09/14/2009, 00.00
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Sisters aid elderly Tamil refugees destroyed by war

by Melani Manel Perera
At Vankalai in Mannar district, there is a shelter that houses 26 elderly people. It is one of three Elders Home supported by the diocese of the city in the north. Sr Kanagasabai., centre director: "They are in the bitter position of receiving care and attention while their children and relatives are suffering in the camps."

Mannar (AsiaNews) - "All I know is this: one of my children died during this terrible war that I do not want to remember. The other two are in refugee camps in Vavuniya and I am very worried for them. " Weerama is a Tamil woman of 77, a guest at the Holy Family Home for Elders Vankalai where she lives together with 26 other elderly cared for by the Sisters of the Holy Family.

The centre is located a few kilometres from Mannar district capital of the Northern Province, theatre of the bloodiest clashes between the army and the Tamil Tigers. During the war, it suffered the fate of the neighbouring villages: attacks, damage, evacuations. In the latter stages of the conflict its guests, such as those of other senior centres in the area, had to move into camps set up by the government for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or to hospitals.

Sister Kanagasabai Austin, head of the centre, rehabilitated a few months ago, tells AsiaNews: "These elders came to us on June 19. They were weak. We gave him food and medicine. Their eyes told me that they had lost everything, even inner peace. It was painful to support their tears and their suffering. Some talk about it, but often they do not make the slightest mention. Broken and lost they remain immersed in their thoughts. "

The greatest pain that grips the hearts of guests at the Vankalai centre, is linked to the fate of their children and grandchildren who have disappeared in the last stages of the conflict or still are confined in camps.

Sr. Kanagasabai said that after the announcement of the end of the war the work of the recommenced at full speed. "Our bishop, Msgr. Rayappu Joseph [bishop of Mannar, ndr], divided the elderly into three houses in Vanakalai, Pesalai and Pattithottam. We welcomed 31 guests, 8 men and 18 women. Three of them died and two went to live with their children who have managed to leave the camps”.

The elderly of the home now live in good conditions, unthinkable only a few months ago when they were in the IDPcentres. Mrs. Weerama says: "We eat three times a day and we are happy for what the sisters are doing for us ... but our children in the camps are starving. We learned that during the rainy season they had no food for three days in a row. I can not express the pain that I feel when I think about these things because I too have lived the experience of the camps and I know what it means. "

V. Nagendram, a 76 year old Tamil father of six children, says he does not know anything about them or his wife. Sinnathambirasa, 80, tries not to think of "the plight in which my family now finds itself" and says "I do not know what the Lord has in store for me, but I hope to see my children before they die".

The Holy Family Elders Home is divided into two structures, one for women and one for men. These built with their hands, the walls of their rooms, intertwining the branches of coconut trees. But sr. Kanagasabai explains that one of the rooms "still lacks a wall so the guest suffers the infiltration of rain and cold." Although these "seniors are happy to be here and not in refugee camps," "we need more things - adds the religious - to help our guests. For example an ambulance which is essential for emergencies, but also a radio or television for news and recreation. We manage to get them the papers, but that's all for now. "

For meals the sisters rely on the Bishop of Mannar and the office of the Valvuthayam diocesan Caritas which donates food rations sent by the government. "For these 26 older people each month, the authorities give 113 kilos of rice and the same of flour, 15 pounds of Dahal and 13 pounds of sugar, but no oil or milk and other essential foods”.

The elderly guests care for the maintenance of the home, keep it clean and help in the kitchen, jobs that help them stay active and in good psychological and physical health. "But we see that most of them - says sr. Kanagasabai -  are plagued by a sadness that can not be expressed. They are in the bitter condition of receiving care and attention while their children and relatives are suffering in the camps. "
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