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Omanthai! Omanthai! Succour for the Tamil thousands August 12, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Roberts, Michael, Sri Lanka , trackback

Michael Roberts

This article first appeared on transCurrents 11 August 2010.

This article was made possible through interviews with Mrs Annet Royce nee Rajajohn (2 June 2010), T. Thamilalagan (3 June 2010) and Peter Voegtli (1 June 2010). I also interviewed Singham of SEEDS, two expatriate executives in UN agencies and two of the Sewalanka officers in Jaffna, Harsha Navaratne of Sewalanka in Colombo and C. Soloman of the Health Ministry (now in UNICEF).  Supplemented by a memo from Lakshi Abeysekera of Sewalanka at the end.

The citizens of Thāmilīlam who struggled out of the inferno of war in the north-east corner of the northern Vanni during the months of January-May 2009 journeyed on foot or boat. During the first few months the escapee refugees got out mostly in dribs and drabs. But circa 20-23 April, and then again in mid-May during the last stages as the LTTE resistance was smashed, two hordes of “Thāmilīlam people” poured out of the confines of the LTTE corral.

These Thāmilīlam people, or TEP as I shall present them in shorthand, included Tiger fighters in civilian attire as well as other Tiger functionaries. It is probable that all the TEP were in a state of exhaustion. Bombs and bullets in that context do not distinguish between age, gender, class, or military/civilian status.

Attending to the needs of the TEP from the month of January 2009 onwards within the parameters of the government’s insistence on security precautions was a feat of considerable coordination for combination of military and government personnel, foreign and local INGO personnel, local NGO functionaries, hired local staff and volunteers assembled for the purpose. My focus here will be restricted to the large body of Tamil refugee people whom these agencies had had to deal with in May 2009 and the special operation to feed them mounted at the former border post at Omanthai.

After most of those considered LTTE had been separated out by the army at the edge of the frontlines, the rest of the TEP were driven down to Omanthai in buses from private companies from all parts of the island that had been assembled by the Govt. Agent of Vavuniya (Mrs Charles, a Tamil) in combination with military officers, with each bus being manned by driver, conductor and two military personnel. This was three-four hour journey. So it was that between the 17th and 24th May 2009 an exhausted, hungry and thirsty mass of some 60,000 Tamil refugees reached Omanthai.

The magnitude of the relief-cum-security operation at the staging post of Omanthai is not easy to capture in words. The operation was overseen by the World Food Programme in association with the military. WFP chose the Sewalanka Foundation as its main implementation agency for this task; but they also had funds and assistance from such agencies as IOM, UNICEF, ECHO and government agencies under the G. A. There were few buildings in the village and its school was used as the main shelter on a temporary basis; while about 50 temporary toilets had been quickly built near the school building by ECHO (a European Union NGO) in league with Sewalanka through UNICEF funding.

What requires stressing, and what should not be taken for granted, was the fact that this operation entailed work. Yes WORK, hard labour in organisation, coordination and cooking hot meals for the large number of refugees. I can only provide a partial picture through the eyes of those who worked for Sewalanka, [a Lankan NGO that has been at work since 1992 and one that had developed considerable experience in empowering people to help themselves, in particular through its engagement in tsunami relief activities].

As such, it is also an invidious tale. I have little doubt that the other organisations referred to above devoted as much sweat and blood as the Sewalanka personnel in assisting the Tamil refugees to survive and adjust to life in the new circumstance of the IDP camps. Reports that I have received from sources at ground level in the UN agencies indicate that the work of such NGOS as Caritas, CARE, SEED, Sarvodaya et cetera in their designated spheres of activity was as immense as invaluable.

My choice of Sewalanka is fortuitous. Through a chance reference I stayed for a few days at their model farm on the outskirts of Vavuniya. In this non-comprehensive manner I consider it better for readers to be exposed to a sliver of the activities that occurred during the real hard crisis time in April-May-June-July 2009 than to remain in the dark. A one-man exploration in a brief visit cannot cover the whole range of organisations and activities through an in-depth study. So, it is to Sewalanka’s operations at Omanthai in May that I move now.

Succour at Omanthai Staging Post

One day in May, late in the evening as their office was closing shop, the local Sewalanka head received a call asking for urgent aid in feeding busloads of refugees. The unit swung into action immediately. In Vavuniya town they used IOUs to purchase cooking pots and other gear from local wholesalers (e.g. Maliban, Ozone), hired extra cooking staff and purchased the supplementary provisions in bulk, namely vegetables, dried fish and fish.

The system in place was for the World Food Programme to provide the basic dry rations, namely, rice, dhal, oil, sugar and wheat flour, to the NGO’s tasked with cooking meals and for these organisations to supplement these base goods with other supplements through their own funds and/or donor monies.

A critical aspect of this emergency operation was the fact that Sewalanka had been working in Vavuniya and the north for seventeen years and had local knowledge and local networks, besides mostly Tamil staff. The trust generated in the course of this history was central to their ability to cope with the enormous demands of the crisis. Thus, both their model farm and local networks enabled them to collect supplementary vegetables for both the Omanthai operation and the long-term ongoing task of cooking meals within the IDP camps assigned to them.

Armed then with cooking gear and other essentials in three lorries, the Sewalanka team proceeded that very night in a convoy by road to Omanthai where the military had built tent facilities for their work. Their working group amounted to about 40 people and they had eight sets of cooks working in rosters over a 24-hour period for several days at Omanthai. Indeed, some of them did not sleep at all over a couple of days. That is one reason why I underlined the word “work.”

Lakshi Abeysekera, the Deputy Chairperson of Sewalanka in Colombo, also travelled down and joined them, while Chairman Harsha Navaratne, parked in Anuradhapura some 90 minutes journey away, joined them periodically (while also reviewing Sewalanka operations in the camps assigned to Sewalanka). The executive staff, Annet Royce and Thamilalagan from the Vavuniya Office and Abeysekera from Colombo, participated actively in the tasks of moving goods and distribution of food parcels, while attending to their primary duty of directing and overseeing. The men, including Thamilalagan, stayed overnight—sleeping on packing cases made into rough beds. The Sewalanka women usually returned to Vavuniya late at night and were back early the next day to continue their labours.

Liaison with the military personnel was a central aspect of the feeding programme at Omanthai. Indeed, the military, UNICEF and IOM provided the other essentials: water bottles as well as energy biscuits; while military men and women were involved in the succour of those emerging from the buses.

These Tamil refugees were hungry. It follows that the rush to food meant that the older and slower were last in any line. Two incidents provide one with a glimpse of the human frailties arising in such circumstances. (A) As one busload hastened to get their food and lined up in a disorderly mass, a Tamil-speaking man in army attire started beating them with a stick to get them into an orderly line. When a Sewalanka worker accosted him and protested, it turned out that he was a former-Tiger soldier who told her that such disorderly queues would never have been tolerated in Thāmilīlam (or words to that effect). (B) When a Sinhalese soldier entrusted with the task of carrying food parcels to one busload of refugees asked for 105 parcels, one of the Sewalanka supervisors asked him how many that bus carried. He answered sheepishly: “101.” Then added: “there are four pregnant women and they could do with two each.” Eminently compassionate and sensible one would think right? But, no, an army officer intervened and chastised the soldier with a knock, what would be called a tokka in Sinhala, with the implicit meaning that it was a legitimate act of guti dheema (punishment). Eminently rigid and bureaucratic-harsh, don’t you think?

Concluding Remarks

I have presented this Omanthai sustenance work within the umbrella term “relief operation.” It is a catchword that Sewalanka themselves would frown upon. Harsha Navaratne, its Chairman and founder, had insisted that their personnel should not be described as “Relief Officers; rather the titles were to be “Development Officers” because their role was to be directed towards empowering those receiving aid and encouraging them to stand on their own feet. (Interview with Annet Royce, June 2010)

I have not followed this dictum because readers would comprehend the description “relief” more easily than the term “development” and because it fits the type of work undertaken at Omanthai and the IDP camps. That said, I add that it was a service to people-in-need that also uplifted the spirits of those providing the services. When I encouraged Lakshi Abeysekera of Sewalanka to send me a memorandum describing her work at Omanthai, she responded thus: “Indeed the exposure at the Omanthai at the last movement is something I will always remember and regard as one of the rarest experiences in 17 years of service” [email, 21 July 2010].

She is not alone. Elsewhere, through BBC’s “Hard Talk “ Programme, the wider world was exposed to the Bernadine Anderson’s captivating emphasis on the upliftment she and her aides had derived from her voluntary work in teaching Tiger captives English at the special facility that had been created in 2008-09 at Hindu College in Ratmalana.

There are, therefore, reciprocities in such work. But there can be little doubt that the greatest beneficiaries at Omanthai were the exhausted, hungry and thirsty mass of Tamil refugees from the war zone.

The Omanthai Operations in May 2009, memo from Lakshi Abeysekera of Sewalanka

The fighting raged in its highest intensity in the early months of 2009. The people of the Wanni were cornered within a small area of Puthumathalan towards the north-eastern coast of District Mullaithivu. People had moved constantly from place to place for more than eight months from the west of the Wanni to the East and were finally trapped in the limited area of the No Fire Zone. They were trapped in here as the LTTE prevented them from moving to the safer areas that were under the control of GOSL.

However some people fled in small groups in the first 3-4 months of 2009.  Later, larger numbers fled across the lagoon towards the areas where the army personnel assisted them as they entered an environment to which they were strangers.

There were movements of people by boat to Trincomalee and Jaffna. But the vast majority trudged to the areas of the district Mullatgivu that had been taken over by the security forces . After crossing the lagoon many trekked for many days by foot with small belongings on their heads; or sometimes carrying very little as they were saddled with small children.

Once they entered government-controlled territory the Security authorities registered them and then transported them in buses to the District of Vavuniya. The entry point to the district for these fleeing IDPS was the Omanthai. The trickle of refugees started in small numbers from  January 2009. While all the Agencies had made contingency plans for the reception of an IDP refugee influx into Vavuniya, no one to my knowledge had comprehended the seriousness and enormity of the event until the whole of Wanni was emptied into the Vavuniya region in May. During the month of April, however, one witnessed substantial numbers coming in  to Vavuniya: they were accommodated in the Thandikulam  and Omanthai schools as well as schools in the town areas of Vavuniya.

The first signs of massive entry were noted in early mid May. The World Food Programme was requested to take care of the task of feeding the people. Whereupon WFP took Sewalanka into its confidence as partner for this massive operation. Together we planned the work as an urgent measure. The process was not easy. We coordinated the activities very closely with the security personnel in choosing the place for operations, the movement of staff and the transportation of materials that were provided by the WFP.

We camped close to Omanthia school, an area with two buildings that were damaged, but could be covered with plastic sheeting. Cooking areas were selected and all utensils and cooking items were transported in lorries provided by the WFP; while Sewalanka used all its facilities, such as pick up trucks and crew cabs for the transport of personnel and food to the sites. Our site camp was about five kms from the former Omanthai border point.  Sewalanka organized all its staff for cooking, while villagers from nearby volunteered to assist us in the cutting and preparation of food parcels. We had one objective: to feed all the refugees arriving, exhausted as they were, with hot meals. We also transported biscuits, water and whatever possible to the site in order to feed the empty stomachs. We knew it was a 24 hour job.

The most important day was the 17th of May: buses from all parts of Sri Lanka had been sent to the frontlines to gather the refugees and now, suddenly, these busloads arrived in quick succession – so rapidly that the cooking continued non-stop, with our staff taking turns to do the work required.  Over 7-8 eight days we all camped at the site. Army personnel also helped us and in fact showed us the best way of handling a massive operation of cooked-food delivery! I was there all the way to support my team. I am a Sinhala person who has worked with the various communities of people in the North for several years. Sewalanka’s experience in this domain helped also to understand the situation. The distribution of food was one of our main responsibilities. I was delighted with the opportunity to work amicably in support of the endeavours of our local staff. It had been a hidden dream, this type of work responding to a huge emergency situation of the type one witnessed on television in other countries. But I never believed that I would be in fact be grappling with a catastrophe in my own country. I joined almost all the transports to the Omanthai point where lines of buses sometimes counting to 200 numbers were lined up with at least 100 people.

The cooked-food parcels and other supplements were distributed in a methodical way and care was taken not to miss any busloads. The army person in charge would ask two people to disembark from each bus with a sarong. They would hold the sarong on two sides and the security person in charge of the bus would shout out the number of persons in the bus and we would put that number of parcels into the sarong bag! This process went on until the 24th of that month. There was no time limit or rest period; it was constant 24 hour work-in-hand. Sewalanka also distributed biscuits and water in the wee hours of the night to those busloads that had just come in and had to face delays in receiving the hot food because those in the front of the queue had first rights.

As the people disembarked at the Omanthai point for food, water or other calls of nature, sometimes the injured, the pregnant mothers or other emergency cases were identified so that they could receive attention by the mobile medical services or dispatched to the hospitals in Vavuniya and elsewhere.

The people who arrived were so exhausted and traumatized after days/months of suffering in the course of multiple displacements and constant flight that their appreciation was manifest. They told us that they had survived on rice porridge during their stints in the LTTE territory and that on entry to the government-held rear areas of the battlefront the Army had fed them – in most cases the first rice-and-curry they had tasted for weeks or months.

The IDPs had to stay at the staging post at Omanthai for the best part of the day because of registration requirements; and thereafter were moved temporarily to Omanthai school before being transported to the IDP camps at Menik Farm. The result was that the cooking demands were considerable because each person needed at least two or more meals.

In sum, Sewalanka distributed 530,857 meals during the eight days devoted to this massive and rewarding feeding operation directed towards immediate relief for loads of exhausted people who arrived quite hungry and with only those meagre belongings that they had been able to carry.

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