strangers.
There were movements of people by boat to Trincomalee and Jaffna. But the vast majority trudged to the areas of the district Mullatgivu that had been taken over by the security forces. After crossing the lagoon many trekked for many days by foot with small belongings on their heads; or sometimes carrying very little as they were saddled with small children.
Once they entered government-controlled territory the Security authorities registered them and then transported them in buses to the District of Vavuniya. The entry point to the district for these fleeing IDPS was the Omanthai. The trickle of refugees started in small numbers from January 2009. While all the Agencies had made contingency plans for the reception of a IDP refugee t influx of into Vavuniya, no one to my knowledge had comprehended the seriousness and enormity of the event until the whole of Wanni was emptied into the Vavuniya region in May. During the month of April, however, one witnessed substantial numbers coming in to Vavuniya: they were accommodated in the Thandikulam and Omanthai schools as well as schools in the town areas of Vavuniya.
The first signs of massive entry were noted in early mid-May. The World Food Programme was requested to take care of the task of feeding the people. Whereupon WFP took Sewalanka into its confidence as partner for this massive operation. Together we planned the work as an urgent measure. The process was not easy. We coordinated the activities very closely with the security personnel in choosing the place for operations, the movement of staff and the transportation of materials that were provided by the WFP.
We camped close to Omanthai school, an area with two buildings that were damaged, but could be covered with plastic sheeting. Cooking areas were selected and all utensils and cooking items were transported in lorries provided by the WFP; while Sewalanka used all its facilities, such as pick up trucks and crew cabs for the transport of personnel and food to the sites. Our site camp was about five kms from the former Omanthai border point. Sewalanka organized all its staff for cooking, while villagers from nearby volunteered to assist us in the cutting and preparation of food parcels. We had one objective: to feed all the refugees arriving, exhausted as they were, with hot meals. We also transported biscuits, water and whatever possible to the site in order to feed the empty stomachs. We knew it was a 24 hour job.
The most important day was the 17th of May: buses from all parts of Sri Lanka had been sent to the frontlines to gather the refugees and now, suddenly, these busloads arrived in quick succession – so rapidly that the cooking continued non-stop, with our staff taking turns to do the work required. Over 7-8 eight days we all camped at the site. Army personnel also helped us and in fact showed us the best way of handling a massive operation of cooked-food delivery! I was there all the way to support my team. I am a Sinhala person who has worked with the various communities of people in the North for several years. Sewalanka’s experience in this domain helped also to understand the situation. The distribution of food was one of our main responsibilities. I was delighted with the opportunity to work amicably in support of the endeavours of our local staff. It had been a hidden dream, this type of work responding to a huge emergency situation of the type one witnessed on television in other countries. But I never believed that I would be in fact be grappling with a catastrophe one in my own country. I joined almost all the transports to the Omanthai point Where lines of buses sometimes counting to 200 numbers were lined up with at least 100 people.
The cooked-food parcels and other supplements were distributed in a methodical way and care was taken not to miss any busloads. The army person in charge would ask two people to disembark from each bus with a sarong. They would hold the sarong on two sides and the security person in charge of the bus would shout out the number of persons in the bus and we would put that number of parcels into the sarong bag! This process went on until the 24th of that month. There was no time limit or rest period; it was constant 24 hour work-in-hand. Sewalanka also distributed biscuits and water in the wee hours of the night to those busloads that had just come in and had to face delays in receiving the hot food because those in the front of the queue g had first rights.
As the people disembarked at the Omanthai point for food, water or other calls of nature, sometimes the injured, the pregnant mothers or other emergency cases were identified so that they could receive attention by the mobile medical services or dispatched to the hospitals in Vavuniya and elsewhere..
The people who arrived were so exhausted and traumatized after days/months of suffering in the course of multiple displacements and constant flight that their appreciation was manifest. They told us that they had survived on rice porridge during their stints in the LTTE territory and that on entry to the government-held rear areas of the battlefront the Army had fed them – in most cases the first rice-and-curry they had tasted for weeks or months.
The IDPs had to stay at the staging post at Omanthai for the best part of day because of registration requirements; and thereafter were moved temporarily to Omanthai school before being transported to the IDP camps at Menik Farm. In the result the cooking demands were considerable because each person needed at least two or more meals.
In sum, Sewalanka distributed 530,857 meals during the eight days devoted to this massive and rewarding feeding operation directed towards immediate relief for loads of exhausted people who arrived quite hungry and with only those meagre belongings that they had been able to carry.
Pics supplied by Sewalanka ,Vavuniya branch