The bus ride from Mannar town is what I am used to already: ridiculously early morning, followed by a confused inter-language checkout, followed by a touch of panic at the bus station trying to find the right bus, followed by and awesome nap before the bus starts moving. Then, just as sleep closes in, the engine starts, shaking the earth and rumbling like a tiny thunderstorm under my feet. The shriek of a Bollywood superstar follows a second later, mid-song, and I am as awake as I have ever been, adrenaline dancing through me.
My eyes open, and, after the first thing I see, I wish I had just kept them shut. A huge man, maybe 150 kg’s sitting next to me, picking a scab. It is like there’s a competition to find the creepiest person in the whole of Sri Lanka to sit next to me. The bus lurches forward with a burp from the engine and a puff of black smoke appearing behind us. I am at least looking forward to driving over the causeway from Mannar to the mainland, and then, it starts raining.
I am in the back left window seat, so water is coming in from the window next to me (which I try to close, but turns out to be totally shattered, so no closing this window) and from the door, jammed shut. At least I have a seat.
I cover my bag (with my laptop and camera in it, each in waterproof pouches) in my jacket – just to be safe. I get drenched, my stuff is fine. The people in the aisle seats are giggling.
Only three short hours later, and I was in Vavuniya, for a frantic minute trying to get on to my next bus heading for Jaffna via Kilinochchi (where I have to jump off). I find the bus, and (hooray) I have a two hour bus ride standing in the door frame of this bus, about 30 centimetres off the road. To be fair, this did afford me an awesome view.
When you arrive in Kilinochchi (“Kili”) the first things you see are two war memorials: the first built by the army in 2010, a “cuboid” with an artillery shell embedded in it and a lotus blossoming out of the crater; and the second, the huge water tower, built with World Bank funding, toppled over, shattered. The plaque on the steps of the water tower states that it was destroyed by the retreating LTTE (“Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” or the “Tamil Tigers” as they were popularly known) on their retreat. “The Cage” by Gordon Weiss (who worked with the UN mission at the time of the end of the war) states that the tower was “felled by an air strike” [in chapter five of the book, location 2114/9224 for Kindle users out there]. Ask any two people what happened and there will be a different answer.
When I arrived, I was dropped off beside the monumental water tower, in the rain with my bags. I ducked into a jewellery shop (or, as the locals call it, a “fancy” shop) to get out of the rain until I could hail a trishaw. The owner looks at me hopefully, and I feel bad, so I take a look at his jewellery. Sadly, I can’t pull off the elaborate (others might even call it gaudy) jewellery from the region. I duck back into the rain and jump into the passing trishaw, to the driver’s surprise.
I finally get to the LEADS office, and meet with Mr Jeya and his team. Without a second to lose, I am chewing through all the questions I have for him from Palmera Projects: mainly questions on the beneficiaries, the village, the other NGO’s working in the area, the Army and the PTF. Flying through these questions without any snags and I am feeling good about Kili, and I am ready to go.
We head for a quick pit stop (chicken fried rice, Sri Lankan style with mango chutney and a KIK Cola – “Lankan to the last drop”) and we are off to Malayalapuram. Now, I have become familiar with bad roads, but these roads were spine shattering: dirt roads with water channels running in parallel lines, each one throwing your head forward – you feel it in all of your body. I think these roads were meant for walking, or are in dire need of repair, because they were a joke.
Our first stop was to the local GS (an appointed government official responsible for a village or two, here, Mr Chandrabalan, who had been GS for the past 5 years). He produced for us the maps we had asked for – they were literally hand drawn, and to dubious scale. They plotted the location of houses, temples, tanks and paddy fields, but left out the locations of wells and toilets (a mystery why). However, the shoddiness of the maps was no representation of the GS, who was amazing, and knew absolutely everything about the village we were looking at, his Malayalapuram:
- 2000 persons;
- 90 women headed households (40 of these female heads of households are less than 30 years old);
- 70 toilets;
- 1 well for 5 families, most incomplete and not suitable for drinking, but drunk form anyway;
- Dry rations given by the WFP have been exhausted;
- 400 persons in the village will start recieving 100 rupees a week (about .85 AUD) in food aid from the government:
- Estimated cost of nutritional food for a month is 15 thousand SLR (about 130 AUD); and,
- Recent Government Health Department study showed 60 malnourished children, and approximately 20 severely malnourished children;
- There is some skilled labour – in the village of two thousand, there are:
- 5 skilled masons;
- 5 carpenters;
- 3 skilled electricians; and,
- 25 students training in computer works.
- All of these persons got their training in Kilinochchi Town, there are 2-3 persons in training currently.
So, the GS knew his town back to front. But what he knew wasn’t good news, this town really needed help.
We jumped back into the truck to meet some families. The first few families I met were all women headed households: the first because of divorce; the second because her husband was incarcerated; the third because her husband passed in the war. All these women had children less than 4 years old, and they were taking care of them themselves. All of these women were less than thirty years old. They worked day-labour for the rich Town land-owners, either as domestic help, or tending the massive paddy fields these persons owned. Their children were dependant on health-department vitamin supplements for their micro-nutritional balance. They worked all day, with their aunties or mothers taking care of their children, and then worked all evening in their home-garden, trying to grow some food, first to eat, and, then, if possible, to sell.
I asked a women here to show me her well. She led me to a dug hole in the ground with milky white water in it, littered with tadpoles, twigs and garbage.
“Do you drink from this?” I ask her. “This, this is good clean water” she replies.
I am not sure what to think.
I ask her, “where is your toilet?” She points behind the house and says “Jungle”.
Afterwards, we met a few women in a spice-packing shop built by a priest (they call them “Christian Fathers” here). Four young women were working: sitting on the floor, cross-legged, with piles of spices on one side of them, piles of plastic wrapping on the other side, a kerosene flame between them. Each women packed a bag full of spices, then ran it across the flame to seal the bag. Each women’s fingers were scorched, blackened. But these women were the lucky ones, the employed ones.
By this time, I was beginning to feel ill, with that feeling where you are acutely aware of your bones when you know you are going to have a fever imminently. So we head home, to the “Hotel Sela” – a lovely little guesthouse with, I am not joking, a cement diorama in front of it of a Godzilla ripping the head off a chicken. No idea why. But, why not?
It is four in the afternoon when I collapse on to my bed in my “Ehh See” room (an air-conditioned room), not to wake up until the next day.
To see more photos – check out my flickr album!