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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 November 16, 2006 11:12 AM


Catherine, a friend of mine stumbled upon your heartfelt blogg... we have both had 'terrible' days over the last week and now realise (not for knowing already) that these days are nothing compared to yours. Have comfort in knowing that some of us 'do give a fuck' and wish that we were not so consumed by things less important..

Posted by: mandy at November 16, 2006 2:19 PM

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