March 21, 2007

'The West' cares, a lot

Things must be getting really bad in Sri Lanka. 'The West' ran a story yesterday about 150 000 displaced people now living in Batticaloa, my old stomping ground. Not much ground left to stomp these days. I dare say my stomping ground now has a few hundred families sleeping on it. But 'The West' ran a story, on page 26 mind you, but they ran a story yesterday about the rest of the world. It damn near made me cry my little eyes out at the lunch table at work where I coulnd't have felt further away from Sri Lanka as I ate my delicious home-made salad with cherry tomatoes, danish feta and kalamata olives. 'The West' ran a story about camps overflowing and food running out. But when I left in November, there were alreday 70 000 people in Batticloa and the food had all but run out. Yesterday 'The West' cared enough about Sri Lanka to put it on page 26. We might not have been so lucky if news of Sri Lanka had come today, when it would have had to compete with the front-page disgrace of a football player. Some things are just more important. And it certainly didn't add the bitter taste to my cherry tomato, danish feta and kalamata olive salad the way that other story did.

Posted by catherine at 3:24 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2006

my mum says never go to sleep angry with the one you love

It's amazing what difference a few days and some distance can make. I re-read my last blog entry and felt ashamed at my defeatist and drunken rant. My sentiments remain the same, but jesus, did I have to be so melodramatic?

Sorry Sri Lanka, at least I get to leave. I get to clear my head and sip coconuts on beach and get some perspective. But you're still there, slowly imploding, aren't you? I looked for you on the news last night but I couldn't find you. No wonder half the world doesn't know you're hell bent on self destruction.

I promise to stay positive about you in future, but damn, you don't make it easy for a girl. Can we still be friends?

Posted by catherine at 2:46 PM | Comments (1)

November 16, 2006

goodbye for good.

So, this is how it ends... I would love to say that I leave this place with a sense of accomplishment. That all those commitments made nearly two years ago have become a reality. I would love to say that while I am sad to go, I feel sure that great and earnest work will continue after I leave and this place will strengthen itself. I would love to say that.

But this is how it really ends... I am sitting alone, by choice, at a table in my house. There's no fan on and I can hear the mosquitoes circling my ankles. I'm drinking a long neck of Lion Beer, my third tonight. My scalp is itchy from the poor quality water that we have had for the last three months, the phone networks have been severed and I can't get a call through to anyone. I have just finished writing a final report detailing the number of displaced people currently in the district... 17 082 families. That's 63 467 people. I know that's just a number on a screen, but really think about how many people that is. For what it's worth, it is more people than were ever displaced in this district after the tsunami...


This is an image from one of the last food distributions that I organized. When we planned for the distribution there were 400 families at the camp. While we were distributing food, buses escorted by the Army arrived filled with more people. They had traveled out of the LTTE controlled area where the army had shelled the camp where they were staying days earlier. It had taken them two days to arrive to the camp where we were distributing, and by the time they arrived we had no food left to give them. Many of the men had been detained at the checkpoints along the way. No one had eaten since the day before and they had limited water. The women were wailing and filling containers with water from the tanks at the camp. Children wandered off into the camp to find other children to play with. The men sat on haunch legs in groups in the sand beside the bus, smoked cigarettes and looked off into the distance. The soldiers reclined beside their armored vehicles.

When the new bus loads of people arrived, those already in the school-cum-camp surged towards the buses rolling in along the roads, excited to see what was happening. The swell of people was sickening. Before I realized that new people were arriving and everyone was just curious to see what was happening, I just saw the armored vehicles and soldiers and the guns and I felt sick with the thought that something bad was going to happen.

It made remember a time nearly two years ago when I sat in a similar camp. I remember vomiting in the bushes, dehydrated, my jeans and underpants wet and humid and wondering what the fuck had just happened. Locals around me were saying the whole world was under water, and I had no reason not to believe them. The young Buddhist Monks were catching fire flies and pulling the legs of baby goats. We met another Australian looking for her mother who was later found dead under a frangipani tree. I sat on the grass as the light of the day faded and waited, for something. Throughout the night, a ripple of rumour and fear would spread through the crowd every few hours until the whole temple was surging and screaming to run to higher ground because another wave was coming.

I also remember I had hope after that though. I don't have to dig deep to find images of that day to keep me awake at night, but there was a real sense of optimism around that time. The cease fire agreement was intact, there was an unprecedented response from the international community and on the ground there was enthusiasm and determination to respond the situation. There was even some hope this natural disaster would act as a catalyst for lasting peace.

But now this place is bleak and morbid. Some of our tsunami programs may never finish due to the conflict, or worse still have been destroyed by shelling or gun fire. Our field workers are being abducted by both parties faster than we can retrieve them. And there are so many restrictions on movement throughout the district for NGOs its getting impossible to access displaced people.

Some of my staff ask me why the world doesn't do anything. I don't have the heart to tell them that for most people, Sri Lanka is just another poor country with a war. If they really want international attention they'll have to pull something better than Darfur or Israel-Palestine. And even then I'm not sure that people will pause long enough from their after-school-hobby of navel-gazing to give a fuck.

I would love to say that by the time I got to the end of writing this I would have found some positives to balance this diatribe, but I can't. In all honesty, I have been profoundly and irrevocably changed by this place. And I would love to say that those changes come in the form of some neat tattoo or cute boy that I will take home and have forever and ever, but I can't. I am leaving completely broken, shattered and full of despair, but not as much as this country and its people.

Posted by catherine at 11:12 AM | Comments (1)

November 11, 2006

Dream Catcher

That all these images, good and bad, exist within the same place boggles my mind. So I try to focus on the good ones...

Dream catcher.jpg

Bad - The bombed-out remains of the Dream Catcher Trauma Healing Centre

dream catcher 2.jpg

Good - The pretty fishing Village of Valachchenai

dream catcher 3.jpg

Bad - The sign warning off would-be gun wielders at the front of my house

dream catcher 5.jpg

Good - My favourite shop in town. The Mummy Daddy sweet shop!

dream catcher 4.jpg

Bad: Collecting dry food rations after being forced to flee their homes

dream catcher 7.jpg

Good: The friendly gold cleaner who I pass every day on my way to work.

dream catcher 6.jpg

Bad - Armored vehicles doing bog-laps around the town centre

Posted by catherine at 1:29 PM | Comments (0)

November 2, 2006

"Things will have to get a lot worse before we even think about it."

I had made the long journey to Colombo, hat in hand, armed with a full arsenal of data and documentation about the worsening situation of displaced people here (and a swag of war metaphors!). I had spread sheets, anecdotal evidence, reports, distribution figures, warehouse statistics (that clearly showed we have NO food left and only an odd assortment of non-food items left to distribute). I explained in length about what other organisations are doing, where the gaps are, the problems with access into the uncleared areas and how we have managed to skulk in a few times using a back road to distribute food. I described at length how the situation was only getting worse as more and more people arrived in the District, how the monsoon is making conditions unbearable and how we need to act now. I had my hand on my heart, literally, begging for money.

So when I was told that things would have to get a lot worse, I did what any professional, mature and responsible person would do. I cried and muttered some blubbery words about how I would ask both sides to step up their daily efforts in conflict creation to really really make the situation bad

I was given a tissue, two in fact. I dried my eyes and blew my nose. Then I sat there pink-eyed and red-faced and finished my meeting where we discussed just how much money we wouldn't be getting and just how many people we wouldn't be assisting.

What a fine example of how not to act when one is pretending to be a grown-up with a grown-up job I thought as I mooched my way out of the office looking every bit the unprofessional in a pair of rubber thongs, jeans and a dirty cowboy shirt. I walked down the stairs past all the shiny posters showing smiling poor people and red-dirt villages with thatched-roof huts - our bright happy logo on every single one of them. And then I thought, fuck ya, why don't you put your money where the hungry kids' mouth is...

Posted by catherine at 3:58 PM | Comments (0)

October 20, 2006

do i bang on about this too much? I think so...

Every time I open my mouth (or unfurl my fingers in front of the keyboard) these days I seem to want to bang on about the ongoing, never-ending, protracted, messy conflict that has wrapped itself lazily around this country. While I think of something more positive and diverse to say about the world, let me just say this one last thing on the subject....

I spoke to my mum last night. She had watched the evening news and saw a segment about the port and tourist town of Galle that got a hiding on Wednesday courtesy of a suicide bomber masquerading as a fisherman.

"Oh, it's really getting close to home now isn't it? Terrible that civilian areas are being targeted isn't it?" she said.

I didn't know where to start! Her daughters' home had been rather close to 'it' for months now and if anyone thinks that the North and East are just full of bunt-out old cars, un-used dirt tracks and a few elephants nosing through rubbish dumps, I can assure you there most definitely are civilians here, except now most of them are living a very uncivilised existence in tents and under tarpaulins in displaced people camps, getting food rations two weeks at a time and hoping a water bowser will come to fill the empty tanks.

But I can understand how she could say that. Yes, the conflict is getting close to the home of government and the place where all the foreign journalists are holed up and yes, the areas that are being targeted are full of civilians that haven't seen this kind of trouble since the cease fire and yes, it is terrible.

What is also terrible is the full and unrelenting reprisal attacks that we saw here in the east over the last two days. From 6.00am both mornings I could hear the morning air crack apart with heavy thuds as shells hit their target and last night the sky lit up every few minutes with muzzled shells being discharged over the lagoon into, what I can assure you, are most certainly civilian areas despite the fact they are under the control of a party other than the Government (Damn! The fear mongerers and conspiracy theorists have gotten to me - can't even bring myself to type their name in my lowly blog site...). At 2.00am a late monsoon fell into town and I woke in a sweat to hear the sick symphony of thunder, heavy rain, dogs barking, crackly tamil music and artillery pounding the earth somewhere off in the distance.

It's no wonder a country in the swing of a civil conflict is so frustrated socially, politically, economically. Who's got time for roads and hospitals and education and poverty reduction when there's a war to win? I mean, I can't even find something else to write about in my blog site...

Posted by catherine at 3:40 PM | Comments (1)

October 18, 2006

what's your drug?

Living in a country that has a loose understanding of the word 'ceasefire' is, I have decided, like living with a drug addict trying to kick the habit.

There's the cheating and stealing and lying ("I SO did not blow up that Navy convoy! I don't know what you're taking about!). There's the extreme mood swings ("What? I can't believe you think it's excessive to rain down artillery on a refugee camp three nights in a row."). There's the selfishness ("No food or water or shelter you say? Hmm, I could give you access into those areas to distribute relief items, but then again I could just have a cup of tea instead.") And of course there is the outright, infuriating denial ("We are NOT in a state of war! We signed a cease fire agreement in 2002, you know? We are SO in a state of peace damn it!")

The problem, like with any addict, is that this violence in Sri Lanka has become a dirty little habit that's hard to break. Any sign of tension or conflict and its 'get out your RPG, Kaffir jet, armored tank, artillery shells, AK-47s - anything - and blow the fuck out of what ever has bothered you.' Scratch that itch. Don't think. Don't talk. Just do what you have always done - react and retalliate

So off she goes to another rehab session in Geneva next week, but after a bloody week of daily aerial attacks, suicide bombs and street fighting, I'm afraid my poor friend just isn't ready to kick the habit yet.

Posted by catherine at 2:43 PM | Comments (1)