After deprivation, Sri Lanka's displaced nurture hopes of going home
In the last week, some sort of order seems to be coming to the camps here in northeastern Sri Lanka. The task is momentous as the numbers of displaced people are continuously increasing. The camps are expanding, but despite all the preparations, the sheer volume means the early weeks have been chaotic.
It seems those who've been displaced to Trincomalee will also end up coming to Vavuniya. That could be a good move in terms of facilitating the aid process and easing logistical difficulties.
The authorities are quietly making an effort to put the camps in order. In practice, this means providing electricity and water, clearing land for more camps, and ensuring the displaced get the best help possible. Credit should be given where it's due, and in the face of such huge challenges, it's been remarkable to see the government at work.
Forests are being cleared at a terrific pace, tents are being put up (according to one rumour, 12,000 were erected in a day) and within two days, pylons and wires had been rigged up with the expectation power would flow 24 hours later. As a colleague wryly remarked, "If only they could be this efficient in Colombo!"
One thing that isn't so efficient are the queues. Driving up to Vavuniya, you arrive at Medavichia, about 35km to the south and regarded by some as the last point between the "north" and the rest of the country. If you're lucky, you spend only an hour at this checkpoint. If not, you can count on two to three hours, and no one is spared.
Everyone is searched and then let through. Previously, vehicles weren't allowed to go past this checkpoint without a defence ministry pass. So a lot of agencies have ended up driving to Medavichia and then changing over into vehicles coming from Vavuniya. Either way your car is put on a ramp and checked. This is certainly a hassle, but imagine what it's like for those using public transport.
The day we went in, there were about 40 vehicles parked in front of us waiting for clearance. Many were from corporates sending in relief items. There was also a fleet of around 10 fire and rescue vehicles and trucks from various municipal councils.
We all got the same treatment. The police officer who checked us was very polite but unapologetic. "Sorry sir, we have a duty to check to ensure security and safety." They went through the car with a fine tooth comb, but at least we didn't have to unload items from a truck and then put them all back.
Before you enter Menik Farm - the site of the largest camp holding the most displaced people (around 170,000) - you queue while the military police check your access pass and go through the vehicle. All precautionary security measures, as people are inevitably nervous.
'I CAN'T BE A REFUGEE'
It's only once you're in that you see the real queues. People line up for water, food and other relief supplies, as well as to use the bathroom. "It has been quite orderly," remarked one aid worker. "But when we first started, there were mini riots as people surged to get things. It was as if they had not seen these things before."
This is what strikes you about the current situation. The people are so desperate and have been deprived of so much for so long that anything is now a luxury.
Many of the mothers who've been coming to our mobile hospital are suffering from malnutrition - not just because they've been hungry for the last couple of months but because they've been deprived of essential food and nutrients for the last three years or so.
There have been allegations in the state media that some government food aid sent to areas controlled by the rebels ended up in Tamil Tiger bunkers or warehouses owned by their leadership, without going to the people. From what we're seeing on the ground, it's becoming hard to dispute such allegations.
Most of the displaced have reached a psychological point of desperation, with many having been continuously uprooted since 2006. A few have expressed relief simply at the fact that they can now sleep in some degree of comfort without the threat and noise of shelling.
Talk to them and you get a sense of how fruitless their lives have been, just moving from place to place, caught up in a battle of which they knew nothing and didn't want to be a part. Many speak of family members who were forcibly conscripted to fight.
Yet in the midst of all this pain and suffering, there doesn't seem to be much sorrow. It's as if they've lost the capacity for sadness. Most, though, are hopeful for the future. One person told me: "I just want to go back to my place and restart my livelihood. I don't care how long that will take. I can't be a refugee."
This is a sentiment you hear quite often. There's no feeling of grievance or anger against the government or the army. Many of the displaced have spoken of their surprise at the gentle way they've been treated by the perceived "other side". The main desire is to go home and start their lives again.
It's a message that even the government seems to have heard. Yesterday the president convened a meeting with heads of agencies where they were told: "We need to work together to help our people return back to safety and normality. This is our responsibility, our duty and our plan." A powerful promise that now needs to be put into action.