Deep in the war zones of the world, in the dangerous pockets that most Westerners choose to forget about, Jason Thomas does his best work. Maybe it’s the thrill of living every day on edge, or maybe it’s the excitement of going where few people in their right mind would dare to venture, but the higher the travel warning, the more likely Jason is to go there. That’s why he recently spent a year in Afghanistan managing a large aid team, and that’s why, when the Boxing Day tsunami devastated Asia in 2004, his response was to deliver medical aid right to the heart of what was then the war zone in Sri Lanka.
“I chose that part of the affected areas of the tsunami because nobody was really focusing on it,” the independent Australian aid worker said of his choice to go to Sri Lanka of all the affected countries.
“I like going places where people don’t like going, so I chose the civil war area up in the North,” he said.
It took a lot of negotiating, and what Jason describes as a “strong relationship” with the Australian and Sri Lankan governments, but after he’d gained their trust, Jason was allowed access to the disputed territories in Sri Lanka, a region of the world that very few foreigners have seen since the start of the war in 1983.
While his original mission was to offer a “large, private response” to the devastation caused by the tsunami, Jason quickly realised that the troubles in northern Sri Lanka went far beyond the damage caused by that single natural disaster.
“The tsunami really just opened briefly the world’s eyes to how bad things were in the part of the world anyway,” Jason said.
In fact, Jason described the impact of the Sri Lankan civil war as “as bad, if not worse, than the tsunami.” Given that the tsunami killed 35,000 Sri Lankans and left hundreds of thousands more without homes, this is not a comparison he makes lightly.
“It’s a mass of deprived humanity,” he said. “There’s people, some of them for the last 30 years, who have been tormented by civil war and deprivation that most of us here just couldn’t comprehend.”
“I was in a camp with 85,000 people who had pretty poor access to the basics of life,” he said.
The “basics of life” that these people don’t have include homes, schools, and, perhaps most importantly, proper medical facilities.
“There is a hospital in Mannar (on the north-east coast) but it’s pretty bad — it’s probably one of the worst hospitals you could visit in Sri Lanka,” Jason said.
“The hospitals can provide basic equipment and basic support but … it’s just like after tsunami. The hospitals are absolutely overrun, overwhelmed with people who need all sorts of medical support, and psychological support too,” he said.
It’s been 18 months today since the end of the war, and although access to the previously isolated northern parts of Sri Lanka is much better, there are still significant problems to be dealt with.
Dr Quintus De Zylva, a Sri Lankan ex-pat who now lives in Melbourne, founded the Australia Sri Lanka Medical Aid Team (AuSLMAT) in response to the 2004 tsunami, and along with his team of medical aid workers makes regular, self-funded trips back to the country of his birth. He believes that, in terms of what the Government is doing, not much has changed since the bullets stopped.
“The end of the war has brought a lot of frustration,” Dr De Zylva said. “People make out that all the money that was going to the war front should now really have been directed to the poor people, even down south, but that hasn’t really filtered through as yet.”
Dr De Zylva is sceptical as to whether this money is ever likely to get where it is needed.
“Like in a lot of Asian countries, the feeling is that this Rajapaksa regime has taken corruption to a new height,” he said.
Despite the work he and his team have been doing for years, Dr De Zylva feels that the Sri Lankan Government doesn’t really appreciate the help.
“The gratitude that is shown to us is chiefly from the points where we deliver the aid, but higher up in the Government, I don’t think it matters to them,” he said.
He is also wary of the belief that the end of the war has changed the Government’s attitude towards the Tamil people. While many are optimistic of an egalitarian future in Sri Lanka, Dr De Zylva expects that discrimination against the Tamil people will continue at the same level as before the war.
“I don’t think it’ll stop,” he said.
He cites a recent example in which a UN aid worker had delivered 25 tractors to be donated to Tamil farmers in northern Sri Lanka, only to have her efforts undermined by the Government.
“The local politician stepped in and said ‘I need half of those’, and there was a photograph of this girl from the UN crying beside her Jeep,” Dr De Zylva said. “After having got the tractors there, she was not allowed to distribute them and decide who should get the tractors.”
Not all Sri Lankans share Dr De Zylva’s sombre postwar outlook, however.
Rankiri Gunatillake, a Sri Lankan with a keen interest in politics, is optimistic about the future of his country. Gunatillake migrated to Australia just as the civil war was heating up in the early ’80s to protect his family, but has since moved back and is now living permanently in Sri Lanka. He is full of praise for the Government’s efforts in ending the war, and believes that the country has already taken big steps forward.
“I have only seen progress towards peace,” Gunatillake said. “(The Tamils) are now trying to co-operate with the Government to get the best services in the area.”
Contrary to what Dr De Zylva has observed in the healthcare field, Gunatillake has seen evidence of pro-active Government support for the Tamil people.
“They are being helped by the Sri Lankan Government,” he said. “I think they sent about 10 or 15 trucks in the last few months with school books and things like that so that they are getting to read, like the other people in the other parts of the country.
“These things are happening, and the Tamil people up in the north are very happy about that. I am living there and I see these things happening every day.”
Gunatillake feels that the international media outlets, many of which are sceptical of the Government’s credibility, are portraying postwar Sri Lanka in an unfairly negative light.
“I beg to disagree with everything that is being said in the foreign press,” Gunatillake said. “And I am a local person who knows.”
Jason Thomas is not a local, but he knows too. He’s been in Afghanistan for the past year, but the time he spent in the north in the months just after the end of the war suggested to him that improvement in the war-ravaged area will be a slow process.
“The problem is that they’re now trying to run provincial government services without the financial base of a taxpaying community,” he said. “There’s poor infrastructure, a lack of investment over 30 or 40 years, poor roads, poor electricity, an agricultural base that has been destroyed through irrigation systems being blown up, minefields, unexploded ordnances, and people who have been farming on a subsistence basis rather than having an agricultural economy they can use for trade.”
It’s a long list of problems. Unfortunately, Jason believes that the foreign aid agencies, which could go such a long way to helping solve these problems, might continue to have trouble getting access to the places they’re needed.
“If you’re a foreigner … you’ll have difficulty, because the Government will want to control how things are being allocated,” Jason said. “It wants to claim the credit.
“The Sri Lankan Government is absolutely fanatical about ensuring that the international community has no vision of what is happening in the northern part of Sri Lanka.”
It seems like, at least for the moment, the international community will have to rely on individuals such as Jason to give us a true idea of what is happening in northern Sri Lanka. But regardless of what has progress has been made over the past 18 months, one thing is clear: the scars of a 25-year war don’t heal overnight.