We’re halfway through our time here in Sri Lanka & enjoying a few days at Uppaveli a beautiful beach 4 km north of Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka. It’s a welcome change after our week in Kilinochchi where there was nothing to do outside of our work at the centre!
Amy Ramesh & I prepared the storeroom next to the centre building to become a clinic – Ramesh cleared up outside & hung a curtain between the clinic room & the gear stored there. He borrowed several chairs from local families & moved a couple of tables (one of which was actually an ironing table) from the classroom so there was a table to lay out medical supplies & a table for Amy to write up her patient notes. During the first health clinic a routine of weighing, measuring height, taking blood pressure, respiration & pulse was quickly established; and of giving multivitamins & worm tablets. Whole families came in as well as concerned mums bringing in children & grandmothers for a check-up. Whilst some families had paid to see a doctor it became clear that doctors here do not seem to be taking the time to find out what is wrong or accessing diagnostic procedures like x-rays & endoscopies to properly diagnose or follow up chronic conditions. Ramesh told us that a basic check-up like Amy was providing would cost 1,000 rupees (A$10) while a blood pressure check alone would cost 500 rupees; it doesn’t sound like much but most families are earning less than 20,000 rupees per month.
Several people came in with subcutaneous lumps on their legs & as we questioned them about it we discovered that everyone in Kili had lived in a camp the Sinhala Army forced them to go to for two years during the final stages of the war. Apparently the conditions were very hard & very unhygienic. We felt bad that we hadn’t known anything about it – we’re so ignorant in Aust about the hardships of people in other countries. After the clinic I googled information about the camps & learnt that the camp referred to as Manik Farm was a heavily guarded facility in Vavuniya in the northern district holding 280,000 people at the peak of the civilian detention policy.
After the first clinic Amy and Ramesh worked together and I spent time with the kids. Amy said the clinics were a mix of the mundane – chest infections, rashes, cleaning up wounds & doing dressings - and the extraordinary. Amy talked to several families who had lost a father or a brother to exploding ordinance; at least 2 of the families would benefit from support to grieve and one family were showing signs of post trauma (panic attacks, sleeplessness, grief) because a recent diagnosis of lung cancer for the father has been a trigger to release emotions lying just below the surface. It’s been good to pray together to ask God to provide for specific needs for the families (Ramesh is also a Christian).
Our days in Kili developed a routine of hotel to centre to hotel to centre to hotel etc etc and we both experienced something akin to cabin fever! Sometimes we went to the supermarket or the market or to a different place around the corner for more western style food and we were always the centre of attention. There are very few western people in Kili & even fewer women so we were quite a diversion in the daily grind of life in a city focussed on reconstruction. We were so thankful that we were able to secure a room at the Thanu Rest with its good size room & bathroom, a/c, TV and with a manager, Shan, who had good English – most of the people in Kili are only now starting to learn English, there was no call for it during 30 years of war.
The weather in the north region is dry & hot similar to a hot Aussie summer when it stays warm overnight & is hot by 7am. The best & coolest part of the day is from about 5pm until nightfall at 7pm. There was a breeze most days & it was quite windy at times which isn’t great when you’re walking down a dusty road. We tried to walk to the centre in the mornings & back from the centres in the evenings about a 20 minute walk each way. We went back to the hotel from 12-3pm during the hottest part of the day using the services of the tuk tuk driver Kutti who lives with his family just down the lane from the centre for those trips.
It was frustrating at times for me not to be able to offer post trauma counselling support to the children & families who needed it however to start & not to be able to finish would be irresponsible. In any case Ramesh was the only translator & he was fully occupied supporting Amy with the health clinics. Instead I supported Ramesh & Amy with the health clinics & we made notes about the people who needed counselling support. While I ran activities with the kids I also noted the signs of children acting out especially the boys.
The kids were very responsive to every activity – Tamil kids do not have the behaviour management issues of the Sinhala street kids in Kandy - and they’re very keen to learn. Ramesh runs computing, Sinhala & English classes after school during term times & had planned ‘exams’ to finish off the term’s work – he works really hard to prepare for each term & each day’s classes & had prepared the tests himself as well as the certificates that each kid receives. I introduced circle games to practice using English words as well as silly fun games like thumb war & Canadian rock paper scissors! We bought a box of paper for the centre & the kids really enjoyed drawing using images & stencils we had brought with us and I reinforced the English words for what they had drawn. Some of the older kids are very good at drawing & Ramesh brought out pastels which they used beautifully, many creating their own designs. They heard me humming & asked me to sing and with little encouragement the girls were dancing Sri Lankan traditional dances & singing the songs that accompany them – I took several videos! I’m convinced that art, music & drama therapies will work very well here to help kids.
We arranged a day excursion with a driver in a van to a lagoon north west of Kili that would include visits to various sites of interest from the war with the help of Shan who even organised a picnic lunch for us to take. Ramesh was our special guest & he was very excited about visiting the war sites but also because he said he hadn’t had a day off since starting work at the centre 5 months ago.
As we left Kili behind we started to realise how far it has developed in comparison to outlying areas where there is still house after house with bullets holes. Our first stop was at the hideout of the LTTE leader which was in the jungle. His lair was in the centre of a 10 acre area that had layer after layer of defences provided by 6,000 soldiers. The bunker itself looks like a normal house from the outside but had 4 levels below ground including an escape route up to the surface from the lowest level if needed. Apparently the leader had left the area when communications were cut off to his troops & he was actually found & executed elsewhere. We were accompanied by a Sinhala Army soldier who was very informative as we asked questions – the hideout was only discovered when the army undertook a slow & deadly jungle campaign. It was disturbing to be told that all 6,000 Tiger troops were executed & buried in a mass grave instead of being taken prisoner. It seems that after 30 years of war & many broken peace treaties the Sinhala Govt decided to eradicate the problem permanently.
We travelled on to a beach where a Jordanian cargo ship was stuck in the middle of an otherwise quite lovely beach. The Farah 3 had been pirated by the Sea Tigers & used during the war then left as a rusting hulk on the beach. The route to & from the beach was probably the most harrowing experience of the day as we passed through the debris of a sizeable town that had been absolutely destroyed during the war. It had not been cleaned up in any way aside from making the road safe from mines. We realised this must have been the way Kilinochchi was left at the end of the war & how the families we had come to know at the centre would have returned home after 2 years in camp to a decimated city that then has taken years to rebuild.
The most delightful thing about our visit to the beach however was Ramesh’s declaration that he had never been to a beach! I promptly introduced him to the Aussie custom of splashing! It was great to feel the sand & sea water on our feet! Ramesh told us that whenever he goes to a beach in the future he will remember that we were with him the first time he went – he’s such a sweetie!
By now Amy & I had had our fill of death & war relics so we asked if we could go to the lagoon to have lunch – there followed classic Sri Lankan misunderstanding because despite spending a lot of time with Shan organising the trip the driver knew nothing about lunch at the lagoon! When we rang Shan he told us we were supposed to have our lunch at the hideout of the LTTE leader – and this caused Amy & I great amusement as we would not have chosen a war site with 6,000 people buried nearby as our ideal picnic spot!!
Fast forward to our break in Uppuveli and we’ve come here with another volunteer, Beth, who is around Amy’s age and they both really enjoy each other’s company. It has been lovely time – well all except the first night. We decided to walk to Trinco to find a restaurant for dinner & set out to walk along the beach into the city, a distance of about 4km according to the travel books. The walk started well however as we left the ‘resort’ area behind we realised we were actually walking through a local fishing village where many boats were picturesquely lined up at the end of the day. The girls were wearing tourist clothes meaning their legs & shoulders weren’t covered up & we started to hear jeers & cat calls from the local men. Then the dogs of the village came out to challenge us! One dog in particular came at me & I instinctively raised my hand to fend him off. This made it worse & it rushed at me again so that I was forced into the water! It was barking aggressively with all its teeth bared. It was truly frightening & none of the locals watching us did anything to intervene. We were between a rock & a hard place – ahead were more unfriendly villagers & dogs & I certainly didn’t want to go back into the ferocious dog’s territory again! We pressed on with more dogs barking at our heels and I spotted a more kindly looking man with a child on his lap & asked him how to get to the road to Trinco. He pointed to a lane behind him and we escaped! Suffice to say we have stayed in the resort area since!
We did a day trip yesterday to Nilveli which is another lovely beach 10km further north. We went to Pigeon Island to go snorkelling. It’s all a bit of an adventure whenever you do anything here as they are still learning about dealing with tourists. The coral area was disappointing to be honest but apparently it’s still recovering too. Nevertheless there were colourful tropical fish aplenty & it was very pleasant to find a shady spot to while away the afternoon swimming & sketching. In keeping with the sea theme for the day I had whole grilled rock fish for dinner which was the best meal I had in Sri Lanka until our last night when we went to the best resort, the Chaaya Blue, for a slap up last night feast of king prawns & a whole lobster with an Italian Pinot Grigio!! Heaven!