On the same afternoon both Richard and Michael told me that the Sunday Island editor had asked them if they were interested in going on a media trip to the north. For some bizarre reason that I cannot fathom they both declined.
When I heard that there was a trip up north I went straight up to the editor and asked him about it, as it has been a wish of mine to go to the north since I arrived. Apparently he was concerned about my feminine abilities to ‘rough it out’. I assured him that I had no problem ‘roughing it out’ and was very interested in going. He agreed to try and get me on the trip.
24 hours later after numerous calls, several forwarded documents and a number of promises I received ministry and military clearance to go to the north. The government are not allowing many foreign journalists to the north and former LTTE zones as reporters had written negative reports on the government, in particular in relation to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. I had to give my word not to write anything negative about the government to send home or abroad.
So Thursday night I got on a bus, 17 guys and myself, from Colombo to Madhu. We arrived at 6.30am in the morning after passing through hundreds of checkpoints along the way which only increased in number once we entered the LTTE and former war zone.
We stayed in a place about 30 minutes away from Madhu, where the religious festival was being held, called Don Bocso. It is a Christian centre run by the church which was set up by the missionaries of an Italian priest, Don Bosco.
Around 160 boys lived and went to school in the centre. 60 of these boys are orphaned Tamils, between 12 and 17 from the IDP camps. I was talking to one of the priests at the centre and he was telling me that the boys from the IDP camps are sent there by the courts. They are expecting another 300 boys to come once their new building is completed. The boys from the camps take a long time to settle in and adjust to the secure and warm environment. After years of living in the camps and in the middle of a war with the constant possibility of being abducted by the Tamils to become child soldiers, they have been traumatised and deeply scared. Their stories are horrific and very traumatic.
Some of the boys could speak a bit of English and a number of them came up to talk to me, curious to know where I came from. They were very polite and friendly. The centre has a school for the boys and the older ones can attend the technological centre or learn a trade so that they learn a skill and have an opportunity to find work on leaving. There was also a newly established bakery where some of the boys worked, making delicious homemade bread which they distribute in the surrounding area. The smell of freshly baked bread was mouth-watering and wafted through the centre all day long.
During the festival, as accommodation in the area was so scarce, the centre was putting up many people.The guys all slept in one big room but being female they ran around to get a room ready for me. My room had a bathroom attached and a shower which consisted of a large bucket of water and a small bucket for sloshing the water over yourself; a novel way of showering.
In the north the population is primarily made up of Tamils the majority of whom are Hindu’s and the minority Christians. Most of them cannot speak Sinhalese, never mind English. They are kind people, but you can see the effect of the long years of war in their faces, in their slightly guarded and weary demeanours.
It is strange how Sinhalese and Tamils, despite living in the same country and being of the same nationality, cannot speak each other’s language.