04/17/2009, 00.00
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Groups of Christians from the south visit war refugees in Vavuniya

by Melani Manel Perera
The initiative is organized by the Christian Solidarity Movement, which intends to repeat the trip each week. The intention is to show a concrete sign of solidarity to war victims, and to knock down the wall of hostility between Sinhalese and Tamils, built over 25 years of conflict. AsiaNews has interviewed Fr. Sarath Iddamalgod, one of the project organizers.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - Giving a concrete sign of solidarity, and knocking down the wall of hostility between Sinhalese and Tamils built up over 25 years of civil war. This is the meaning of the initiative organized by the Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM) of Colombo: to make a weekly visit to the population of Vavuniya, and of the other cities in the northern part of the island.

In an interview with AsiaNews, Sarath Iddamalgod, one of the coordinators of the CSM, explains that the idea of making regular visits to the inhabitants in the war zone "was born from a simple question: What can we do for them?"

"From our earlier visits," Fr. Iddamalgod says, "we sensed that the Tamil community is deeply hurt about the way that they are being treated by the Sinhala government. They also feel that the Sinhala Christians are not sensitive to their grievances and doing anything to support their just struggle. So we realized that we needed to do as much as possible to awaken the people in the south about the need to stop the war and to bring about a political solution. Among those, one important activity of solidarity is to visit the Tamil community in Mannar and Vauniya and encourage many as possible to do the same in order to see for themselves the what they suffer. After we took that decision, two priests have gone on one occasion and 41 people went to Vauniya in the following week. The next visit has been scheduled for April 20."

Who were the 41 members of the group that went to Vavuniya?
Actually all were social workers, members from Sramabimani Kendraya [editor's note: an NGO that works for the free trade zone] and members from other people’s organizations and several nuns and priests, and also a Buddhist monk from very far away village named Wellawaya also joined us this time.
How did a Buddhist monk join the trip of the Christian Solidarity Movement?
The members of the CSM have contact with the monks. I too have met this monk at a peace meeting organized by the Methodist Church on an earlier occasion. And he was aware about the mission of the CSM and he wanted to join us to visit the suffering.
And yet most of the Buddhist monks have the attitude that this country should be a Sinhala Buddhists country . . .
Yes! What I felt was that he never expected the sufferings of Tamil people to be that intense. He was shocked when he visited the hospital. He has said to Fr. Rohan that the Tamil people must be cursing. He was sorry that he did not have anything to offer them. I think his experience has been so deep that he went home the same night.
What was the experience of the journey and at the check point? 
At the check point at Medawachchiya [editor's note: the main check point separating the north from the south] as usual there were questions raised where we are going and why and so on. Finally we had to give a list of names and an approval was obtained from the higher authorities to let us pass the barrier. Once we reached there in the evening, a group visited the hospital. The exposure they had at the hospital has shaken everybody, especially those who visited for the first time. Most of our group for the first time saw the thousands of refugees surrounded by two barbed wire fences, in addition to the school parapet walls. Many of the group commented that what they hear in the south is all rubbish, the truth is never told by the media and they questioned why they hide the truth from people. At 6:00 In the evening a prayer service was held in the church at which both communities participated. The parish priest led the opening prayer. It was an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the Christian community is one body, and we feel the pain of the suffering people in the north.
Did you visit other refugee centers?
The following morning we went to the Chettikulam church, and saw the camps on the premises of the church. What we felt was . . . they are now slaves in their own land. They were told to leave the are controlled by the Tamil rebels, and come to the government controlled or the liberated area. But now they are denied freedom. We were asked not to talk to the people by the police. But one of our priests (Fr. Selvaraj, a Tamil priest) spoke to some. His impression was that the people were very angry and some were even aggressive. We were also told by some community leaders that about 80,000 children in 16 schools have been denied education because the schools have been turned into refugee camps. We saw also the 'chicken pox hospital on the way from Vauniya to Chettikulam. Hundreds of patients were there. There were seven nuns working in the hospital for these patients.
What is your judgment after this latest trip?
During our informal meetings with the people, we were challenged with some serious questions, while the bishop, priests, nuns and lay people were very pleased and encouraged us to come again and again Others asked what happened after the previous visits. They said that nothing has been done to reduce their suffering. It is true, because that much damage, pain, suffering, and frustration is extremely deep. It cannot be described or healed. These questions are still haunting me.
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