I visited Sarvodaya yesterday to see if I could help. They’ve got their hands full as one could imagine. According to the latest OCHA report (dated the 27th) there are about 150,000 in the IDP camps. This is an increase of almost 50,000 from just a week before. Numbers are numbers but I looked at some photos out of the camps and stadiums and basic shelters, churches are packed full of people.
Sarvodaya is managing at least one camp and providing cooked food, sanitation, water etc. to a lot. But there’s an awful lot to do. The international humanitarian response is nothing like the tsunami, though Sri Lankans are starting to mobilize. The Save Vanni blog has a constantly updated list. There are people gathering medical supplies, food, sarongs, etc. There is, of course, much more we could and have to do. Also, the needs here are going to be ongoing long after the international media stops paying attention. So we can’t forget these people either.
Helping is hard under the current security regulations. I understand that it’s a war, but it is heartening that the various ministries, etc are starting to enable Sri Lankan citizens to have some access. We shall see. This is a reprint of my last Sunday Leader column on this subject, called Freedom To Help.
The problem with repressing the media is that good stories don’t get out. Even if something good happens no one believes you. The problem with repressing a population is that good people are afraid. When there is a national tragedy, they are slow to spring into service. Right now we desperately need good people, and a good story. Right now Sri Lankans need the freedom to help ourselves.
There are good stories in the midst of this terrible war. Talk to any soldier or doctor in the North. They have stories of bravery, sacrifice, compassion and national pride. But they’re not really allowed to talk. There are also Sri Lankans working with their friends, their church groups, their families and their schools to deliver relief. But they will never go on the record. Those stories don’t get out.
Into this vacuum, you get international reports which cite LTTE communiques as primary, unverified sources. You get talk shows where not a single resident Sri Lankan appears. You get phone calls with a suddha in London talking to a suddha in Colombo about a report somebody else wrote.
They stick to the script about two sides and how the fighting simply needs to stop. Perhaps so they can move on. In lieu of information they substitute a conjured narrative and a pat solution. Only Al Jazeera and a few sources have reporters on the ground and hard journalism. Because it is difficult, and because the local media has been assaulted into submission.
The sad thing is that we’re missing the voices of Sri Lankan people. Our voices have been hushed for the war effort, but now when our national honor is at stake there is no one to speak. A bunch of people who left decades ago and foreigners spout a fair amount of nonsense which goes unchallenged. You get the occasional insight, but it’s still surreal to watch discussions where a citizen appears not once.
It’s sad because we are not stupid and we understand what’s going on. Most Sri Lankans living here (including most Tamils) are fed up of the LTTE. We just want to live. We can see all too clearly that the LTTE is hiding behind civilians and we rejoice when they are freed. And yet, many of us are ready to sacrifice their lives for this war to end. It is a terrible calculation, and inexcusable to the children without parents or limbs. But it is not irrational.
We are also aware of the tragedies in our own past, just as the diaspora cannot forget 1983. However, living here, we also see how much Sri Lanka has changed. Colombo will not riot after the death of a dozen soldiers. We did not riot yesterday. I was one year old in 1983 and both I and the country have grown.
More tragic than being misunderstood, however, is the fact that we have not mobilized enough to save our family in the north. During the tsunami Sri Lankans of every race and class worked together to save each other. During this artificial disaster we have not mobilized one-tenth of the action we need. Part of this is our own apathy, but part is also because we cannot speak, travel, or organize without fear.
The Ministry Of Defence has spread fear through their labels of ‘terrorist’ or ‘traitor’ for dissenters or bearers of bad news, but now they are trying to mobilize. They are encouraging citizens to donate food, clothing and sanitary items to the BMICH and Divisional Secretariats. They deserve our full support. The population is bowed and afraid, but we have to snap out of it at this time of national need.
Right now Sri Lanka’s good name is under attack abroad and our own people are suffering here. At times like this we need all hands on deck, but many of us still cower in the shadows. Perhaps a pliant population was necessary to win the war. Who’s to say, now that we’re winning. Right now, however, we need empowered citizens to defend our honor and save our family. There are good stories, good people and good news if we let it out. I try to emphasize personal responsibility, but there are some things we need from our government. Please give us the freedom to help.
There are now numerous citizen initiatives sending relief North. They are not publicized, but you can find news in emails, blogs and via word of mouth. You can also donate online to sarvodaya.org. Any government program also deserves support, as do our soldiers via apiwenuwenapi.com. The Ministry Of Defence program is a good start. You can find more info at defence.lk.