Thousands of families displaced at Vaharai
by Francis Mead
A narrow road passes through a wooded area not far from the shore line. Rows of tents, made with white plastic sheets, stretch away under the trees. A group of children and woman gather round a concrete well set into the reddish earth. They wash clothes and dowse themselves in cooling water - a relief from the fierce heat.
They are among the 45,000 people who fled southward along Sri Lanka’s east coast before gathering here at Vaharai, about 30 miles north of the town of Batticaloa. They left their homes, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, as fighting intensified between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and government forces in early August.
23-year-old Sivanayaham Vasanthy has a bandage on her left arm: “I was picking up a bundle of grass when a shell exploded. I fell down and my parents took me to hospital,” she says. “We had to leave and come to Vaharai and then I was treated here.”
This morning, long queues wait outside Vaharai’s district hospital. Among the crowd at the entrance are mothers with small babies, men holding registration cards, a young girl with a bandaged hand, and a frail, elderly woman who is only able to walk with the help of her daughter. Everyone here has heard that a group of 30 doctors and nurses from the Ministry of Health has been transported in to help for the day.
Until now, Dr T Varatharajah, who had to flee the shelling himself, has been the only doctor at the hospital. Neatly dressed, he roams among the patients, a stethoscope around his neck, handing out health registration cards, and directing patients to the right queue.
“When I came here, I heard that seven people had been injured by shells and they were in Vaharai Hospital, he says. “ No other aid organizations were here at the time, so I decided to stay and help treat the people.”
He has been seeing more than a hundred patients a day and says that 40 per cent are suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery.
UNICEF and other UN agencies are helping the government bring in supplies and provisions. Today’s convoy delivers jerry cans, water tanks and mosquito nets. While there is water for washing, drinking water is in short supply and has to be trucked in. School equipment, recreation kits for children, and drugs and medicines have also been supplied by convoy.
“We are doing our best to help the government bring in the supplies and support that these people need,” says Christina de Bruin, Head of UNICEF’s Batticaloa Office.
Around the tents, bugs and flies are multiplying. Visible on children’s faces and hands, they carry a risk of spreading infectious disease. Although some children are able to go to temporary classes in Vaharai, for much of the time there is little for anyone to do, and the recent uspsurge in conflict is on everyone’s mind: 10 year old Anuwarna Varnakulasingham has vivid memories of what happened: “We had to leave in the night because of the shelling. We travelled here through the jungle and we hid in tunnels under the road,” she says.
“We lost our goats and cows – and we lost all the things in our house,” says 11-year-old Sivaranjan Kanapathipillai.
What everyone wishes for most is a chance to return home. But for the moment they fear that home isn’t safe, and so they stay