06/02/2006, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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No room at the inn but in people's hearts

by Danielle Vella

The national director of the Jesuit Refugee Service "discovers" the generous hospitality of the poor towards their fellow citizens who are seeking refuge. "Their desire to share the little they have with others is a sign of the presence of God".

Poor families hard pressed for survival are opening their doors and hearts to welcome people displaced by violence in Sri Lanka.

This discovery was a candle in the darkness witnessed by Fr Vinny Joseph SJ, director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Sri Lanka, in the anguished eastern districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Fr Vinny went to assess the needs of those recently displaced by the island's spiralling civil conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels, and found "people in a really hopeless situation".

Around 40,000 people fled at the end of April, after the military carried out air and naval strikes on suspected Tamil Tiger rebel bases in the east, following a suicide attack at army headquarters in Colombo. Fifteen people were killed in the military strikes.

"Seven villages – Senayoor, Sambur, Kattaiparichan, Santhosapurm, Nallur, Koonitheevu and Sudaikuda – were indiscriminately bombed and shelled. After the bombing, people from 22 villages nearby fled," said Fr Vinny. "Most people are staying in school buildings, tents, and under the trees. I saw the poor condition of the tents and the pathetic situation of the entire area."

He continued: "Some people are staying with poor families who have welcomed them into their homes. Each household has welcomed a few families, which is indeed a generous gesture. In some houses, there is practically no place, but the people's hearts are large enough to accommodate those in need."

Fr Vinny was equally touched by the welcome he received in camps for displaced people – most shelter between 800 and 2,000 families – where JRS implements psycho-social activities and evening classes for children, as well as distributing dry food rations. "Never in my life will I forget the hot tea offered to me and my staff by a family living in a tent. Their willingness to share their meagre ration of tea powder and sugar with us shows the presence of God in broken humanity."

But people's generosity could not detract from the gravity of the fast deteriorating security situation. "Never in the last four years have I felt so insecure and helpless," said Fr Vinny. "It was the first time I felt my staff to be vulnerable, that it was difficult to provide humanitarian assistance because of the hardened attitude of groups in the conflict."

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