Child at Padaviya transit hospital, holding toy
I’m in Hambantota on the eve of the LTTE’s surrender. This is Mahinda’s hometown, in the deep south. I just returned from the Padaviya transit hospital, near the Mullativu warzone, in the north. I am proud of the flags waving between Ratnapura and Embilipitiya but saddened by the people I have seen in hospitals and camps. Yet I remain so thankful to the doctors, nurses, aid workers, armed forces and government servants I have met. And I remain proud of Sri Lanka. Kataragama knows this is a mess, but I think we have and deserve a chance.
I speak no Tamil, and little Sinhalese. Still, I can flirt like it’s my job and smile like it’s Christmas. I gave an old lady in a makeshift camp my phone with a Tamil speaking friend on the line, to ask her some questions. Just to hear and store if not understand. It made everyone a bit nervous and the army took my name and address before we walked out. I thanked them, for their service.
People were smiling, not like the anonymous wards of Vavuniya when we first went. One lady was crying, saying what I know not. I felt like a fool. The kids were playing cricket in front of what was a garment factory. Now rows of beds, but plenty of room. One smiled so I walked over to him and asked him ‘enakathathe? and sapadillai?’, what’s up and did you eat, the little Tamil I know.
I showed him my phone but he had no idea what Twitter was, or even the Internet. We were at a bit of an impasse and his friends were gathering around, so I stretched out my hands and counted to ten in Sinhala. They told me in Tamil, and English. They knew that in all languages in fact. I told them in French and they looked utterly baffled. Pranchasey? Nothing.
Face, moona, moohay (?). Foot, cakula, kal (?). Just went through everything I had in front of me and tried to name stuff. For some words, some memory, to pass between us.
We had brought toys for the children, cause no one likes handing out syringes. This camp was too big, too chaotic, so we just gave it to the doctor who gave it to the officer in charge. The toys were a nightmare getting through the Madavachchiya checkpoint. I remember the officer searching holding up a Ben 10 watch and being like ‘what?’. In the end worth it I think. I gave one lady a book with a sorta drawing pad attached and she came back and asked where the pen was. I felt terrible and gave her a pencil, but that won’t work. Please don’t give broken toys or thoughtless used clothes. These people are not beggars. They are respectable people going through a bit of a tough time.
The Padaviya Hospital is a transit point. The Red Cross ship ferries the wounded from the warzone to Pulmudai. There, after tragic triage, they are transported to Padaviya for immediate care. We spoke with Mahinda Uyangoda, the doctor in charge. The hospital basically pumps a lot in and then out to bigger hospitals like Vavuniya, Mannar, Anuradhapura and Polanaruwa. That day the Red Cross ship had stopped (because one of their staff was killed). It gave the staff time to inventory all the donations, and get ready, but the injured were still there. They just hadn’t reached the hospital yet. Some ambulances were starting to come in, via road.
Sitting in Hambantota now, I don’t know what to say. I hear over the SMS newswires that the LTTE has surrendered, that Prabhakaran’s son and the spokesman Nadesan are dead. You can access their arms smuggler/intl spokesman’s statement via TamilNet.com, via VTunnel. All the way down the road from Colombo to hear there are flags, cars and vans with Mahinda’s photo on the dash. Occassional fire crackers. I too am very proud and extend my thanks to the armed forces, the people of Sri Lanka and, yes, Mahinda. A future without the LTTE is a better one, but it is not a future in itself.
There is still so much work to be done to rebuild the lives and land crushed and crippled by war. If you transit through Madavachchiya (the gateway to the north) you see that the story is not neglect and carnage as the west portrays, but neither is it everything it should be. The roads are full of convoy after convoy, food, water, building materials, medicine. The airways too. We must immediately provide relief and rights to our family in the north and then we must help resettle them on their land where they can and will provide for themselves, and the country.
All Sri Lankans are proud, even those in the camps. I have met them and spoken with them what I can and they are not beggars and they are not fools. Right now they need immediate care as they are wounded and sick, but then they need just our support to stand on their own. The LTTE has spent my entire lifetime destroying this country and trying to tear it apart. Now I think we have to spend just as long rebuilding our land and uniting our people.
I’m going to Kataragama tomorrow to make an offering to the God of War and Victory, revered by Sinhalese and Tamils alike. We need all the help we can get.