By 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.