By Sarasi Wijeratne in Batticaloa
Batticaloa is a city of contrasts. Blessed with a landscape dominated by a breathtakingly beautiful lagoon and its phenomenal singing fish, the versatile palm and a resilient people cursed by separatist strife to which they appear seemingly oblivious, they pedal along on their bicycles doing whatever they have to do.
That Batticaloa is also in the throes of a war is inescapable. There is a significant military presence with check points and road blocks, mine clearance activity and more humanitarian than civilian vehicles on its roads. The night before The Sunday Leader visited the area fighting had broken out between the army and LTTE in Chenkaladi, not far from Batticaloa town.
Batticaloa is also suffering from the human cost of the fallout from months of military operations to its north in Muttur and Sampur in the Trincomalee District and more recently in Vaharai in the Batticaloa District. Recent reports claimed the displacement crisis in Sri Lanka was worse than that of Somalia although exposure is nowhere near.
“That is a total fabrication,” says Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. “The situation in Jaffna has improved and according to reports from the GA Batticaloa the IDPs there are being looked after and catered to.”
According to Samarasinghe, recommendations made by a Joint Assessment Team to improve the provision of essential supplies and services to Jaffna, including health services, as well as on issues related to livelihoods and the movement of people have been considered by the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance and decisions have been taken to implement these recommendations.
The current number displaced in the Batticaloa District alone stands at 76,224, of which the majority, 50,012 are from within the district itself and the rest from the neighbouring Trincomalee District. Among the displaced are those with multiple displacements, nomadic for nearly one year. Having fled the fighting in Muttur or Sampur to seek refuge in Vaharai, they have had to be on the move again to trek to Batticaloa following the offensive there.
[Outdoor classes – Cadjan classrooms at the Vantharamoolai Maha Vidyalaya]
Batticaloa town is host to 22 camps or welfare centres as they are officially known, for the internally displaced – the highest in the district which in total has 49 sites spread across its 13 divisions and itself no stranger to volatility. While a little more than half the total number displaced live in welfare centres, a figure close to this have been taken in by friends and family.
The sites mostly based in schools, considered the ideal place to receive large numbers of people to be housed temporarily until they are moved into proper centres, have been set up by humanitarian agencies and handed over to the government for administration.
Although there is adequate sanitary and medical facilities and water for drinking and bathing, food is in short supply, unemployment a pressing concern and health issues remain.
“The sheer scale of the problem and the numbers involved means having to prioritise water, shelter and sanitation,” said an ICRC source in Batticaloa.
There have been reports of typhoid and although the figures are unreliable between 12 and a few hundred cases of hepatitis as a result of water contamination have been reported. Although those cases have been identified and treated and the Health Ministry is reportedly trying to control the situation, prevention is seen as being vital given that there is no isolation facility and patients having to go to hospitals in Trincomalee or Valachchennai for treatment.
The Health Ministry together with the Italian and Sri Lanka Red Cross is operating mobile clinics, which are seen as being more curative, in the centres and as we watched, teams of volunteers from Oxfam and the SLRC were walking around promoting hygiene awareness.
“If there is hepatitis which is a controllable disease it cannot be said that health issues are under control,” point out reliable humanitarian staff who did not wish to be quoted.
Samarasinghe however was unaware of such outbreaks, saying he had not received any reports from the GA to this effect, but it will be something he will be looking into when he visits the district next week accompanied by health authorities and the WHO resident representative.
En route to Batticaloa town a little off the A15 is Kiran 2, one of the larger and more organised centres with row upon row of off-white tents and tin and plastic shelters, their covers fluttering in the gentle breeze. The camp, sheltering 1844 IDPs consisting of 543 families, was built by the ICRC in December to house two large influxes of IDPs from Vaharai.
Inside a four-by-four tent, hot and swarming with flies, which she shares with her five school-going children aged between 16 and four, we meet Varnakulasingham Semartha (50), surrounded by nothing else but a few pots, pans and other insignificant paraphernalia.
The family, which cooks and sleeps in the confines of their shelter, left Ichchilampattai in the Trincomalee District with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
Semartha, whose husband is dead, earned a living cultivating paddy and from fishing but has no income now and is dependent on food, clothing and medical assistance she receives from the government and NGOs. They manage with the food they get but it is never enough.
The scarcity and poor quality of food was a common gripe among all the IDPs we spoke to. Ambiga (37) at the Zahira Welfare Centre in Batticaloa town with her 14-year-old daughter who attends the local Mahajana School said they had not been given any fruit from the day they moved into the camp and had not eaten any vegetables in the last month.
Difficult to manage
Ambiga and her daughter, made homeless following the Muttur attacks, have been on the move since August last year having lived temporarily in Sampur, Kiliveddi and Vaharai before ending up at the centre. They walked for five days from Vaharai and stayed at the Sinhala School, another welfare centre in Batticaloa town, before ending their journey at Zahira. Ambiga has to cook for herself and her daughter.
“We were given cookers to cook our food but they are not working anymore and I have to go from house to house looking for firewood which we have to buy. This is all right for those of us who have money. Some of us work as labourers and earn Rs. 400 to Rs. 500 a day but it is still quite difficult to manage.”
Meanwhile, at the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya in Batticaloa town another centre housing around 500 IDPs made up of 150 families, there is unhappiness about the quality of food. As we approached we were circled by a group of its residents who looked to Kanagamani (50) to translate their grievances.
“Although we got good food at the beginning the food we get now is terrible,” they complained. “The dhal we get is black and does not boil and the rice smells. Some of us threw the dhal away as it cannot be eaten. We have not had any fruit and vegetables.”
Rice, dhal, oil and sugar are distributed to the IDPs once every two weeks on a government programme supported by the World Food Programme. The WFP brings food into the country and once the food is in the country, its ownership passes to the government.
The food is transported to Batticaloa where it is released by the government agent to be picked up by the divisional secretaries who then take it to their divisions for distribution, sometimes helped by the SLRC. None of the IDPs we spoke to had received milk, not even those families with children.
What is distributed is a nutritional value basket meant for people to survive, said the ICRC source. “There are no vegetables, fruits and spices included and that’s what the IDPs ask for. Some NGOs have started assisting with additional food items.”
Clearly there are nutritional deficiencies and although there are no obvious signs of malnutrition it does not mean it is not there and may take a while to show up.
Samarasinghe meanwhile acknowledges there has been talk of malnourishment, especially among children and those who have come from uncontrolled areas as essential supplies targeted for the people have sometimes been used by others.
“There have been reports to this effect and we have to look at the people who came from Vaharai to see if there is malnourishment but as far as government controlled areas are concerned, there is no such issue,” he said.
Unemployment is an issue though. Fit and able bodied men, have been left idle. While some of the shelters and centre infrastructure like roads and toilets like those in Kiran have been built by the IDPs themselves, some have been lucky enough to find causal jobs as labourers but this is also becoming scarce as supply is greater than demand with multiple contenders chasing one job.
Those like A.K. Anton Raj (33) with an entrepreneurial streak have opened shops selling basic food items within the centres. Anton used to sell vegetables back home in Muttur which he left last August with his wife and three children aged nine, seven and one-and-a-half.
“Business is okay”
With help from CARITAS which provided him with the structure for the shop he invested the little money he had brought with him in goods for the shop which he runs from his temporary abode at the Sinhala School.
“Business is okay,” he smiles from behind a shelf stacked with boxes of Madeira cake. “I have been running the shop for one-and-a-half months now and it provides my family and I with our day’s income for any extras we require.”
But for others like Sivakumar (26) in the Zahira Centre, who walks around with the support of a steel frame after his left hip was damaged by shrapnel, work is likely to be elusive. Sivakumar worked as a labourer before leaving Vaharai with his wife Sivanandani who also does not work and their lives are now in limbo.
The government is working with UN agencies to put in place livelihood programmes such as cash for work or goods for work as well as look at micro or cottage industries, especially for the women in the camps, to increase their income. “If for example there are going to be fishing restrictions whilst giving them their rations, we must also look at other ways of increasing their income levels,” points out Samarasinghe.
Further along the A15 is Sittandi where the Vantharamoolai Maha Vidyalaya borders the main road. As we drive into the school, lessons are being conducted in a cadjan shelter on the right.
“These are some of the IDP children attending the school, explains the Principal, Panchalingam. The school which has 1,872 students of its own has had to accommodate a further 706 IDP children and the already stretched resources are being overstretched.
“Because we do not have enough staff and buildings, we conduct lessons for the IDP children from one to five in the afternoon,” explains Panchalingam, who is also the additional principal of the school which is being run for the IDP children.
The home science room, science room, group activity room and library have all been converted into classrooms to accommodate the increased numbers. The school, which needs seven science teachers for its own contingent of students, has only four teachers and has to rely on volunteer teachers to help out.
There is one maths teacher and one science teacher for the IDP children who are being taught by teachers from the Vaharai school and other nearby small schools. UNICEF has provided around 450 of the IDP children school uniforms and exercise books but there are those without and there is a dearth of text books, even for the school’s regular attendees.
IDP children in the district have been integrated into several local schools and have been able to continue their education without too much disruption and this is one facet of their lives all IDP parents with school going children were happy about.
Across the road from the Vantharamoolai School is another centre with 544 IDPs comprising 148 families. Here too we find IDPs from Muttur and Vaharai, their predicament perhaps mirroring that of the thousands of other IDPs.
At least Ramu (51) and his wife Saraswathi (48) who escaped fighting between the LTTE and Karuna cadres in Welikanda have something to be happy about. Their four children aged between seven and 16 all attend the Vantharamoolai School and are continuing their education. For this they are grateful to the authorities.
Need for security
All these IDPs want is to go back home. Conditionally. Security is top of their list of wants, followed by accommodation. Palani, 60, another resident of Kiran 2 who fled Vaharai in December is emphatic about the need for security.
“The government and LTTE have to stop fighting because it is us civilians who get caught in the middle. If for example we go back and we are forced by the LTTE to give them food, the military will be tipped off by an informant and we will then be at the receiving end,” he explains.
The IDPs had other concerns. Ambiga explained how mothers with teenaged sons were afraid to go back for fear they would be abducted. She did not specify by whom though.
The government plans to resettle those from Vaharai, where most of the homes are reportedly intact, soon. The IDPs from Trincomalee are also expected to return at some point. In reality though there is no end in sight for many.
“I have heard talk of resettlement on the radio,” says Kanagamani, at the Sinhala School where there is a sense of camaraderie among its residents. “But we have not been told anything officially.”
Kanagamani has no family and is on her own. She together with a group of others fled Muttur and took refuge in Sampur where she roughed it out for five months living in a tent in a school. When Sampur was being shelled, she left for Kadirawelipuram and eventually to Batticaloa. Kanagamani used to work as a housemaid in Oman and built a house with the money she earned, although now she does not know what has happened to it.
Like Kanagamanai, many do not know what has become of their homes although most suspect the worst and believe their houses to have been destroyed. A.K. Anton Raj is one of those who knows this for certain. He was the only IDP we met who returned to his home town to see what had happened to his home.
“I went to Muttur in December to see about my house. It has been destroyed and everything is gone, even the furniture,” he says, a far away look in his eyes.
Those whose houses have been destroyed expect assistance from the government to rebuild their homes. “Even if we were to return our houses have been destroyed, so where are we to live?” questions Ambiga. “My family and I would like to go back but we will need help from the government to rebuild our house,” says Anton Raj.
“The government has taken steps to restore key services in Vaharai and infrastructure issues are being addressed and I have asked the GA to communicate it to the IDPs although I am not sure how successful the communication strategy has been,” says Samarasinghe.
“As far as compensation is concerned, whatever the other IDPs in other areas have got will be given to them as well. It will be a uniform and just compensation although the perennial debate on the adequacy of the compensation will prevail. I must emphasise that the people who are to be resettled will not be forced to go back. Resettlement will be purely voluntary,” says Samarasinghe.
Samarasinghe’s Ministry, together with international partners and other ministries is to initiate a Confidence Building Stabilisation Measures Strategy to be piloted in areas like Vaharai where village assessments will be carried out and needs identified and met so that a conducive environment is made available to help people make the decision about going back.
Also planned as a part of the strategy is an accelerated economic development programme. “We, as a government, have an obligation to make the habitat that people live in more conducive for these purposes and security is of paramount importance.”
On Wednesday a cycle bomb targeting police personnel exploded in Ottomowadi in the Batticaloa District killing civilian passersby. But for the civilians of Batticaloa, it was business as usual, for the IDPs it was no more than a blip in their transient lives. [thesundayleader.lk]