28 October, 2020

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Managing 1983 Refugee Inflow In Jaffna

By S.Sivathasan

S.Sivathasan

At the stroke of the midnight hour on Saturday 22nd of July 1983, landmine explosions in Thinnavely on the borders of Jaffna town disturbed an uneasy calm. The events that followed tore the country apart for over 25 years. The immediate challenge was for Jaffna society to respond and to measure up to the tasks of managing the inflow of refugees. What happened was magnificent, reinforcing our faith in the goodness of humanity.  Jaffna receiving her beleaguered kith and kin, with warmth and affection made lasting impressions on many.

In the event of a crisis it is the arm of the government, possessing authority and commanding the resources, that is looked up to for leadership. The Government Agent Dr. Devanesan Nesiah supported by the senior officials of the Kachcheri provided it. On this occasion there was a different dimension as well. Those in the lead of the social polity came forward spontaneously, to coalesce with the official segment. Youth volunteers turned up in substantial numbers to add to the strength. Without a call everybody expressed their anxiety to share in the social responsibility. There was a rare display of unity of purpose for social action that was well sudtained.

The events of 1983 were unprecedented in their magnitude. They were not comparable to 1958 or 1977. Yet it was possible to estimate the likely inflow. The figure settled to 50,000 of whom over 28,000 were expected by ship, about 2,000 by plane and the balance by road and rail. Actuals corresponded to estimates after two months of operation. Receiving the refugees using sea transport, who arrived at KKS and sending them to their place of choice claimed priority attention and consumed much of our time and energy. Time of ship departure from Colombo and likely arrival in Jaffna were critical to this operation. There was however no regular intimation from Colombo. Mr.AK Nesaratnam of the Sathya Sai Organization, Colombo on his initiative conveyed this information every morning. To us this was invaluable help. The operation was a complex one, but was well executed.

Logistics support for refugee movement was a prime requirement and an arrangement was worked out. With fuel supplies in limited quantity, issues had to be controlled and GA had a controlling voice over it. Van operators were summoned and the proposal was put across for them to provide free transport to the refugees in return for them to pay for and obtain fuel for their normal plying. They readily agreed because it was attractive by them. Without assured supplies they will be immobilized. But it was really altruism that motivated them to participate in a well synchronized service. Mr. M Panchalingam Additional GA handled this work and did it well. Time of docking of ships, transport to college and thence to the homes were communicated to the drivers and they adhered to them steadfastly. There was never a breakdown because the operation was a community affair.

The first plan of action was to receive them at the harbor and transport them one km to Nadeshwara College the centre of operations. Thoughtfully their health needs were attended to. Medical specialists about six on the first day were present to help and to get a feel of things for assistance on subsequent days. As the refugees got down from the harbor they were given a welcome drink. After some rest and socializing with known faces, they were treated to lunch. With that they were taken by van and dropped at the doorstep of their homes.  A splendid feature of this service was, perhaps for once all the volunteers whatever their social position were seen doing their work with humility. They displayed a blindness to class and caste that was total. It was done with love and respect knowing well the ordeal they had experienced.

At the harbor as they landed and at the college where they moved about, I was able to observe on all days something noteworthy. After a harrowing experience in Colombo, and though the journey mostly by cargo ship was unpleasant and tiresome none of them showed signs of fatigue. Nor were they distraught or dejected. They seemed happy and had smiles. A feeling of relief and release was writ upon their face. This was remarkable. They had come into free territory where the mind was without fear. Warmly received by mostly unknown faces and sent to their own place of residence to join their relatives was to them a memorable experience.

The refugees were spared the pain of unloading, carrying or loading their luggage. This was all done by youth volunteers. In the first few days we met in the afternoon to review operations so as to smoothen them. When we noted that pieces of luggage were numerous we thought tags would help. A volunteer who owned a press happily agreed to do it free and brought a consignment the following morning. He did that till the operation was completed. The refugees numbering 28,000 brought with them over 100,000 pieces and nothing was lost.

Rice and vegetables needed in huge quantities day after day for nearly 50 days were all donated at the college centre. Some organizations even provided cooked meals. There were donations received at the Kachcheri too. Volunteers were engaged in cooking and serving. The youth in large numbers attended to much of the back breaking work. When organization was in place and once work got stabilized, GA and some officers made their visits less frequent.

Our attention was now required for relief work. State responsibility and our obligation did not end with sending the refugees home. Refugees who had no home to return to or no relatives to accommodate them needed support from the state or social and religious institutions. Within the limitations of resources and organizational capacity what could be provided was done. In this regard from the beginning of the influx, religious organizations too played a part worthy of appreciation. Sustained effort required above all grit. The Catholic Church with resources, together with a disciplined clergy and a host of nuns, made its contribution over a long period of time and stretching across several locations.

A major item of assistance from the state was food. GA struck upon the strategy of extending to the refugees the food stamp scheme that was in operation. This had easy acceptance because it is in the nature of the government to endorse the existing over a new formulation. But an improvement urged and approved was one kilo of milk powder per food stamp package. This arrangement went on for some months. At this point of time Mr. Bradman Weerakoon was appointed Commissioner General of Essential Services, a new office that was created to smoothen matters. He was adequately empowered to take speedy decisions. When GA spoke to him about the above proposal approval was given immediately. Documentation was subsequent.

Apart from government support, funds were required for several other needs. The first organization to move in this direction on its own initiative was OXFAM from UK. The representative given a brief presentation at the GA’s Residency gave a cheque for a good amount. This institution continued to give assistance for some years more. Individuals and organizations happily gave cash donations since the management of refugees had become a continuous programme. Anticipating an inflow of cash from several corners it was deemed best to have a single fund with a non kachcheri account. RRF ’83, was the name assigned to the organization. It was created with about ten members. Well known personalities enjoying the confidence of the community were drawn into it. Dr. Yogu Pasupathy, very personable and of equable temperament was invited to be its first Chairman. An engineer became the Secretary and he offered the facilities of his private office for meetings. For nearly two months, GA and I participated in all meetings held daily at 8 am.

Managing the refugees on arrival and thereafter was a great operation done with acceptance to all. It was a labour of love tinged with sympathy. Within two months when pressure eased, all those in the forefront of operations – more than 100 – were invited to the kachcheri  by the GA for an expression of gratitude and our indebtedness.

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Latest comments

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    Sivathasan is rewriting history. There was a Hindu orphanage near the Pannai causeway which had been converted into a refugee camp. Mr. Sabalingam, Principal of Hindu College and others had run that camp. Deva Nesiah had come one morning urging the refugee inmates to shift to another refugee camp instead run by the church. The inmates did so but later wanted to return to the initial camp given poor conditions in the second camp. The Pannai refugee camp however had become full with a second set of displaced IDPs. Mrs. Nesiah meanwhile was distributing Red Cross relief materials claiming that to be Christian when the Sri Lanka Red Cross is non religious – the cross sign notwithstanding!The care of refugees almost became hijacked by the missionary enterprise if not for a whole slew of parallel Hindu camps that got zero support from the Jaffna Kachcheri. A.K. Nesaratnam did yeoman service but was obstructed by the Kachcheri.

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      Vinodini,its people like you who cause religious dis-unity and try to pick on others and Mrs Nesiah is someone who will never ever do that unless of course some of your friends got confused when they saw Rec Cross materials and thought its something to do with Christianity !

  • 0
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    A typical Sri Lankan public servant who has now become bankrupt of new ideas to write upon.
    Bensen

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      no on the contrary its great to see retired civil servants like him publishing these stories as it gives us thos who were kids at that time to what happened and how life was then

      I also enjoyed Tissa Devendras articles durng his time in Govt service and many others who wrotes such stuff.We need these for posterity

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        Sivathasan stands accused of fabrication. Read Mrs. Nesiah’s book on the ‘challenge of Christian responsibility’. I will not trust her at all

    • 1
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      Bensen Burner
      With wealth of ideas why not write your penny worth and be done with it,instead of croaking from the sidelines slinging mud at others. It is good to burn the dross in your character and not to hurl abuse from this Forum.

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    Mr. Sivathasan seems to want to whitesash the caste discrimination that existed. In the Colombo camps there was much anger because the `upper-caste’ people had to get water from the same sources as the not so privileged.
    In Jaffna this was done by `correctly streaming’ the strata so that the “pillai” types did not mix with those that they did not wish to mix with.

    The writer is indeed re-writing history to fit in with what he wants people to believe.

    It was this very same “well-organized” boys who drove the Tamils to the Vanni when Prabhakaran moved south to Killinochchi. The same techniques were used to take the whole population to Nandikadal and keep them as human shields as the LTTE high command retreated.

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      Isn’t the Sri Lankan/South-Indian church establishment itself nicely set up so that only the `Pillai class’ would become dignitaries of the church? i.e., from what caste does the Bishops and other `Princes of the Church” come – Prof. Hoole, Sebastian Rasalingam and others who have been writing about caste should have some inputs here? The author and Mr. Nesiah should also know. Clearly the people in Colombo who organized the temporary camps didn’t know much about caste sensitivities as they were probably sinhalese bureaucrats.

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    I unreservedly disagree with the most unfair sentiments expressed by Peace Lover on Dr.and Mrs Nesiah. In the same vein I disagree with what has been said by Sabaratnam on May 14 2013.
    Bensen

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      why may I ask? it seems that you have a grudge against them,they have one of the most respected people in fact Mr Nesiah was Jaffna GA during the most turbulent of times and he did the job well without bootlicking the JR Govt of the time,even now he was asked by His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa to be the chairmen of the Trinco students murder case inquiry but he resigned halfway due to ethical reasons (he didnt want to succumb to pressure from the high brass in defence in trying to hush it up)

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        Jayewardene and Mahinda appointed Devanesan Nesiah – tells you something. Nesiah was also appointed in 2002 to investigate disappearances in Jaffna between 1996 and 1997. Nothing ever came of that exercise perhaps because Chandrika Kumaranatunge was President in that period and hence no one wanted to tarnish her legacy. Mind you, I respect her but I still think you are being unduly defensive when it comes to Nesiah.

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          @ Tamil woman,your not understanding what was writen,Nesiah was a public servant who was GA Jaffna in 1983-85 period when Jaffna was in a terrible mess thanks to the so called ‘liberators’.JR didnt do him any favlours at all he bacame GA due to hard work in the public sector!

          If you read older documents and articles you will find that GA Nesiah was always acting stubbornly and impartialy as such the JR Govt didnt want him there and transfered him out!

          also you seem to be confused when you say he didnt do anything under Chandrika Govt which is totally false he and others in the committee did their best (jezima ismail,Ms Manouri Muttetuwegama and H. G. Dharmadasa)and out of the thousand of cases that they cited only few infact less than 10 cases were prosecuted (please go through things before you come up with accusations),what could that committee do as we all know sri lankan has had so many commissions and none of the recommendations of them are implemented (eg:LLRC is the latest)

          as for your referance than President Rajapaksa appointed because he is a Govt man is a joke,please go back seen why Nesiah resigned from the committee because he could not function independantly

          Please refer to all the refeances and then comment sensibly!

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            Peace Lover

            Nesiah seems to be your friend and you are entitled to defend a bosom buddy. But he left no enduring legacy, repeatedly got senior positions of responsibility that he abdicated, never completed anything and represents the same inner clique of intellectuals who repeatedly resurface in the affairs of the country – be they mapped to the Center of Policy Alternative, the Marga Institute or other NGOs etc. Once again, I like Godfrey Gunatilleka, Packiasothy etc but we need some intellectual diversity. Do point out one enduring legacy of Nesiah be it in a tangible area of development that can be attributed to him alone and no predecessor, any human rights case conclusively investigated, any constitutional enactment that he inspired, any publication that many have cited, responded to, debated, disagreed with etc. He represents one vested interest (Colombo based chattering class with no real influence at the Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim grass roots) out of many in this island nation. This explains why Sri Lanka’s literati have zero influence in the political landscape given all that Mahinda is able to get away with! Your statement that Nesiah was GA between 1983 and 1985 is wrong. He was GA between 1981 and 1983.

            By the way, you had no right to attack Vinodini above of creating religious disunity when your comments on the article by Ayathurai Rajalingam (whose article I disliked as a Hindu myself – but that is a different story) reaked of pro Muslim (or at least that is what you tried to make out) and anti Hindu bigotry.

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          That was a one man committee – Nesiah alone – that investigated disappearances in Jaffna between 1996 and 1997 – appointed by Godfrey Gunatilleke.

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            @ Tamil woman,sorry about the late response as i was tied up with office work
            FYI Nesiah is not my bosom buddy and to be honest that guy is almost old enough to be my grandad! but i grew up in Jaffn during those turbulent times when he was Jaffna GA and did the job damm well without trying to please his bosses,Panchalingam was his succesor and i think your totally wrong in saying he was not there in 1984 as i remember very well that he reinged in the Army who was running amok after landmine blast opposite OLR Church in 1984 and many other things.

            Well talking of leaving behind legacys he and Panchalingam did their job under tryng circumstences and did damm well (unfortunately Panchalingam was killed by the so called ‘liberators’)

            I suggest you read UTHR reports from 1980’s,Tamil Times achives on the net and you will get a good picture of what happened as those are unbiased reports

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    A Reader
    Stands accused of fabrication! you say. Cite one instance. I challenge you if you can.

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    Sabaratnam
    You say – seems to want to whitewash. What for? So Sivathasan is not whitewashing, nor is he wanting to, but seeming to be wanting to. What wishy washy stuff to asperse one’s character.

    And what an attempt to whitewash from Jaffna a black spot observed by someone else in Colombo!

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    “landmine explosions in Thinnavely on the borders of Jaffna town disturbed an uneasy calm.”

    This statement shows the inherent bias. To Sivathasan it was a land mine explosion. To him it may have been an accident.
    The fact is it was a well planned ambush and the massacre and mutilation of 13 Soldiers by the LTTE..

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    A lesson learned is that those who creates in the deep recesses if mind, thoughts of isolation, suspicions and dislike of others raising the need for a deep sense of self identity and racialism will face the consequence of their thoughts, this is what is happening to our Tamil brothers. Your politicians are bathing in your missary for their own gain. We live in a world of interconnectedness depending on each other. Please discard the transient truths which are illusions and support our conquest for the writes for all. Our politicians are also bathing in their new found fame for defeating your creations and subjugating the Sinhala race through their actions of corrupt practices. We have all lost not only the Tamils.
    This statement should come from the educated Tamil Diaspora not me.

  • 0
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    A lesson learned is that those who creates in the deep recesses of mind, thoughts of isolation, suspicions and dislike of others raising the need for a deep sense of self identity and racialism will face the consequence of their thoughts, this is what is happening to our Tamil brothers. Your politicians are bathing in your missary for their own gain. We live in a world of interconnectedness depending on each other. Please discard the transient truths which are illusions and support our conquest for the writes for all. Our politicians are also bathing in their new found fame for defeating your creations and subjugating the Sinhala race through their actions of corrupt practices. We have all lost not only the Tamils.
    This statement should come from the educated Tamil Diaspora not me.

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