17th February 2002

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Bleak future for bomb victim's family

By Esther Williams
The little boy smiled brightly before running into the roughly built wooden shack. Peeping from behind the door, "Mummy's not here," he called out. The unusually slender limbs, dark circles around the eyes and almost bald head of the frail child spoke of an illness that had stalked him - the dreaded cancer.

"This is one of his better days," remarked Amita Silva, his mother as she walked in. Dinujaya was apparently born with a malignant tumour in the abdomen. Having been diagnosed a couple of years ago, the seven-year-old now has to go into the Cancer Institute, Maharagama every month. Over the 10-day period that he is usually there, he is given chemotherapy that is administered through injections. 

Although Dinujaya was operated on earlier, there is a possibility of the tumour spreading. "We are yet to scan to see if he is responding to the chemotherapy," says Dr. Aruna Wijeratna, the child's physician from the Cancer Institute. "If the growth cannot be controlled, we may need to resort to radiotherapy," he continues. 

Spending ten days every month with Dinujaya at the hospital, Amita is unable to take on any regular job. Her other children Nadisha, 10 and Chamath, 9, schooling at Buddhist Balika and Science College respectively, are invariably left to the neighbours' care for food and other necessities.

D. M. Ranjith, father of the children who was injured during the suicide bomb attack that killed the late Minister C. V. Gunaratne is unable to contribute much to the family coffers. He cannot use his right arm now, cannot grip or do any manual work. The Tristar Garment factory where he worked as a canteen helper refused to take him back after the accident. He was given Rs. 30,000 as compensation which soon dwindled away with so many mouths to feed. 

Their present abode, put together with planks of wood may not provide sufficient protection in rough weather. Into it are crammed old pieces of furniture, and many framed pictures, an indication of their having seen better days. To make matters worse, the CEB last week cut their electricity connection, as they failed to pay up the loan taken a few years back from the Peoples' Bank. They had paid part of the sum in monthly deposits of Rs. 300/- each time, but there was more pending and despite repeated appeals to the Bank to waive the remaining amount, there was no relief. However, the Bank has now graciously agreed to consider the case favourably on humanitarian grounds and Dinujaya and family will now have their electricity connection restored. 

What the future holds for them is hard to predict. Silver Hands, a group of eight women pensioners has pledged to assist them but the path ahead is a hard one.

Priest of peace

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
He has seen many chapters unfold in Sri Lanka's long and arduous struggle for peace. Fr. Alfred Alexander has been a peace activist for nearly 20 years, trying to bridge the chasm between the Sinhalese in the south and the Tamils in the north, by taking people, the clergy including Buddhist monks and the laity including politicians and civilians, back and forth between Jaffna and Colombo. "I took them to the jungles to see the reality on the other side," he says. 

Born in Jaffna and educated at St. Patrick's College, Fr. Alexander, 60, is now the Regional Superior of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and is based at St. Philip de Neri's Church in the Pettah.

Passionate about the current peace moves, he stresses that they are "radically different" to all other attempts in the past. "There is absolute sincerity on the part of the government. Ample efforts are being made and very positive signals being given to the other side to dispel doubts," he says.

Yes, he has spoken to the Tiger leadership, the people, non-governmental organizations et al in the north who feel that it is a genuine attempt on the part of the government to resolve this conflict. 

This priest of peace who has visited Jaffna thrice in the past month alone, spells out the signals the barricades have been removed, embargoes have been lifted. "Travelling to the north has been made easier. The hazards have been eased," he says.

And the signals are being reciprocated by the LTTE. The ceasefire has held and been renewed. Detainees are being released. "There is a climate of trust. This has been strengthened by the fact that the government has reintroduced Norway and Erik Solheim as the facilitator. That was a tremendous thing." The comparison comes easily. It's like a husband and wife who are having problems. They seek an intermediary who has no prejudices against either side to find a win-win solution. 

What of the very sensitive issue of de-proscription of the LTTE? "If the government and people think and feel the LTTE is genuine in their participation, de-proscription would help," says Fr. Alexander. "A situation of this sort is a win-win process. There are no victors or vanquished. One party coming to the peace table should not be handcuffed. It may be helpful to go that extra mile to undo obstacles. I don't think the LTTE is demanding it, only saying that it would be good if the government does it."

Harking back to 1994 when President Chandrika Kumaratunga swept into power, he says the people of Jaffna were hopeful of seeing an end to the conflict. But the then government did not treat it as a priority. Now, however, the picture has changed. The LTTE, in a sense is constrained to accept the olive branch because the present government is going out of its way to give peace a chance. 

On the demand for a separate state of Eelam, Fr. Alexander says it is understood that there will never be Eelam, the need is "a certain amount of autonomy". In his Heroes' Day speech, Prabhakaran indicated that something acceptable to the Tamils would be the answer. 

Getting to the root of the matter, this priest says that what Sri Lankans aspire to as a nation is peace. But peace is tied up with the economy, for the happiness of the people depends on routine matters such as job opportunities and money for daily living. 

Society is made up of different cultures, races and religions. "What we need is a stable economy and stable peace. For a stable economy, the war must be stopped. Violence will cease when the causes are identified." 

Categorical about removing all negative influences which could derail the peace process, he says there is no Tiger conscription in the north but there seems to be a little bit of it in the east. "Perceptions are different. Having a 'notion' that there is conscription is different to the reality. It is not happening in the north, but there seems to be some activity in the east. It is not the time to do it. We beg of them to stop."

Voicing the Catholic Church's stance he adds, "The ethnic issue needs to be settled allowing the rights of the people, all people, to live with dignity."

Gamini Punchihewa on a landmark in the history of Henerathgoda Botanical Gardens

Where Asia's rubber first took root

The seminal source for the propagation of the rubber industry in Ceylon at the Henerathgoda Botanical Gardens (Gampaha) was the Royal Kew Gardens in England. 

The home of para rubber was the Amazon jungle in the Tapahos Plateau in South America. 

The rulers of the Amazon territory at the time did not permit foreigners to take away any seeds or plants that were native to their forests for propagation elsewhere. So it was without their knowledge that an adventurous young Englishman named Sir Henry Wickham smuggled some thousands of these para rubber seeds to the Royal Kew Gardens in England. Here the seeds germinated. But of the thousands of smuggled seeds, only a small fraction grew into maturity. 

It was on September 9, 1876 that the H.M.S. Duke of Devonshire left the shores of England on her voyage to Ceylon. 

The ship carried a load of para seedlings packed in '38 Wardian Cases'. Altogether 1919 such seedlings belonging to the species Hevea braziliensis were sent to Ceylon. Unloaded in the Colombo Harbour, they were first taken to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (established in 1822 ). 

But the authorities were of the view that the best place for planting these seedlings was the Henerathgoda Botanical Gardens established in 1876. The climatic conditions that prevailed in Gampaha were said to be quite similar to that of the Tapahos Plateau in the Amazon. Sad to say later this particular para rubber tree species, native to the Amazon, had to be exterminated as they were infected with the dreaded fungal disease called Microcyclos ulei (the South American Leaf Blight). 

An enterprising pioneer planter of the time Mudliyar A. de Soysa became the first curator entrusted with laying out the gardens for the planting of these para rubber seedlings in 1876. This was carried out under the able guidance of Dr. Thwaites, the then Director of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. 

Much to everybody's joy, the rubber seedlings began to flower in 1881. 

This became the launching pad for the distribution of these para rubber seedlings, to other countries like Singapore, Burma, India, Australia, Jamaica, Fiji, Borneo, East Africa, Uganda, Sumatra. Ceylon came to be known as 'The Cradle of the Asian Rubber Industry set up in 1876'. A name board to this effect is displayed in the roundabout terrace of the gardens. 

Visiting the Henerathgoda Botanical Gardens, I met the present curator D.H.A. Paramunugama. November 28, 2001 was a significant day in the history of the gardens, as the planting of the second generation of para rubber trees was held there before foreign delegates drawn from countries like Britain, Burma, India, Australia, Jamaica, Fiji, Borneo, East Africa, Uganda, Sumatra and Borneo. This ceremonial tree planting ceremony was done by the Department of Agriculture in collaboration with the Sri Rubber Cluster and the Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka. The species of the second new generation of para rubber (Hevea brasiliensis germplasm) which has been collected from Brazil recently by an international team, was planted at this ceremony. It coincided with the 125th anniversary of the planting of the first para rubber plant seedlings, Hevea brasiliensis in 1876. 

Mr. Paramunugama said that the first para rubber tree No. 1 planted in 1876, had died about fifty years ago but the No. 2 para rubber tree also planted in 1876, withstood the rigours of time. It was unfortunately destroyed by a cyclone in 1988. The spot where this tree stood is still evident from the gnarled trunk roots. 

A name board indicates its birth and death.

Mr. Paramunugama also showed us a few of those original para rubber trees planted in 1876 that are still standing. There is one such towering tree with a girth of 5.9 metres (19 feet), and a height of 41.0 metres (130 feet). 

A portrait of the late Mudaliyar Soysa is kept in the curator's office amidst other memorabilia. 

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