Myrna Setunga, 15 May 2009
Dear friends, I think an adventure is when you step into the unknown. A journey into the unknown is what happened on the 13th May when with my cousin Leelani and our driver, Rohan, and I set off at 3 a.m.for Vavuniya. I obtained the Min. of Defense (M.O.D) permit from the M. of Health on the 12th afternoon and we loaded the truck that same evening. [I had to hire the truck and Mr Tissa Jinasena of Loadstar paid for these costs]. We got to Anuradhapura (I hope you have your maps on hand) by 8 a.m. after a brief stop on the road side for sandwiches and coffee. In Anuradhapura we had a tea and toilet stop. It is a good thing Leelani and I have well disciplined bladders and bowels because our next visit to the toilet was at 8.30 p.m.
We got to Medavachchiya by 8.45 and this is where the journey into the unknown started. I had been asked to meet Col. Bandara who told a soldier to get me a “chit” which I understand is the pass to get the truck into the inspection yard. But the policeman refused to accept the order and sent me to the Police OIC who happened to be a very nice person. He summoned a constable and told him to let me sit in the shed and that he was to find the truck and do the needful instead of having me run around the place. I sat for about 10 minutes. Sitting around while the unknown was happening just goes against the grain. So I took off to look for the truck and after some time found it in the inspection yard and the driver was being given conflicting orders. We had to back the truck up to a platform and unload all the boxes – by ourselves. With only one able-bodied man and too not so able bodied women available for the task I turned my charm on the policeman who was to do the inspection. I persuaded him to step into the truck and open the boxes while they were in the truck. Fortunately because the truck was so large all our boxes formed only one layer. There were no boxes one on top of the other. The two of us stepped onto the boxes (luckily no breakables in the boxes) and he opened about five boxes and one baby pack. I couldn’t resist the chance to kid him when he did not know how to re-pin the bundle with the baby pin. He coyly told me that he was not married. Had we unload and re loaded we would have spent another hour in that yard. As we tried to leave with the precious pass clutched in Rohan’s sweaty hand we were told that the pass lacked one more signature. After obtaining the last signature we set off for Vavuniya and had to stop at another check point. I got off the truck to find out what we had to do next and while they checked the pass and papers I got into conversation with the home guards and one policeman manning the check point. I was told with great pride that it was at this point that they had apprehended the woman who had set off the bomb on the Panadura train. Since my cousin, Gamini Setunga, had been badly injured in that blast I felt gratified. At every check point after that we were told how to get passes to leave Vauniya.We had no idea at that stage that it would be more difficult to get out than to get in.
We got to the hospital by 11.30 a.m. and met Dr. Sudahar and later Dr. Bhavani (Medical Superintendent).[i]After inquiry we were told that there were 75 women needing assistance, but we should leave the rest of the packs which they could give mothers as they came in later. We were assigned two orderlies — one male and one female. All they were told is to take us to the maternity wards 5 and 7. Dr. Sudahar helped us to park the truck as close to the maternity wards as possible and then we had to get a stretcher to wheel the boxes into the ward. When we got to the ward I found that the nurses had not been informed about our intention. Having explained in my best Tamil we gave out 20 packs to mothers awaiting delivery. I had to go back to look for Dr. Sudahar to explain that we can give packs to mothers who have just delivered. This time he phoned the ward staff. So back to the ward and we distributed a total of 72 packs. Some women were not from camps and told us that they had been brought there straight from the ship that had rescued them.
Getting to and from the ward was like running an obstacle course. We were told that many of the patients who had been discharged refused to leave the hospital. They lined the open corridors on both sides with their little bundles containing all their earthly possessions. One had to be careful not to run over feet and fingers. Some mothers were nursing new born infants in the open corridor. They felt that this way of living was better than going back to the camps. We had no time to ask who fed them.
Mothers with older children appealed for packets of milk. Besides having just enough packets for the packs we would have started a riot in the corridors with everyone wanting a packet. We may have seemed heartless but I had to firmly explain that if I gave one I would have to give all. We did quietly give one woman money and another who seemed in a daze, some sandwiches. Leelani and I sat on the edge of the corridor and had the rest of our sandwiches while Rohan went out to have his lunch. The very thought of using the hospital toilet froze our bladders into a complete shut down. At about 3 p.m.since no one from the office answered the phone we decide to leave and to hand over the balance packs to CHA [Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies] for distribution in their camp in the Tamil MMVidyalaya.
We found the camp easily but CHA office was elsewhere. We had to get to the pass issuing place by 4.30 if we had intention of leaving that evening. We were able to observe the camp from the outside. It looked like the tsunami camps. Everything seemed to be quiet and orderly. There were sheds for classrooms. Dhanya told me later that they hold classes for children in the camps. The children who normally attend this school have not had schooling since December and no one knows when they will get their school back.
Fortunately for us a CHA staff member was at the camp and on his bicycle guided us to the office where we handed over the balance baby packs and boxes of biscuits and sugar donated by the students of Wycherley International School. The items donated by the school would be better used in the camp. The CHA staff gave us the form to request permission to leave Vavuniya. They also told us to get photocopies of ID’s and other documents. Armed with all the paper work we found the Thaekka Watta inspection yard. But they needed copies of more documents. Rohan took time to find a place that had a functioning photocopy machine. More paper work had to be done and finally about an hour later they inspected our luggage and the empty vehicle. We could not leave till nearly 6 p.m. We got held up at another check point and once again to Medavachchiya where Leelani and I had to take hand luggage for inspection while Rohan took the truck back to the inspection yard for a second inspection. By the time he came out he was fit to be tied.
While waiting I phoned the owner of the truck that we would have to stay in Anuradhapura that night. I also phoned the guest house to confirm our booking. We got to the guest house by 8.45 and had our first real meal for the day.
We left A’pura the following morning at 5 a.m. and got to Colombo by 10 a.m. Thus ended the Vavuniya Adventure.
[i] Drs Bhavani and Sudahar are both Tamils…. Web Editor.