ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 45

Missing and in action

Away from New Year celebrations and loved ones, those in the essential services work on

By Dhananjani Silva, Nadia Fazlulhaq and Isuri Kaviratne

The countdown has begun, with Avurudu just around the corner. The bright red erabadu is in full bloom while the call of the koha fills the air.

Houses have been colour-washed, sweetmeats such as kavum, kokis and athiraha prepared, new clothes stitched in blue and elders have collected shiny coins or crisp notes to hand over to children when they pay obeisance.

All is set for the Sinhala and Hindu New Year which dawns on Saturday, April 14 at 12.29 p.m. As people go to the temple or the kovil during the nonagathe (when work ceases), light the hearth at the auspicious time, boil milk and sit down at the heavily-laden table to eat a piece of kiri-bath, there will be those who are “missing” from the customs and the celebrations.

They are those who will be away from their homes and loved ones, performing essential duties, even as the whole country puts up shutters and awaits the New Year.

Yes, they are the medical personnel like doctors, nurses and other staff, security forces personnel, fire fighters and those who maintain vital services like electricity and water, to name a few. The Sunday Times spoke to a cross-section of these men and women who place duty above family.

“Ninety-nine percent of security forces personnel will be on the field. They will not be going home for the New Year,” says Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe, Military Media Spokesperson, reiterating, “That’s the commitment we have for the country. It is only if we do our duty properly that others will be able to celebrate Avurudu peacefully.”

The families of soldiers sacrifice more than the soldier himself because they don’t insist that he come home for the New Year, he says, explaining that soldiers don’t consider working during the Avurudu as discrimination but take it as a challenge. “We are proud that we have been called to work,” he says.

Soldiers do celebrate Avurudu in the camps but those at the front can’t, according to him. “In areas like Vakarai, the soldiers will celebrate Avurudu with the civilians,” he says.
All naval personnel on 24-hour duty know their chances of spending the New Year with their families are very slim, adds Lieutenant Commander Rohan Joseph. “Some naval officers stay on base to protect the land while others are out at sea. Though it is difficult to follow all the rituals and customs, they have some sort of celebration wherever they are.”

Dr. Chandrani Gunasekera

Performing another essential service are medical personnel and Dr. (Mrs.) Chandrani Gunasekera who is in charge of the OPD of the Castle Street Hospital has been working on New Year’s day almost every year of her 20 years of service.

“Just because it is the New Year, we cannot ignore emergency cases. Even the kitchen has to function to provide food for the patients while the transport section works too,” she says.

Checking on a patient at the Neurosurgical ICU

Although it is important to follow the traditions and rituals at least once a year, a patient’s life is more important and valuable, she says. “The sense of satisfaction we get by attending to a patient is immense.”

Speaking about the reactions of family and friends, Dr. Gunasekera says that her husband, despite being in a different field, understands the nature of her job.“My daughter too is coping fairly well, being a medical student she too will have to face the same situation someday. We visit our parents as is customary a few days after the New Year.”

A similar view is expressed by nurses too who feel that their first duty is to their patients.“My priority is my duty at the hospital. My family comes second,” stresses Senior Nursing Officer Kanthi Hapuarachchi of the National Hospital’s Emergency Accident Ward/OPD. “Our family members too have adjusted to the situation. Even my children say that amma’s children are at the hospital,” she laughs.

The Accident Ward of the OPD is the busiest ward even on New Year’s day with a large number coming in with fire cracker burns or after being injured in drunken driving accidents, according to Ms. Hapuarachchi. “We lay out a table of kavum and kiribath and the patients feel good to know that we are with them on that day.”

Senior Nursing Officer Kanthi Hapuarachchi

Being on duty for the first time in her life this Avurudu, Nursing Officer Lakshmi Seneviratne of the Radiology Unit of NHSL who has taken up an appointment as a nurse recently feels it is not difficult as she is unmarried and without many responsibilities. “My parents are unhappy that I will not be celebrating Avurudu with them. I too will feel bad when I hear the crackers,” she says.

There is a note of regret when A.D. Jayatissa, section head of Fire Brigade Headquarters in Colombo talks of the Avurudu celebrations. “It is sad when the neighbourhood children go to temple, perform all the rituals and then celebrate the New Year with their fathers, that my children are compelled to go without me since I am on duty.”

Having 27 years of experience, Mr. Jayatissa had to face punishment for taking leave on New Year’s day when he was 16, after joining as a cadet officer.

“I had to work on Avurudu but I was young and being close to my family I had a sudden desire to visit my parents. I forgot all about how important this work is. My promotion was cancelled for that slip-up,” he says with a smile, adding that later he felt passionate about his job. Now he works on most Avurudu days.

“This is not a job a single person can handle even on New Year’s day. We are assigned different duties and if one person is absent it’s hard to handle an emergency. So all of us are united,” he says.

Around 50 firemen will be on duty on New Year’s day. Firemen, who belong to other religions, work extra shifts thereby allowing Sinhala and Tamil firefighters some time with their families, says Mr. Jayatissa.

“We do celebrate Avurudu and have a good time though we are not with our families. We prepare milk-rice and get sweets and make sure most of the rituals are performed,” says this father of two.

Duty before family seems to be their laudable motto.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.