An Overview: Setunga V, 22 July 2009

Myrna Setunga, 22 July 2009 …. providing a summary description of conditions in early June when Zone 4 was being set up and moving on to circumstances in July. Web Editor.

Dear family and friends,  This is the second part of the report on my visits to Vavuniya. I had intentions of printing this report and posting it to selected people because I do not want this report to be circulated. Please think twice before you pass this on, because I could get into trouble. Some of this information could be seen as sensitive. My printer is refusing to obey my commands – so here it is in the form of an email. Your comments are welcome.

As I said in the emailed report we went to Menik Farm on the 1st of June. We were in the temporary camp [in Zone 4] which consisted of tents and could see the semi- permanent zinc structures in the distance. These are similar to the ones constructed after the Tsunami. There is a barbed wire fence separating the two parts but I saw a woman quietly creeping through the fence to get to the tent section. Any relative from the outside who wants to visit an IDP in the camp has to wait at the gate till the person is summoned over the loud speaker. The visitors and their parcels are thoroughly searched. I saw this happen at all the camps I visited. The visitor is not allowed into the camp and can speak to the IDP in a special shed which is in full view of the Military Police who guard all the camps. The reason given for this is that there are still LTTE members among the IDPs. They have found the wife and children of Tamilshelvam among the IDPs. Prabakaran’s parents too are in the Menik farm Camp. One has to therefore understand why these people are like prisoners behind barbed wire.

This camp has over 80,000 people. CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies – is constructing a metal framed temporary Clinic to replace the one that is presently housed in a large tent. Just a stones’ throw away from this construction site is the most horrible toilet I have ever seen. It has been constructed by OXFAM. A long deep trench has been dug and this is surrounded with thick plastic on three sides and divided into about 18 cubicles. The whole structure is about 58 feet long. Each cubicle has a flap in front to-serve as a door. There is a fiberglass squatting pan inside each cubicle. But this toilet had no flaps or squatting pans because the trench was full and the toilet was not to be used. But the CHA volunteers told me that people still use this toilet. How desperate people must be to have to hang their bottoms over the edge at the entrance in full view of any one passing by. People had defecated just outside the abandoned toilet. The stench was unbearable. About 5 feet away people were bathing and washing from buckets of water. This formed a pool of stagnant water.

While the CHA staff was discussing the Clinic construction I went with a CHA volunteer to see the tents. We had to cross a deep drain that ran the length of that section. There were three logs placed across for crossing. One look inside this drain made my stomach turn over. If was full of filth and I have never seen such fat maggots in such huge quantity before. Maggots don’t form overnight. I had to grab the hand of the volunteer for fear of falling into that muck. On the edge of the drain were half tar barrels piled with more garbage. They must have been given noodles the night before because all the barrels were piled high with rotting noodles. I was told that garbage is removed every day. The time was 9.45 and the garbage had not been removed. Then there were the flies. I have never seen so many flies – not even in Africa. There were trillions of flies enjoying the open toilets, heaps of garbage and open drains.

The tents had open flaps at both ends and had a partition down the middle. Two families shared each tent. The area round the tents was free of garbage and only one family had made a small fireplace outside the tent to heat water. Cooking is not allowed in the tents because of the fire hazard. The people I spoke to said that there was a major shortage of water and toilets. I asked one of the IDP’s whether there were no leaders in the camps. He said that there were three Grama Niladaris. But these people had done no organized work in the camp. I asked if they could not dig small pits way from the tents and bury the left-over food. He told me that they had nothing with which to dig holes.

There were water tanks in some places for drinking water. Water for washing was supplied by pipes but only at certain times. A colorful array of plastic vessels could be seen everywhere. When the water was released people surged round pushing their vessels forward. It was mostly little boys who did this while their parents watched from the shade. How many times would they have to line up to get sufficient water to bath and wash clothes. I patted the heads of the children who smilingly accompanied me. I do this where ever I go not only just to show the children that I liked them but mostly to check the cleanliness of their hair and skin. I don’t know how but these children were clean. I did not see any kid with a runny nose.

 A hospital clinic at full bore in one of the Zones in July 2009 —Pic from Ministry of Health

On my way out of the camp we stopped near the clinic which was crowded with patients inside and out. So I decided to visit the temporary school located next door. This was a neat structure with canvas roof and classrooms separated by low strips of plastic. The children were seated on mats. There was no furniture for the teachers. The Principal and another teacher were in one of the partitioned sections working while seated on a mat. When I spoke to them their first complaint was the lack of furniture. I told them that this is how classrooms are in permanent schools in India and that being a temporary school furniture would cause space problems. The children had received packs of books and writing material from UNICEF. Text books were also being distributed. The teachers and Principal are also IDPs. The women said that they did not have sufficient saris. The children looked clean and happy. Classes are being held only for year 5, O/L and A/L students. The children did not have school bags and items other than pens and pencils.

Once we left the camp we were stopped at another check point. The Army officer wanted to see our identification plus proof that we were CHA volunteers. One of the volunteers had misplaced his Staff ID. I asked the officer why he was insisting on the staff ID and he told me that some NGO’s had passed off IDP youth as volunteers and taken them out of the camp. [1]  The person smuggled out was handed over to relatives for a fee.[2] The relatives then get a passport and send the IDP abroad. I’m glad I asked, because this explains one of the reasons for high security. As I said before the Army and Police officers were always courteous and helpful and kept saying that they were under pressure to do their duty.

Security in the camps in Town was uniform. In each camp they had to phone someone higher up before letting me and the vehicle in. The packs were inspected first. In one camp I saw a truck parked just outside the fence and those with money were able to purchase items such as soap, shampoo and biscuits.

CHA provides food for the IDP’s in the Tamil Maha Vidyalaya. They had given out 26 packs to women in this camp out of the 78 I had left behind after my first visit. I went looking for the women who had received the packs. I met about five of them and was satisfied that they had received the packs and they were grateful when I told them that I had personally made the packs. One woman had already used up the soap. I had to tell women in the other camps too to keep the pack in a separate bag ready for the hospital. One family with young children told me that they had no money and were unable to buy biscuits for the little children who did not care much for the food supplied for the adults. Later the CHA staff told me that they regularly supply biscuits to the camp. In fact the next day I saw loads of semolina biscuits ready for distribution. CHA also distributes UNICEF family packs which contain soap, shampoo, towels etc.

  Pics from Ministry of Health, July 2009 [no info on which Zone each photo refers to]

A common sight in all the camps is the attitude of the men. While the women were busy with the children, washing and bathing and general family care, the men lounged around, played cards or just slept. Unlike after Tsunami where the people were free to move around and find small jobs even in the camp, these men had no opportunity to find paid work. They did not seem interested even in volunteer work. Paid workers came into the camps to clean the toilets and remove the garbage. There is so much they can do to help themselves but no one seemed to bother about self help. I saw no evidence e of trauma but a traumatized mind is not always visible. Only once did I see a fight between two men at the water tap.

From my window in the Vanni Inn I could see the camp in the school. They had the luxury of water from one tap for 24 hours. Every time I woke up in the night I could hear the sound of water and buckets. The sad part is that the IDPs in the schools will soon be transferred to tent sites in Menik Farm because the schools are needed. This means they will be going into a worse situation.

The Sunday Times of May 31 had an article about Chefs from 5 star hotels going in teams to the camps to prepare nutritious food and to train the inmates on how to prepare gourmet meals with the ingredients available. They were requesting donations of curry stuff. The WFO provides the basic ingredients such as rice and flour. A chef in a 5 star hotel known to Leelani has told her that the conditions that they have to work under are appalling. They have to contend with millions of flies and little water. The kitchens are open tents or just a tarpaulin strung between trees. The pans are so large that only men can handle the cooking and stirring. Rice with vegetable curry is the staple food. They get fish or dry fish once a week.

I am happy to report that the second time I visited Zone 4 the trillions of flies had gone leaving only a few hundred behind. The garbage situation too had improved but the drains were still being used as garbage dumps. The trench toilets are being replaced by water seal toilets but with little water available the toilets are not sufficiently flushed. There are several outlets for dry goods and even a few fruits – at a price of course. One king coconut costs Rs 50. Those who have money are able to buy basic food and other items.

What concerns me most are the conditions under which the medical personnel have to live and work. One group of doctors had been evicted from the house they were renting because the GA had not paid the rent. They were asked to leave the next Guest House too because they had not gone through the “proper” channels. The way in which they were asked to leave was very degrading. I am trying to help them to find suitable accommodation in Anuradhapura or Medavachchiya. These young doctors who have only recently completed internship, work 7 days in the week and also do night duty. The only nurses I met were the ones who come in for one or at most 4 days. I was told that when patients are referred to medical institutions outside Menik Farm, the Army Doctor turns them back because he does not think they need specialist treatment. One reason could be that the hospitals outside the camps are also overflowing. There is a serious shortage of medical personnel and suitable accommodation for those permanently appointed to the camps.

One of my neighbours works for WFP (World Food Programme). He told me that there is no shortage of the food items supplied by them. The items given are rice, flour, cooking oil, sugar and sometimes tinned fish. Curry powder and other condiments, onions and vegetables have to be supplied by various NGOs that are permitted to run the kitchens. In one camp I saw a woman eating rice with dhal and spinach curry. In Zone 4 they had rice with dry fish and tomato curry. Sometimes they get a leafy vegetable.

On the whole people seem cheerful enough given the predicament they are in. I saw many young men just idling because they said they had no work to do. This could turn into resentment against those who run the camps. As far as I know vocational training is done only in Zone 0 [Kadirgamar camp].Classes are being run only for year 5, O/L and A/L students. Given the enormity of the numbers and the seriousness of the security situation, the conditions are not desperate. But something will have to be done soon to move these people out of these camps before the rains come — maybe in September.[3]

       [1] Web Editor: In fact an aid-worker in Tamil areas and the camps, Fr Rohan Silva, estimated that anything around 1000-2000 people escaped; while T. Sridharan of EPRLF gave a figure of 8,000-10,000 (see de Silva-Ranasinghe, Exclusive Interview with T. Sridharan,” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, Sept-Oct. 2010, p. 47 and 2010b “Civilian casualties, IDP camps and asylum-seekers,” Interview with Father Rohan Silva,” Sunday Leader, 28 November 2010,

[2] One of these persons was the LTTE expat-functionary and engineer, Jegan Jegatheeswaran, to whose care Prabhakaran’s parents were entrusted within a cluster who walked out of the NFZ. He eventually surfaced and, under the cloak of a pseudonym, gave a black picture of the IDP camps (Warne-Smith, “Tamils herded into disease-ridden camps seek any escape,” The Australian, 24 October 2009, 0,25197,26251506-2703,00.html.). He was also the point-man for the Tiger Rump’s attempt to undermine Sri Lanka’s presence at the CHOGM meetings in Australia (Sheridan, Sheridan challenges Jegan Waran’s attempt to universalise rights and McClelland trumps it,” 26 October 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress. com/ 2011/10/26/sheridan-challenges-jegan-waran%E2%80%99s-attempt-to-universalise-rights-and-mcclelland-trumps-it/). His brother was a leading figure in LTTE operations in UK…. Web Editor.

[3] The deluge came earlier — in August 2009 if my memory serves me right. Groundviews promptly seized upon the moment o present an adverse picture of the IDP camps operation. There was no contextualization by any investigation of conditions in say the shanty areas when there is a period of torrential rain or village areas, say, in Batticaloa during a monsoonal flood phase … Web Editor.


Filed under accountability, citizen journalism, disaster relief team, IDP camps, life stories, LTTE, NGOs, population, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, rehabilitation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, tamil refugees, truth as casualty of war, welfare & philanthophy, women in ethnic conflcits, world events & processes