Myrna Setunga, circa. 6 June 2009
Pic courtesy of Reuters, * May 2008
After the trouble and cost of the first trip I decided to accept an offer from CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies – a Sri Lankan NGO, to do the distribution of Mother and Baby Packs through their organisation which has access to the camps in Vavuniya. I left with a team from CHA at 3 am on the 1st of June and we got to Medawachchiya by 7.30 a.m. Getting through the security check point was very quick this time because CHA staff goes through regularly. We went straight to Menik Farm Zone 2 which is the largest of the IDP Camps with over 75,000 IDPs. CHA runs a clinic in this Zone and each week they bring in a team of Doctors, Nurses and Attendants.’ The Clinic is at present housed in a large tent and CHA is putting up a more permanent structure.
I had time to wonder around and I saw the desperate need for more toilets of a semi permanent nature. Water supply too is a problem. I saw long rows of colourful water containers lined up waiting to be filled. When the water is turned on little boys run up and down moving the containers as the ones in front get filled. [They looked so happy doing this. It was like a game for them].
I inspected some of the tents. Each has a partition across the middle and this tent houses two family groups with as many as 15 people to a tent. Since they have very few possessions the room is adequate for a whole family to sleep on the floor. Food is supplied from a common kitchen. The children ran around looking very happy and surprisingly clean. I did not see any runny noses. But later the Medical team told me that they had treated severely malnourished and dehydrated adults and children. Those most severely affected are the children and elderly people. One of the doctors told me that when they said good bye on Thursday to the IDPs who had helped them in the clinic, the helpers had cried. CHA had supplied them with adequate drugs, medication and equipment. They had treated about 600 to 800 patients a day.CHA is also in the process of using the human waste for the production of bio gas. There is a serious garbage and human waste disposal problem. [I spoke to the IDPs about garbage disposal and got the impression that it was the least of their worries.[i]They just dumped their garbage wherever it convenient for them].[ii]
I left at about 10.30 for Vavuniya town where I expected to see my boxes which I had handed over to the transport agent on the previous Friday. On inquiry I was told that the boxes had arrived on Sunday but they had been unable to unload because of the lack of labour. They said they would deliver the boxes at 3 p.m. But at 3 p.m. they said 4 p.m. When nothing happened at 4 p.m., I got into a 3 wheeler and went looking for my boxes. The agent said that the lorry was somewhere in town unloading goods brought for other people on the same lorry. We went all round the town but did not see the lorry. I went back to the Vanni Inn feeling very frustrated. I was told to expect the boxes at 10 a.m. the following day.
On Tuesday still no signs of the boxes and after one of the CHA staff at my insistence threatened not to give them any more business the boxes arrived at 11 a.m. much the worse for rough handling. One flask and 7 basins were damaged. CHA had paid Rs 8,000 for the transport of these boxes. I spent the afternoon sorting out and relocating the boxes in the CHA office. Pradeepa who runs the CHA office in Vavuniya had obtained a list of 8-9 month pregnant women in 13 camps in and around Vavuniya town from Dr. Sathiyalingam and obtained his permission to give the packs to these women with the assistance of the Family Health Worker in each camp. She had also hired a truck to transport the boxes. I set off with a CHA volunteer to Vellikulam (School) camp. The Grama Sevaka shooed me away like a puppy dog when I refused to hand over the packs to him for distribution. I won’t go into details about how I reacted. Those of you who know me well can imagine how I reacted. In short I got access into the camp and with the help of a Health worker who was upset at the behavior of the GS I was able to peacefully hand over 23 packs to pregnant women and 9 packs to mothers who had recently delivered. The police officers and army personnel sided with me when they found out what I was trying to do. In fact I received fullest cooperation from the Police and Army staff in all the camps once my credentials had been checked. Although Dr. Sathiyalingam was expecting me to give packs only to 8 to 9 month pregnant cases I gave the packs to all the women on the pregnant mother list because I could not see the purpose of going to all the trouble to give just a few packs each month. I tried to phone him to tell him what I was doing but he was not available. Instead I informed the Assistant Regional Director of Health. I am taking precautionary measures in case I get black listed by Dr. Sathiyalingam.
We then went to Kovilkulam and gave packs to 25 pregnant women and 5 recent deliveries. The 3rd camp was in Komarasankulam (don’t try pronouncing it). Here I was assisted by a very pregnant Family Health Worker. Because she was so helpful I gave her a pack too. A crowd gathered waiting to grab the empty boxes because they said they had nothing to put their clothes in. But a stern woman mounted guard and later the boxes disappeared without incident. The Police officer in charge of the camp has nicknamed [the pregnant health worker] “mudalaali”. He was very friendly and took some photos with his cell phone and promised to post the copies to me. He also gave us tea.
After a brief stop for lunch we went to the Poonthotam College of Education camp which is the largest in this area with 6,000 IDPs. The Military Police Officer tried to give me a hard time, just showing off, but after I stood my ground he let us in and was very friendly after that. Here we gave packs to 27 pregnant women and 10 recent deliveries. As in the previous camp a crowd gathered to ask for empty boxes. I made the mistake of asking the driver to give them the boxes. There was a stampede and they trod on my foot and pushed me aside till I yelled at the driver to close the door of the truck. We had to drive off with the empty boxes. How sad when an empty box becomes something to fight over and becomes the cause of a riot. It was 5 p.m. when we left the camp. We called it a day with only 9 more packs remaining. The oldest mother is 45 and the youngest is 18 years of age.
On Thursday morning I hired a 3 wheeler and went to the market to buy 7 basins to replace the ones that got damaged and took the last 9 packs to the camp in Saivapragasaa School. Some of the women had already received packs from some other organization and we gave the packs to the few who had not received any. I went back to the CHA office and phoned Dr. Mahendran to tell him what I had done. I had the afternoon off for a well deserved rest. On Friday I left with the medical team on the return journey. Since they were from Gampola I had to go with them to Gampola and then come down to Colombo on the CHA vehicle. We left at 9 a.m. and I got home at 9 p.m. I feel very exhausted but satisfied that I was able to personally give the packs to the mothers.
Web editor’s comment on garbage in Lanka: The propensity of Sri Lankans in all parts of the country to be careless in their disposal of garbage is widespread. In fact, it is a horrendous issue and societal problem. Significantly, my impression is that there is no difference between Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others in this indifference to others and to the eyesores and health issues arising from the chucking of food parcels and other rubbish on roadsides or picnic spots or pilgrimage sites. We generate jarā – with the implication that all Sri Lankans are jarā people.
It is not merely a rural failing of rural folk. For years the Hampden Lane roadside end of a side lane from my sister’s house in Wellawatte was characterized by food parcels and garbage dumped there early in the morning and ripped open by stray dogs. It is only since 2009/10 that the UDA (apparently marshaled now by Gothabaya Rajapaksa’s apppointees?) have got their act together and begun restoring some measure of cleanliness in this sphere.
[i] “There was a twice daily schedule for garbage disposal but with only a few trucks that worked round the clock there were many breakdowns. I felt that with a little organisation the IDPs themselves could have lessened the problem” – subsequent clarification by Myrna Setunga in response to my request, 30 September 2012, Michael Roberts.
[ii] In an email note Myrna Setunga added this note on why she excluded this piece of information from her original report; “I did not want it in the original report because I did not want to offend anyone. After talking to several IDP’s I learned that the worst offenders were the IDP’s themselves.The drains were full of garbage obviously tossed in by the people in the tents. I asked if they could not dig small pits and bury at least the food waste and was told that for security reasons they were not given any tools such as spades. Apparently a policeman had been hit with a spade in one of the camps.
Even in Sinhala villages people just toss their garbage onto the roads or into the nearest drain. Too many things were happening in that camp for Dr Herath to mount an awareness campaign or to organise timely collection of garbage” (email dated 25 September 2012).
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