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"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 10: 
Into the Land of the Tiger  
 

INTO THE LAND OF THE TIGER:  REFLECTIONS FROM BOTH SIDES OF AN ETHNIC WAR

“Last checkpoint.  Welcome to Land of Tiger.”

We had just undergone the most thorough check of our Sarvodaya van yet, an under-the-seats check by a stone-faced Sri Lanka Army soldier.  I figured that they were going to ask me for my papers, my permission to be in LTTE held territory.  I didn’t have any -- we were going to try to bluff it.  (Why I didn’t have papers was a bureaucratic nightmare that I will spare you.)  I was digging for my passport and some excuses for why I wanted to enter Tiger territory without official government sanction, when we were waved into the vehicle and through the checkpoint.

This was typical.  For the three days I had been in Batticaloa, I had not had my passport checked once, although Westerners need Sri Lanka Army permission to be on the roads during the day -- and permission from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)  to be on the same roads at night.  I wasn’t checked because of the respect everyone has for Sarvodaya, as well as the fact that my skin is the same color as most Sri Lankans.  (As several Sri Lankans have said to me, “You can’t be an American; Americans are white!”)

I was on a fact-finding tour of Batticaloa District as a part of my role as consultant and advisor to Sarvodaya, the largest NGO on the island (and arguably the largest indigenous NGO in the world).  I had a 3 fold mission:

1. Familiarize myself with the workings of the Sarvodaya Batticaloa District Center.
2. Review local Sarvodaya programs, staff and management.
3. Assess the prospects for peace in the area.

In addition, I had a personal 4th objective: enter and view with my own eyes life in what the Sri Lanka government euphemistically calls “the uncleared areas”.  The Sri Lanka Army soldiers occupied the “cleared areas” during the day.  At night, the fierce-looking soldiers draw back into heavily guarded defensive perimeters while LTTE soldiers roam the area at will.  Sri Lanka Army soldiers do not enter the “uncleared areas”.

Batticaloa, a city of 400,000, is a city with two administrations -- government and LTTE.   Both are able to enforce their will at the barrel of a gun.  Says Carreem, District Coordinator, “Nothing happens in this city without the approval of LTTE.”  What would happen if an NGO set up shop and doesn’t consult the Tigers?  “They would be closed down in two months.”

In this precarious position between two warring armies, Sarvodaya walks the line with a great deal of poise.  Sarvodaya is the only NGO with staff regularly working projects in both government and LTTE areas.

After the last checkpoint, we drive less than 1,000 feet to the Mankereg school.  I interview the principal, Mrs. Thas.  She spoke English very well, but could not understand a word of my “American”.  (Which is always interesting for me; I don’t think I have an accent -- I think everybody else does!)  Through one way translation, she told me that 74 children were attending school as a result of Sarvodaya’s school drop-out program.  “It’s really a mistake to call this a ‘drop-out’ program, since many of these children were never enrolled in school in the first place.  Many parents see no need to send their children to school; they would rather have them out in the fields or fishing the local waters.”

I asked to meet some of the former school drop-outs.  Mrs. Thas flashed a dazzling smile and spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness.  “None of them are here today.  There was shelling of the villages last night; 100 children stayed at home today.”

From there, we moved on to another village.  We are traveling on roads with NO motorized vehicles; heads turn whenever we pass.  Thin dark men pedal bicycles loaded with wood or bags of charcoal, piled 10 feet high or more.  I comment to Carreem that we had not passed a car or van for some time.  Everyone in our van laughs.  Carreem says, “If you see another vehicle, its LTTE coming to take this one; jump out and run!”  I ask, “Run which way?”  He laughs harder, says, “Doesn’t matter!!”

We make it to the next village without incident.  I inspected a Sarvodaya project to construct 20 wells in the village.  Carreem points with pride to the nearly completed wells.  “These wells cost 20,000 rupees (about $250).  Sarvodaya provides just the materials -- the villagers have to dig the well themselves.  We organize them.”  He points to another hole in the ground a few hundred feet away.   “Government well.  Cost 100,000 rupees already.  Just a hole.”  I ask him when he thinks the government well will be finished.  He just smiles.

The people of the village were very happy to have their Sarvodaya wells.  There was little else in the village.  Carreem took me from hut to hut, each one grimmer than the one before.  The huts were made of woven palm fronds or grass.  They were about 6 X 6. The door consisted of woven palm fronds leaning against one of the walls.  Carreem pulled it off and, smiling, motioned me into the darkness. The roof was so low I had to bend almost to the ground to get inside. There were people inside.

Not that I wanted to get inside.  Entering that first hut was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

The grass roof gave off a sweet scent, that mingled with the heavy air of the interior.  As my eyes adjusted, I saw a woman who I at first thought was elderly, but I realized was probably the mother of the two children asleep on a mat.  (The floor was the same soft beach sand that covers the entire Batticaloa area.)

I was hunched over; the peak of the hut was a little over four feet.  It smelled bad.  It was hot.  Why was Carreem insisting I enter this hut?  Was this some kind of endurance test?  If so, I don’t think I was passing.  I turned to Carreem for help.

Smiling, he pointed to the only object in the hut: the bright blue and white mat on which the children were sleeping.  Blue and white...  UN colors.  I understood.

When I emerged from the hut, Carreem was approaching the doorway with a blue and white gallon bucket with a lid and a UNICEF logo.  Carreem explained: “UNICEF supplies buckets and mats; Sarvodaya delivers them.  One month ago, the children slept on sand.”  (I noticed that the only COLOR in the village came from the UNICEF mats and buckets.)

We walked to the next hut, about 40 feet from the first.  Same construction, similar clutch of staring children and shy mothers.  A girl of 8 was pounding rice, starting the evening meal at around 11 am.

Beside the hut was an even smaller grass hut that I had assumed was a dog house.  Carreem gestures; I get on my hands and knees and peer inside.  Carreem says, “Sri Lanka kitchen”.

The next hut was possibly the most depressing.  As we approached, a cloud of children emerged from the interior, followed by their shyly smiling mother.  At a little over four feet tall, she looked like a child herself -- except that all the children crowded around her, clutching at her skirts.  Answering my unspoken question, Carreem said, “Eight children.  Husband fishes.”  The oldest child looked about ten years old.

Adjusting her faded, frayed clothing, the mother softly asks a question while staring at me.  The translator turns to me and says, “She wants to know where you are from.”

I look at her and say “America”.  She smiles and nods.  The translator says, “She has no idea what ‘America’ is.  She probably thinks its a city near Colombo.”

This smiling woman has never experienced electricity, never seen a telephone or watched a television program.  The mother of eight children, she has never seen the inside of a hospital, never had a medical exam and may not even associate sex with pregnancy.

The Sarvodaya / UNICEF bucket and mat produced a more significant change in this woman’s life than the intentions of groups like the WTO, IMF, World Bank -- or the scores of groups protesting them.

Peace,

Sharif
 
 

A correction from my last journal entry:
Misunderstanding the use of the word “casualty”, I gravely overstated the number of people who were killed in the 1983 communal riots in Sri Lanka.  Actual estimates range from the the official government estimate of 400 deaths to Tamil reports of 2,000.  While bad enough, nothing near the 100,000 I stated.

The US Election:
The folks in Sri Lanka are having a field day with the US elections back home.  Several Sarvodaya managers have offered to send poll watchers to Florida.  One said, “Of course, we’ll have to send some of the bad guys to show the people of Florida how to properly steal an election -- things are so sloppy there right now!”  The political motto over here is: “If you’re not shooting, you’re not serious”.
 
 
 
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