Train of Brotherhood building bridges between north and south

By Kavan Ratnatunga

The collection stall was open for five days in front of the Colombo Fort Railway Station. A poor schoolchild may have contributed a bottle of water and even beggars were seen to give a few rupees. The thought and the motivation to contribute were as important as the contribution itself.

The "Train of Brotherhood" collected about four wagons of public contributions while travelling from Matara to Medawachchchiya during the weekend of November 22 and 23. The goods valued at around Rs. 20 million were distributed at Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and to soldiers on the front-line.

Handling the logistics of the ‘Train’ was the ManelMal movement led by S. L. Gunasekara while the grassroots organization was by the National Freedom Front (NFF). There was no attempt to canvass for large donations, but rather the focus was on collecting as many small contributions as possible.

The train left Colombo at 2.30 a.m., arriving in Matara just after 5 a.m. The city was still asleep but the local organizers were already at the station. After a short ceremony with a few speeches and blessings from the monks, the train left around 7.30 a.m.

They were not expecting to make any collection at the short stops into Galle but people had come to the stations with contributions. On the way back at Galle, a small multi-religious ceremony was held with representatives from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim faiths.

The Railway Department had allocated two rail wagons, each holding five lorry loads of goods. As these two wagons filled up during the trip back to Colombo, Railways General Manager Lalithasiri Gunaruwan authorized two more rail wagons to be attached the next day on the way from Colombo to Medawachchiya.

These two extra wagons too were almost full when the train reached its destination on Sunday evening, and the goods were handed over to the Army for distribution, since it is not easy for a civilian organization to operate in those regions.

As the organizers wanted to distribute a token amount themselves, we left the train at Galle and drove to Vauniya. All vehicles are fully checked at the Medawachchiya check point, after which there were many security checks as we drove toward Vauniya. We checked in at the Army Camp, at which Lt. Col. Anil Amarasekara had been many years ago the commanding officer.

Next morning he gifted a large roll of black polythene used to keep the soldiers dry during the rainy season at the Army camp as a token of what was to come by train. We then drove toward Mannar to visit two IDP camps.

I remember travelling this way by train in 1978 on my way to the Talaimannar pier to catch the ferry into Rameshwaram. That service was halted few years later, but now the railway line does not exist.

All I saw was the bund and shells of buildings that were formerly rail stations. The terrorists and subsequently the Army had used all of the rail tracks and sleepers to build bunkers. There were security bunkers about every 100 metres on both sides of the road that had been the border after the 2002 cease fire agreement (CFA).

Both sides of the road had been cleared and some of it was being cultivated. The power-line was using barbed wire connected along the posts used for the telephone line. The electricity loss along the line is probably huge. We passed the road to Madhu. The gateway arch had been renovated, but the road was closed since that region had not been completely de-mined.

Just beyond Murunkan, we left the main road and travelled south-west to get to the IDP camps. The first IDP camp at Kalimoddai in Puliyankulam houses about 200 families with a population of about 450. The camp has 50 large tents and about 100 cadjan shacks, each about 300 square feet (25x12 feet). It has been operational for eight months. In front of the communal toilet were two large billboards put up by Sarvodaya with illustrations on proper use of toilets, as well as personal hygiene.

We distributed powdered milk for the women, sarongs for the men and toys for the children. Mr. Gunasekera explained the aim and source of this gift from the south and why we need to work as brothers of a single nation.

A resident translated what was said in Sinhala into Tamil. A few of the residents felt they were being kept in captivity and asked when they could leave the camp. Others understood the security concerns.

The next camp, about a kilometre away had been operational for 20 months. It had 150 families (some 350 people) living in about 100 large tents and cadjan shacks. We met again at the community hall and distributed the toys and few of the other items, but left it to the Army to distribute the goods brought in from the train in a more equitable way to the residents.  

While the battle is being won on the front-line, winning the war will require gaining the confidence of those who have been liberated from the LTTE. The "Train of Brotherhood" in addition to helping the IDP in camps, and the soldiers on the front-line, gave the opportunity for the general public in the south to help those in the north. The awareness created among the public and their sensitivity to the cause, was amply measured by the very large collection made.

-- This article appears only in the web edition. --

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