By Taru Tuohiniemi
We travel about eight hours from Colombo to the north of Sri Lanka, headed to the northern districts that went through three decades of civil war: Kilinochchi, Vanuniya, Mannar and Jaffna. Some of the people who escaped the war have lived in mud huts, tents or bunkers for 30 years, and only in the past three years have started to return to the area they call home. I hear stories about people who escaped the war, became suicidal and are now community leaders.
The soft morning light gives way to hard, burning midday sun, and melts again to softer tones when the afternoon drizzle hits us. The scenery changes from lush green to dry and red soil, reminding me of East Africa.
We reach Vavuniya in the late afternoon. Nimal Silva and Dr Mahesh Gunasekara from the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society’s Post Conflict Recovery Programme tell us the latest about the project, which is rebuilding lives, not just houses. The programme received a remarkable contribution recently from the Indian government to support 16,800 more families with houses, water and sanitation, and livelihoods.
After the meeting I go for a short walk with a colleague before the sun sets. Even though the area is green, the evening sun reveals how the soil is cracking due to drought. This becomes even more apparent the following morning.
We drive through Kilinochchi to a remote area in Mannar to meet a family that returned to their land after the war. They are building a new home, trying to grow a vegetable garden, selling homemade palm leaf mats and baskets, and managing their lives with the support from the Red Cross.
The one thing the family needs most is a well. Monsoon rains are more than a month late and the water they have is not enough for the garden, or for cooking, washing or drinking. The nearest source of safe water is a half kilometre walk away, but as Rasadurai Parameshwami’s husband is blind and their seven year old son has Down’s syndrome, she must make most trips to fetch water herself. Moreover, the closest school able to provide the support needed for Down’s syndrome is 50 kilometres away and so Prathap is not getting an education.
While we sit and talk the son reaches out and takes his father’s hand. The blind father strokes his son’s palm. A few minutes later mother and son are playing catch with a cotton bag. It’s a normal life that they have, and yet – like most people in the area – they are waiting for the rains to arrive so they can plan for the future.
Everyone is waiting for the rains, but for one family we meet there is fear as well as anticipation as they’re anxious to move to their new house before the monsoon starts. The temporary palm leaf hut they live in don’t hold water or wind.
I ask the Red Cross staff how they manage the expectations of these families. It’s not an easy task, they say. You cannot promise anything and cannot say no either. In addition to the housing needs, money has to stretch to assisting in the development of water and sanitation facilities, and practices, and often there is not enough to go around. Also, most families have needs beyond cash.
These districts were evacuated during the civil war and you can see the results of that conflict etched into the landscape and buildings. But people came back here because this is their home; families have been here for generations. And things are changing. Huge road building projects can provide steady work. Men and women wearing bright orange vests carry sand, hack stones and wipe dust. Asphalt roads are long and straight, the paint between lanes bright white. Small businesses are blooming as the road snakes its way through the region.
This is the first time since I returned to work for the Red Cross Red Crescent movement that I have been in the field, and find myself sitting under a tree talking with some of the people we are supporting. It is the best part of my work. Seeing how people live, listening to them and trying to understand their needs and approach to life. It is motivating and inspiration, and reminds me why I am doing this.