The journey with Caritas over a period of three decades of thousands of people who were innocent victims of a meaningless war. What these unfortunate people had lost was unimaginable – loss of lives, homes and livelihoods, further accompanied by injury and disability, trauma, multiple displacements, broken families, disruption of education of their children and an uncertain future.
Caritas Sri Lanka, the social arm of the Church, like the pillar of cloud that went before the marching Israelites freed from bondage in Egypt, has maintained its ministry of presence in numerous ways among the people who were experiencing immense suffering and hardships owing to the unfortunate war. As the war finally ended in May 2009, leaving a trail of destruction of life and property, while ripping apart the fabric of human dignity. Caritas Sri Lanka backed by its vast experience in reconciliation and rebuilding, fully supported by Caritas International Federation worldwide and other international partners, successfully implemented numerous programmes to rebuild the lives of the people.
The presence of the Church in the North was a tower of strength to the people in their struggles and difficulties. The Church also lost ten priests in the North and East and several more continue to suffer the wounds in their bodies. Remembering the shepherds who laid down their lives for their flock were Rev. Fr. Mary Bastian and Rev. Fr. Nicola Pillai Pakiaranjith of the Mannar Diocese; Rev. Fr. M.X. Karunarathnam of the Northeast Secretariat of Human Rights; Rev. Fr. Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown and Rev. Fr. Mariampillai Taddeus Sarathjeevan of the Jaffna Diocese; Rev. Fr. Chandra Fernando and Rev. Fr. S. Selvarajah of the Batticaloa Diocese and Rev. Fr. Eugene John Herbert, a Jesuit human rights activist in Batticalao who went missing without a trace. Special mention has to be made about the Director of Caritas HUDEC Vanni, Rev. Fr. Wasantha Seelan whose leg had to be amputated due to an injury when he was caught in the crossfire, and also of the two staff members of Caritas HUDEC Jaffna who lost their lives in the line of duty.
Many volunteers and staff of the Caritas Diocesan Centres were also true shepherds who served the people with much dedication while undergoing severe harassment and suffering as well as facing danger to their own lives. Caritas Sri Lanka saw the face of the suffering Christ in all those whom it cared for.
Thanks to our international partners, material assistance in the form of relief, water & sanitation, health care, psychosocial interventions and educational assistance were provided. This helped Caritas staff to keep the survivors alive and access to their basic needs until they were relieved from impending death and composed themselves towards normalcy. This phase of Caritas humanitarian services was initiated at Menik Farm in the District of Vavuniya where a welfare centre was set up to screen the war refugees. Thousands of men, women, youth, children and the invalid were accommodated in the welfare centre. Both Caritas National and Diocesan staff worked against time spending sleepless nights making arrangements to supply cooked meals, access to drinking water, construction of temporary toilets, coordination with like-minded service providers and provision of clothing, etc. This later paved the way for gradual batch-by-batch resettlement of the refugees in their places of origin.
The Bishops visited the IDP camps to inquire into the plight of the people and to offer comfort and assurances of their continuing advocacy with relevant officials to resettle them in their own lands. Days unfolded as weeks into months and finally the Government began the resettlement programme. In a strongly-worded statement the Bishops’ Conference urged the Government to take immediate measures to restore normalcy in these areas and also requested the officials to restore the places of worship providing opportunities for the suffering people to seek spiritual solace.
The next phase of Caritas’ service began in the resettlement villages. These villages appeared as ‘ghost towns’ and the staff of Caritas Valvuthayam in Mannar had to work from scratch in rebuilding the infrastructure and livelihood sources. Working closely with international and UN agencies, Caritas set up temporary shelters and as time passed by, these were converted into permanent houses.
In the Dioceses of Anuradhapura, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee, altogether temporary or transitional shelters were provided to more than 2,400 families; permanent core houses with latrines to nearly 2,500 families and repairs to houses belonging to another 209 families.
The scars of war were very much evident on the faces of all returnees and many were suffering from various levels of depression, trauma, hopelessness and war weariness. Long years of repeated displacements naturally resulted in families unable to face up to the challenges of life. Recognizing the destructive effects of predicament of the IDPs, Caritas launched several capacity building programmes which included psychosocial interventions to address these issues. Under its programme “Integral Human Development through Community Empowerment” (2010-2013) covering all the Church Dioceses, Caritas encouraged the formation of small Self Help Groups (SHGs) which have been further strengthened later to join as Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and function independently. At the end of programme in March 2014 there were 1,336 SHGs and 162 CBOs all over the island.
Over the past few years, Caritas has established 40 peace villages in all 9 provinces of the island and it continues to work on peace building, healing and reconciliation. Exposure visits are being arranged between the Tamil communities in the North with Sinhala communities in the South and vise-versa which have resulted in establishing strong bonds of friendship among the participating groups.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES ……..