Away from the limelight, the forgotten Vakarai

By Kavan Ratnatunga

It was liberated from the LTTE just over 20 months ago in January, 2007. Now, Vakarai on the east coast of Lanka is no longer in the limelight. The politicians have come and gone, the photo-opportunities all exhausted. The media are focusing on the warfront which is now in the north of Lanka. Vakarai’s over 20,000 residents have almost been forgotten, at a time when they most need continued assistance to regain a normal lifestyle.

I had not travelled to this region of Lanka for over 35 years. On October 24, I took the opportunity to visit Vakarai with the Thawalama Development Foundation which is dedicated to helping the residents of the north-east to recover from the ravages of terrorism. We were travelling there to hand over urgently needed mattresses, pillows and bed linen to the Vakarai Hospital, a gift sponsored by SPUR in New Zealand.

New houses but no occupants

Vakarai, in the northern part of the Batticaloa District is about 300 km north east of Colombo and takes about eight hours by road. Driving past Polonnaruwa, which is the furthest destination of most tourists, we crossed the border into the Eastern Province. The road toward the coast was being newly carpeted with aid from China. With a smooth surface and less traffic on the road, we were able to reach our destination at about 2 p.m, sooner than anticipated. The only delay was the frequent army checkpoints.
We checked in at the Army Brigade 233 Headquarters at Vakarai that had facilitated the programme.

With a few hours to spare, we decided to travel north toward Kadiraveli to try and locate the neolithic graveyard described in the "Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller". Unfortunately, even after many chats with the locals, the site could not be located. After being preserved for almost 3000 years, the flat stone slabs may have probably been dismantled for houses or LTTE bunker construction. The only ruins we saw were some old steps carved on a large boulder that is still used as a look-out post.

We travelled a few kilometres further north up to Verugul Aru, which still needs to be crossed by ferry to the Trincomalee district. There is a steel cable stretched across the river and the ferry which can accommodate a bus or two smaller vehicles is pulled across by hand along this cable.

Returning to Vakarai, we travelled by boat across the lagoon to the sand bar. There is only a Navy watch point here. The hotel had been completely washed away by the tsunami in 2004. It was low tide, and the broad expanse of beach had many nice shells. We spotted a few crabs scuttling into the sea. The Vakarai Rest House had been famous for the fresh crabs it served.

Cell phone coverage was limited to a few places which had been identified. Most interesting was a large tree near where you could receive Mobitel calls. Dialog was only available from the top of the tree, to which the soldiers had constructed a ladder along the branches. A new Dialog tower had been recently built, but not yet activated.

Next morning we visited the District Hospital, which serves not only the Vakarai residents but also the nearby communities who don't even have the limited facilities available at Vakarai. About 150 OPD patients come in each day, and the wards are generally full. However, most patients except the seriously ill had been discharged, since they preferred not to be in hospital during the Deepavali festival. All the residents in Vakarai are Tamil and mostly Hindu.

There is only one doctor in residence at the hospital. Dr. Himal Punchihewa has been there for about a year. Most employees who are sent to the hospital, use some influence to get transferred out to larger centres like Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Although sufficient equipment has been given, they lack many drugs and consumables and also, the services of a female doctor which is particularly important in this culture.

The wards are furnished with steel beds covered with only a thin Macintosh. Each ward has the name of one of the NGOs operating in the region. The Doctor mentioned that though there had been many promises, by NGOs and persons who had visited the hospital, most did not materialize. He welcomed this donation, which he said was the first that the hospital had received from a Sinhala organization.
The North East Housing Reconstruction Programme (NEHRP) is supporting the reconstruction of some 46,000 houses in the north-east. Closer to Vakarai, we saw that most of the bullet-ridden houses had been demolished, replaced by large estates with newly built houses, brightly painted in a full spectrum of colours. Most have a large NEHRP logo painted in white on the tiled roof, which will someday be visible internationally through Google Earth. The children’s playground seemed a popular spot.
However, most of the new houses are still unoccupied. The recipients are living in small shacks on the side of the building, where they feel more at home. The new house was often used only for storage. Maybe it had not been built with the proper cultural values and customs.

On the trip back, we had to pass through a major checkpoint near Manampitiya. All vehicles are thoroughly inspected and all lorries completely unloaded, leading to long queues. All persons with bags have to walk through and be searched.

Passing Ibbankatuwa just south of Dambulla, we stopped briefly at the neolithic graveyard which has been carbon-dated to a few centuries before the arrival of Vijaya to Lanka. Although poorly sign-posted by the Archaeological Department, we were glad that the site was being protected, unlike the other site north of Vakarai.

Vakarai is a community struggling to regain normalcy and requires all the help it can get if we are to preserve the peace that has now been established.

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