"Notes from the Field":
Journal Entry # 3:
Men with Guns -- and Artillery
MEN WITH GUNS -- AND ARTILLERY: Sri Lanka Journal # 3
We learned so much, experienced so much on our journey around the island, it will take awhile to process all of it. Here is a bit of it:
Visiting a Village
The first Northern village we visited consisted of a dozen visible houses, ranging from brick to mud, about a mile down a deeply rutted dirt road. Before proceeding down the road, Our host, Manel, the Sarvodaya District Coordinator in Padawiya, stops and speaks to people on the roadside. Getting back in the truck, he says, “No terrorists now. It’s safe.” Will it be safe later, when we leave the village? He shrugs.
Sharif, Manel and village elders
Our stopping was an occasion for the entire village of fifty to turn out, starting with the little children, then the adults, finally two of the village elders, both white-haired men who had an air of dignity that made their sarongs look like the dress of royalty.
Glasses of water were offered by a very serious young man carrying a tray. As I very slowly reached for mine, I sent an inquisitive glance to Manel. “It’s good. Deep well”. The deep wells in most of the small villages have been dug by labor organized by Sarvodaya. Their depth makes the water drinkable without boiling. My glass tasted great on a hot day.
[NOTE: I also learned that you do not have to drink the water offered; it is both practical and symbolic.]
As we were talking and more villagers started gathering, I noticed one tallish man standing toward the back, carrying what looked like an Eastern European assault rifle. The hair on the back of my neck went up. I was trying to find a way to get Manel to notice him, then I remembered: the four of us were probably the only people in the immediate area who spoke English. “Manel, there’s a guy over there with an assault rifle. Should we be concerned?”
Manel looked. “No. He’s Home Guard.” Since the LTTE
attacks on the northern villages, the government has been arming a few
men in each village with small arms, enough to discourage or perhaps slow
down an LTTE attack. This may allow the military to hear the shooting
and respond in time to save the village. Of course, with no electricity
and no telephones, it is difficult to determine which villages are under
attack. And, there is nothing that prevents LTTE fighters from slipping
between villages and attacking those more in the interior.
And, as the Home Guard moves to the front and shyly poses for a photo, I cannot help but wonder if this short-term solution will lead to long-term problems. If 128,000 troops cannot contain and defeat the reported 5,000 LTTE fighters, I don’t see how arming a few thousand volunteer villagers will do anything besides hardening the hearts on all sides.
We indicate that it’s time for us to go. Two of the villagers begin to talk rapidly to Manel. “They’re making us tea,” he says. I calculate how long we will be in the region if we have tea at every stop. We reluctantly decline and move on.
A Roadside Interview
We are leaving a refugee camp, on the way to another, when Manel honks down an oncoming vehicle. He explains that it is the government Education Director, Mr. P. K. Wilson. Both vehicles pull over and we have an impromptu meeting with Mr. Wilson between two lushly green rice paddies.
As we are discussing the difficulty of educating children when all of the local schools have been converted into refugee centers, we are interrupted by a sound like abrupt thunder on a cloudless day. “Artillery”, says Manel, matter of factly. The sound is clearly to the south of us.
What do you do when you realize that you are standing in the open, north of the line of engagement, technically in LTTE territory, with artillery shells flying overhead?
You finish your interview, pose for pictures, then visit another refugee camp. What else would you do? Run for a place of safety? We left safety far back, 150 miles back in Colombo. (Even that safety is false: while we were conducting our interview underneath an artillery barrage, Sarvodaya workers barely missed being blown up in an attack on a bank in downtown Colombo.)
The Refugee Camps
There are about nine refugee camps in the area, serving about 1,850 families, just under 10,000 people. Their villages have been overrun and occupied by LTTE fighters in the recent wave of violence in the northern regions we are visiting.
A refugee camp near Padaviyah
The camps are on the campuses of the elementary schools that dot the area. This of course closes down the schools. The authorities are trying to move the families so that the schools can function once again. They move the refugees on to encampments made of huts that the refugees themselves construct. The government provides corrugated metal for the roof and some land -- the rest is up to the villagers. (Since the skills of building are still in the village, most of the huts go up in no time.)
We stop at the first refugee camp, an elementary school campus with 3 or 4 buildings of open-sided classes. All of the desks and chairs have been piled up outside in the rain, to make room for the families of Maha________- village. They can’t go home right now. The Tamil Tigers are the unwanted guests in their village.
Plastic sheeting and woven palm mats provide privacy for the families. A row of outhouses behind the school provides sanitation.
As soon as we stop, our vehicle is immediately mobbed by curious children. For young people who have never seen a television, we must be very entertaining. Three giants, two of them white. Everyone, including the youngest ones, stare with unflinching eyes at us (except for the teenage girls, who break into uncontrollable giggles.) Within minutes, we are the epicenter of the camp, with hundreds of people of all ages staring at us, not with hostility but with curiosity and eagerness to connect.
We meet the head of the camp, inspect the rice stores, examine the common kitchen, an open fire in the back of a building, with a big kettle for rice on the fire and 3 or 4 women cutting an amazingly small amount of vegetables for a curry. Forty kilos of rice per meal feeds the families. As we move, the bubble of humanity moves with us.
We want pictures, but are very self-conscious about pulling out our cameras. We ask Manel if it is okay for us to shoot a few pictures. He looks at us uncomprehendingly for a few seconds. “Sure. Why not?” As I start shooting, with the residents gazing directly into my lens, I realize that Sri Lankans in general do not have self-conscious hang-ups about being photographed (except of course the teenage girls, whose giggles have reached epidemic proportions. A few threaten to implode from giggling.)
Young and old in the refugee camp
I also realize that we are doing for the villagers what the rest of the world is NOT doing: acknowledging their existence. I doesn’t matter whether or not we see how much rice they have, or how they cook their meals. What matters is that these foreigners got into a vehicle to come to see THEM. For a few moments, their pain is acknowledged, their suffering seen, their determination and dignity felt, their hopes for themselves and their children shared.
Christine with village woman at refugee camp.
We are the only Westerners for a radius of perhaps twenty miles or more.
The Western aid workers pull out of active conflict zones (the local residents
are not so fortunate). A Sarvodaya worker refers to them as the “parachute”
aid workers: “they drop in when things are safe, spend a day looking
around, then write their reports back in their air-conditioned hotel rooms
Men with guns -- and Artillery
[NOTE: Some people did not catch my reference to “Men with Guns”. This is the title to a John Sayles movie about death and conflict in Central America. It is a very moving story, very difficult to watch, with parallels to all armed conflicts everywhere.]
We’re going to bed to the sounds of artillery, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.
I’m awake at night, walking outside in the pitch-blackness of a night without electricity, hearing rifle fire, probably within 200 yards. Artillery sounds more distant -- I guess five miles. The rocket-propelled grenades sounding like deadly fireworks are much closer -- sounds like just down the road.
Manel says: “No danger from artillery; they’re shooting over our heads. Only danger when they miss.” He grins.
The small arms fire comes from all around: North, South, East and West. There is no front line.
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