The civil war in Sri Lanka may have ended, but in its place, fresh mayhem has set in. With armed soldiers stationed at every turn, the people of Sri Lanka are very well experiencing peace that comes with a price.
“Tension in the streets can be felt with the intimidating presence of the army soldiers. Civilians have to alight from their vehicles and cross various checkpoints on foot, while every vehicle, entering or exiting, is thoroughly inspected using metal detectors,” says Soruban Shanthanapillai, 28, a local living in Colombo, who travels frequently to the outskirt towns in the north.
A military offensive launched by the Sri Lankan government began in July 2006 and defeated the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. Prior to that, the Sri Lankan civil war that has been going on for close to 30 years has claimed the lives of 80,000 to 100,000 civilians.
The long-standing civil war left in its wake thousands of wounded people, orphaned children, broken families, and made many homeless and destitute in Sri Lanka. Following its victory, the Sri Lankan government sprung to work on a plan to resettle the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) under internationally acceptable conditions.
Locals give accounts of how the military swept villages in search of LTTE. Their attacks and fighting reportedly resulted in the destruction of villages, causing thousands to be homeless and displaced. These people were taken and confined within the safety of the interim IDP camps, while the government sought to clear the villages of mines, bodies and other evidences of the violence, rebuilding the villages, making it safe for the people to return to their villages one day.
Medical Team from Singapore
On 24 August 2009, a team of 12 medical workers and helpers answered the humanitarian call to go to the northern Sri Lankan city of Vavuniya, a former LTTE stronghold, to provide medical services within the Menic Farm IDP camps.
The Menic Farm IDP camp is divided into seven zones, with Zone 1 housing IDPs who were among the earliest to be displaced as a result of the war; while Zone 7 houses IDPs who have just been displaced as a result of the unrest. A zone should ideally house 20,000 to 30,000 people but most of the zones are over-crowded (Zone 1 has over 80,000 people and Zone 4 has approximately 47,000 people). Sri Lanka has a total of 250,000 to 300,000 IDPs, mostly in the Northern parts of the country, particularly in Vavuniya.
The medical team consisted of medical doctors and nurses from humanitarian organizations in Singapore, namely, CityCare Limited and Crisis Relief Singapore, together with volunteer members who are non-medical personnel. All 12 individuals came together as strangers but bonded from day one, providing each other help and support wherever there was a need.
Upon arrival, the team got down to work immediately, setting up makeshift consultation tables for doctors to tend to patients. An endless queue of people formed, with all kinds of medical conditions, from the common cold and fever to other ailments such as high blood pressure, diabetes, epilepsy and viral attacks. Remnants of the civil war were also evident as seen — the doctors treated open wounds and shell blast injuries. In one of the camps was a woman, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, who went into early labor. An ambulance had to be called into the IDP camp, so that the woman could be rushed to the town’s hospital.
The doctors and nurses worked through translators, which slowed consultation down. However, the medical team labored on in the heat of the day without a break except for a 10-minute lunch each day.
While the medical team was hard at work, the rest of the team members were outside in the heat of the afternoon sun, distributing dry rations, clothes and toys to the IDPs. The team members had brought along all kinds of sporting equipment — soccer balls, volley balls, basketballs, cricket bats and balls. They started a game of volley ball among themselves, which very soon drew a crowd — some of the IDPs even joined in. Team leader, Kenneth Sim, 39, then whipped out a soccer ball and gathered the children for a game of football.
“The IDPs lead very mundane lives, day after day, whiling their time away, doing nothing. We brought along the balls in hope that it will take their minds off their present situation,” explains Sim. “If spending an afternoon under the hot sun, playing ball games with them, can cause them to come up with similar ideas on how to spend their time creatively — long after visiting humanitarian groups are gone — it is all worth it.”
|PHOTOS: Serina Perera and David E.C.D.
“Simple childhood games like catching, ‘scissors, paper, stone’, simple origami, hop scotch thrill the children so much. Even the adults took part in the games,” says volunteer Seraphina Chong, 17. It didn’t matter that language was a barrier and the non-medical team had no help with translation — everyone spoke the language of fun and sports.
A Different Perspective of Life
The team spent three days in the IDP camps performing the same tasks daily; the medical team treated patients, while the non medical team engaged the locals in games. All in the aid team agreed that coming on the trip helped them to gain a different perspective of life. As volunteer Eunice Wong, 25, aptly puts it, “When I look at the IDPs, I can only imagine how their once near-perfect lives have now been disrupted because of the civil war, and all they want to do is to go back to living their lives and be with their families. This teaches me not to take for granted what we have back home, the peace and racial harmony we get to experience.”