An IDP camp in Vavuniya town
This is a reproduction of an article in today’s Sunday Leader newspaper.
I visited Vavuniya last week and spoke to a few IDPs. In the makeshift hospitals and camps people aren’t really talking about humanitarian needs anymore. What they mention are the same things I worry about. Being separated from their family. Losing track of those they love. This is not a humanitarian need, it’s a human one, a Sri Lankan one. Beyond food, water and medicine, I think it is coming time for us to provide something simpler. A list of names.
Relief Phase Ending
The need for emergency relief is slowly but surely being met. The courageous and tireless work of government servants, doctors, nurses, armed forces and volunteers has met most basic needs. There is still much work to do, especially on water and sanitation, but these are not the main concerns among people I’ve talked to. I spoke to an older women who cannot find her grown children. I spoke to a man not much older than me who has lost his wife and young daughter.
This I think we can all understand. If you live in Colombo you know the fear after a suicide bomb, before you get in touch with your loved ones. Were they on that bus? That road? If you’ve ever been in medical or legal trouble you understand how important family is. Right now I think separation is the main concern among IDPs, and it’s a human concern, not humanitarian. They want to know where their family is, same as you or me.
Securing the camps has to be done, but the people need security too. Something as simple as a printed list of names. Even if a name is not there, in time people could at least know something. In the medium term, our people also need phone calls. Many have family in the south or abroad who don’t know where they are, and everyone is worried sick.
Solutions Vs. Decisions
While the solution is as simple, the decision is not. The threat of terrorism is very real, and there are LTTE cadres in the camps. In fact, almost everyone that lived under their occupation has some connection to the LTTE, be it work, family or sympathies. Not necessarily by choice, but by circumstance. This makes screening incredibly difficult and the process tragically imprecise. Yet it is vital for all Sri Lankans that the LTTE never reconstitute and spread terror and separatism again.
At the same time, however, I find it incredibly difficult to explain any of this to a father looking for his daughter. That is a human need and I cannot help but understand. I told him I was very sorry for his loss, but now you and I can do something more. They do not have voices, but we do. We can encourage the government to post a list of names in every camp. In time, we can encourage basic communication facilities, logged and recorded if necessary. Then, in due time, full Sri Lankan rights for all Sri Lankans.
There is more to being human than being alive. What makes us human is the care and compassion we extend to each other, especially our families. If you have lost a child in a crowd or rushed to hospital then you know that feeling. There is no greater loss, or emptiness. Relief from this feeling cannot be donated or packed on a truck, but it is within our reach. Right now all people want is a name and a place. Someday a phone call. In the future, reunion.
The vital work of defeating terrorism and separatism must be done, but I do not think a list of names is too much to ask. And I hope you do ask. Ask your contacts, ask your government, ask your Ministry Of Defence. I do not say demand, but people have asked me and I’m asking you. Where is their family? Where is our family? What can we do to help?