Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Civil war scars leave jagged impression

Blind resource centre small oasis in troubled waters

The mood changed dramatically as we made our way towards Batticaloa, located along Sri Lanka’s northeast coast. As the land became more barren and dry, we knew the only thing that lay between us and Batticaloa, was miles of undeveloped road and armed Sri Lankan militia.

While we have encountered extreme poverty, horrible living conditions and saw evidence of communities devastated by a natural disaster, this was the first time the trip felt dangerous at all. In the central and southern sections of this gem of an island, it’s hard to tell there’s even a war going on, unless you talk to the residents because it always weights on their minds.

While parts of Sri Lanka felt like a tropical island destination, and others had a busy metropolitan vibe, none felt like a war zone, which is strange given the 20-year battle ongoing battle between the government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Ealam (LTTE).

Even in the capital city of Colombo, where they have been recent attacks, the signs of battle were minimal. There were a few security checkpoints here and there and guards positioned strategically to protect important buildings.

However, all that changes as you make your way north. We arrived in Polonnaruwa at 8:30 am to meet Mrhemachandru, our contact for the Uthayam Visually Impaired Vocation School, one of the humanitarian projects we were scheduled to visit. Neville Hewage, the founder of the Ontario International Development Agency, with whom I’m travelling, thought it might be best to have someone familiar with the area and the military situation to accompany us.

The minute you leave the city limits of Polonnaruwa, it’s obvious you’re crossing into a strange, new world. Although the government of Sri Lanka took possession of the eastern coast a few weeks ago, pushing the Tamil Tigers into a small section of the north, there is concern about retaliatory attacks.

We hit our first military checkpoint within minutes of leaving Polonnaruwa. Armed soldiers block your passage and you must pull over to the side of the road. As the driver provides proof of vehicle registration and travel permit information, another guard comes over to the vehicle and scans the passengers inside. At times, you’re asked to show your passports and questioned on your activities.

Each checkpoint gives you a ticket that you must give to the next checkpoint to verify you have travelled the main road and gone through security process.

Aside from the checkpoints, there are military personnel located every hundred feet or so, either standing by the roadside or hidden in bunkers, behind buildings or trees or perched on top of roofs. All of them are carrying weapons and take their job very seriously.

Another sobering sight is the refugee camps for residents of Trincomalee and other parts of the eastern province. The conditions in these camps are inhuman, with residents having to rely on the help of a relief agency booth for meals and supplies. The only thing protecting them from the blazing sun and sauna-like heat is are tents or blankets strung over ropes. Many of the residents of the refugee camps were children.
The most unnerving part for me of the three-hour trip came when we reached a major checkpoint about 40 minutes outside of Batticaloa. Taking pictures along the way, my camera caught the eye of one guard as we were pulled over for a spot check. He started walking towards my window and yelling. Mrhemachandru went over to talk to him, as he gestured heatedly and asked me to hand over my camera. After looking at the photos the first time and giving the camera back, he asked for it again a few minutes later. I was worried the camera was going to be confiscated.

Mrhemachandru advised not to take any more pictures after that and to make sure the camera was hidden when we approached checkpoints. It was a scary experience, especially since I couldn’t understand the conversation and the guard seemed so angry.

After we reached Batticaloa, we went to the local police station to arrange the paperwork for our exit out of the city. Because our vehicle was from out of the region, we all had to get out as the police flipped over the seats to check for hidden weapons and to match the serial numbers to those listen on the vehicle registration information.

As we drove through the town, the sheer volume of humanitarian agencies set up in Batticaloa was amazing. Aside from the war, the area was also affected by the 2004 tsunami. I saw vehicles or offices belonging to the Red Cross, World Vision, United Nations, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Unicef, United Methodist Community Relief and a few more I didn’t have time to write down.

We finally arrived at the resource centre and were greeted by some of them men who use its services. They put flower garlands around our neck and served cold pop and traditional Tamil snacks. Mrhemachandru said there about 100 men who currently use the centre, but the number fluctuate depending on the security issues in town.. Women can’t attend because there are no bathroom facilities. Many of the men were blinded from shrapnel during the LTTE and government bombings during the 20-year war, while others were born blind.

There are a few agencies in town that help visually impaired children, but none that work with adults.
“There’s no help for them after they turn 18 years of age,” Mrhemachandru said.

The men make products like brooms and weaved rope rugs, which are sold to local businesses. While the money they generate doesn’t cover the full cost of living, it does help the family out a bit.

Mrhemachandru said another important part of the centre is the social aspect for the men. Often isolated and discriminated against because of their disability, they get to network with other people who are facing the same issues, restoring a little dignity into their lives.

The centre put in a request to the Ontario International Development Agency for money to buy a tuk tuk, a three-wheel vehicle popular in Sri Lanka and India. Right now they have to haul their supplies and finished products around by hand.

The whole experience made me glad I live in Canada, a war-free country where safety nets are put in place to protect the most vulnerable. And while the battle will continue to rage between the Tamil Tigers and the government, and the countries supplying the weapons will continue to get richer, it’s the people who live in these communities that will continue to suffer.


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