Third Trip to Vavuniya, 11-13 June 2009, Setunga III

Myrna Setunga, circa mid-June 2009

 Menik Farm in its early days — Pic by Zelmira Sinclair/UNHCR, 14 May 2009 [in Zone with igloo tents, perhaps the most inadequate of the various types?]

Dr. Rani Fernando, Director of the Castle Street Women’s Hospital, invited me to join her and a group of doctors who wanted to see the camps in Vavuniya. Included in the group were two lady doctors from the hospital, a consultant physician and Kumari[1] who was donating bottled water worth Rs 25,000. We were also taking about 1700 panties and bras which we had received as a donation. The water and boxes of underwear were transported in a Ministry of Health truck.

We traveled to Anuradhapura on the 11th and after an overnight stay proceeded to Medawachchciya. We were able to get through this check point with little delay because we were from the Ministry of Health. We had to report to the Ministry of Health Coordinating post to obtain passes to enter the camps. The first camp we visited was Zone 2. We drove past a sea of tents to the “Hospital.” I have not seen a “tent” as large as this. It is like a tunnel at least 20 feet high and about 50 yards long, open at both ends. The huge iron structure is covered with light plastic sheeting. The result is a huge airy building which needed no lighting in the day time. There is no need for fans either. The 3 doctors immediately set to work while I observed the patients. Those I spoke to said they had Diarrhea. Later the doctors told me that they had treated patients for hepatitis B, skin ailments, respiratory ailments and some TB. The seriously ill patients were taken by ambulance to Vavuniya Hospital. I saw two fathers carry their sons and stand in the queue. The boys would have been about 8-9 years old – very emaciated. They could not stand up and had to sit in the sand while the queue moved forward very slowly. Most of the patients just squatted on the ground till the queue moved forward. The doctors said that there was no shortage of drugs, medicine, saline and medical items.

We left the 3 doctors in this hospital and went to Zone 4. At the check point we were asked to hand over our cell phones. But after they realized that we were with a medical team they returned the cell phones. This is the most recent camp and houses those who were in the last wave of refugees. Prabakaran’s parents were in this camp but have been removed to a safer place. Since these people have not yet been screened the security is very high.

Since it was lunch time we first fetched the 3 doctors from Zone 3 and went back to the coordinating centre for lunch. After lunch we took the 3 doctors to Zone 4 because there was only one doctor in that “hospital”. Once again we were in the middle of a sea of tents. These tents stretch for as far as the eye can see. Scrub land has been bull dozed, leaving a few small trees. The roads are of compacted earth edged by drains. This camp has a serious water shortage problem because the water lines have not been connected yet. Water is provided by bowsers from which large plastic tanks are filled. This is the only camp where I saw water sealed toilets. But there is not enough water for drinking and cooking – the toilets had not been flushed.

This hospital was a smaller tunnel and it had about 20 beds. The two lady doctors started seeing the patients with the help of translators. The consultant attended to the patients on the beds, some two to a bed. We handed over the water bottles and the under wear to the store keeper to be given to patients on a needs basis. There were several patients waiting for an ambulance to take them to various hospitals. One was a 22 year old boy who had lost both legs in a shell attack. His family is in Mannar and he is the only one in his family out here. I have no doubt that he was one of the child soldiers. I learned after Tsunami not to delve too deeply into personal tragedies, for a simple selfish reason – I want to be able to sleep at night. There was also a mother with twins, both suffering from bronchial problems and waiting to be brought to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital in Colombo.

Kumari and I went to have a look at the camp and saw some people with baggage, being loaded onto a bus. Daniel, who was in charge of this task told us that the tents were overcrowded. Each tent which has two sections can accommodate only 10 people but these tents had over 20. They were therefore taking some of the IDP’s to a new area. I spoke to some of the people in the tents and was then addressed in perfect English by one of the men. He is a retired Assistant Director of Education! He had much to tell us. This camp had many shortcomings because it was set up only recently but it was still better than the hell hole they had come out off. He spoke emotionally about the soldiers who risked their lives to help them to escape from the no-fire-zone. The women told me that what they appreciate most is the lack of gunfire and the ability to sleep peacefully at night.

There was a sort of meeting going on near one of the tents and I was told that it was a meeting to decide how they can organize groups to maintain the camp. This is the first time that I saw the IDPs making an effort to help themselves.  I was told that the young man conducting the meeting had worked for an NGO. I have no doubt he had been with TNA. I really don’t care about his affiliations but had to appreciate his effort to organize people. With my limited Tamil and some help from the A.D. Education {a Tamil gentleman], I encouraged them. They were curious about me and I had to tell them briefly what I was doing to help. The Health worker told me that there are 61 pregnant women in this section alone. I hope I will be able to go back and help the women in this section. They listened eagerly and were very happy that we had stopped to speak to them.  The A.D .Education was very curious about my nationality. Most of these people had been brainwashed into believing that Sinhala people are monsters. The doctors too said that the patients had commented on how kindly they were being treated by the Sinhala doctors and nurses. I am now on the look out for any medical personnel who can be encouraged to give even a few days service in the camps. No one who goes in to these camps can deny that there is a serious shortage of medical personnel.

We left the camp at about 5.30. The checking at Medawachchciya did not take too
long and we got o Anuradhapura by 8 p.m. It was a long day especially for the 3 doctors. They felt sad they had to leave so soon and kept discussing how they can help on a longer term basis or at least find other doctors who can spend a few days in the camps.

We saw the quarters being constructed for medical personnel near the Coordinating Centre. These building were opened yesterday. This we hope will enable medical personnel to spend more time in the camps by eliminating the need to travel to and from Vavuniya every day.

That’s all for now till next time.

[1] Kumari Wanniarachchi, a friend of dr Rani Fernando, who accompanied Myrna on this trip and who provided one of her company’s trucks free of charges for the haulage of the mother-and-baby packs.


Filed under accountability, IDP camps, life stories, NGOs, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, tamil refugees, unusual people, voluntary workers, welfare & philanthophy, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes

5 responses to “Third Trip to Vavuniya, 11-13 June 2009, Setunga III

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