Monday, April 05, 2010

The fractured freedom in ‘unknown’ Wanni

By Kusal Perera - It was baking hot inside, despite the air conditioner’s effort to cool us on the run. Dusty and dry it was, for straight and long kilometers, behind and ahead of us. We were waved to a stop by a youthful soldier in a “cama” kit. As the driver pulled up by the specially fortified bunker, another young armed soldier came up to the vehicle. I rolled the shutter down, with a slight smile.

«From where ?» He was right, if he guessed I was a Sinhalese and asked where we were heading to, late in the evening.

To Mannar, I said. After a few pleasantries, I asked him whether there is still checking along the route.
«No….no checking….only very random». So, it was a random stop with a bit of Sinhala and we were off again.

After Adappankulam, we entered the Mannar District, on the A-14 route. The 80 km deviation from Medawachchiya town, that almost six months ago, started with a very heavy armed barricade and a check point, had no clue of any, now. No hint(s) of any elections either.

There were war time army bunkers on both sides of the empty road, almost every 50 metres. They looked deserted now, accept for the electric lamp and a clothes line at the rear, never allowed during the long and agonising war.

The “fingerland” which is Mannar, now hooked to the mainland by the “Peace Bridge” declared open by President Rajapaksa on 18th last, had more life. Mannar town was dressed up for the coming elections with an abundant display of posters and cut-outs of the all powerful minister. Now and then there were others too, who claimed they are “a true friend” or “the leader” of the Wanni people. Guess, the people knew these faces, on posters.

North of Mannar town, in Pesalai, fishermen now enjoy their catch, after long years of restrictions. They talk no politics in Pesalai. Yet they had their own strong resentment of Indian trawlers and fishing boats, encroaching their waters.

“Once we caught them and handed to the police. Every week they come…..” said a middle aged fisherman on the beach.

“That was a long time ago…” chipped in another. “Then LTTE warned us not to intervene… they had deals with Indian boats,” he explained.

The war no more and no LTTE either, the Indian boats are no less. The parish priest said they often see Indian boats close to the shore, unhindered. There is some business going on in this sea, the fishermen claimed.
The SL Navy now guards the coast. Rt. Rev. Bishop Dr. Rayappu Joseph had handed over an appeal to the President at the opening of the bridge, that requested Tamil fishermen the right to stay in Mullikulam, the southern most point of Mannar District, close to Wilpattu. The navy is taking over the Mullikulam coast line, displacing these villagers, said Bishop Rayappu.

Meanwhile the IDPs resettled Wanni area, that can be travelled through by any, starts with an army security check point at Uylankulam junction. The checking is strict, stern and tidy. The road thereafter had deserted army bunkers now and then. Coloured posters of smiling men and a woman too, decorated some bunkers. In Tamil, they probably promised prosperity, if voted.

A few kilometres from there towards Vidaththaltheevu, we met a few elderly people, squatting in front of a half shelled old house. On the opposite side, two houses remain shelled into debris.

“That’s my house…” said a faint voice. She meant, one of those totally flattened houses. “We left this area in July or August,” she added. Another added, “in 2008”.

The army from the Thalladi camp had battered the village with heavy artillery, they said. People then started moving to the interior. Thereafter, for over nine months, they have been on the “move”, each shifting of location reducing kith and kin, increasing the wounded and the disabled, dragging in more whole villages. A remnant family we met, had 17 displacements during their trek towards Mullaitivu.

In between these long, hazardous and unpredictable “moving”, some had broken off from the growing waves of human flotsam, to creep into thick jungle. Some to escape military shelling and some to escape LTTE atrocities. Most had nevertheless believed the LTTE would at some point stop the military onslaught. So they kept moving east, in growing herds.

“Those God wanted, are still here…” said a slim old gentleman, looking far into the lonely road that stretched towards Adappan, his eyes cold and menacingly silent.

We wanted to meet some government officer in the area. There was none. These areas are still wild. It is survival of the fittest in this land that no candidate would bother even to promise anything. There are no structured government appendages that rule and no organised social life. They did not know whether they are registered voters in this “Democratic Socialist Republic” or not. Did they bother ?

“If we get some thing proper to start life…..” an elderly gentleman said, looking at me with moist eyes. “…why elections…..for us ?” He wasn’t interested in finding out, if he is a voter.

There is no electricity and no clean water properly distributed. There are no wayside boutiques that sell the ordinary folk their ordinary consumer stuff, even if a relative could send some money.

Some land at odd intervals were greening with paddy. The army provided a tractor for ploughing said the parish priest, who helped translate the dialogue. Seed paddy and some fertiliser came under a UN scheme. Most families don’t have young men to do cultivation, said the elderly person.

They still live on the WFP ration of dry food. It includes rice, flour, sugar, dhal and powdered milk, said the only middle aged lady among the crowd. Any supplementary food ? “In the camp…….some organisations provided…….not now,” she said. “Now, NGOs are not coming……it is difficult now than in the camp…..but we are free….our children are free…..”

Some one asked her, if the ration they get is enough. She tried to smile. She said they cannot cook dhal, because there are no spices.

“How to cook dhal with only water ?” she asked.

Did they get all things promised for resettlement ?

“God gives us what we deserve” said the slim old gentleman. “Not what others promise?”

We moved through Wanni, on the road to Vavuniya. After an hour or so, after passing a sprawling, guarded IDP camp site, we stopped at the Mother Teresa “Missionaries of Charity” centre. They had some left overs of the war under them. The old, the displaced, the orphaned hundreds. Some were mentally depressed.
I asked a ’sister’ about the camps we passed.

“Which one ?” she inquired back. “One for LTTE women?”

So, there was one camp that held young girls as Tiger “cadres” under tight security. The numbers, they didn’t want to guess. A priest is sometimes allowed for service, the sisters told us. But they spoke little else. “We work inside here,” the sisters smiled, politely.

So we moved out again. But with an unanswered question. How long will all those displaced families in Wanni take to breath this fractured freedom, in their own villages ?

“Not that soon” said the parish priest. “They are mostly from east of A-9 road…. where the war was bitterly concluded.”

With no election promises on quick resettlement, we had to leave heaps of untold stories, that some day would glue the bits and pieces we collected, into the larger tragic story of these Wanni people, in this war.

© The Sunday Leader

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