Catholics of Sri Lanka revere the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu at Madhu Church in the north-western district of Mannar and go to her alter to offer prayers. Antonia Pillai, a repeatedly displaced and desperate Tamil refugee, decided to turn to someone living when the military told her about the VIP visitor and instructed her to board a bus and head to the church on Wednesday morning.
As she took out her only clean `sari’ and put oil in her hair, Pillai decided to tell President Mahinda Rajapaksa what fellow inmates in her camp needed. Rajapaksa visited the church on Wednesday – the first by a President since Premadasa’s visit in the early ‘90s – and quietly sat inside for 45 minutes as hymns were sung, incense sticks and candles were lit and commandos in red berets stood guard outside.
``More regular rations. More dry milk powder and more medicines. We are given rations for one week and have to wait if it finishes in the middle (of the week),’’ Pillai said in Tamil.
Many more came with prayers and hopes. For elderly Julia Amma, the unbearable crave was to return home. She’s heard that people were being sent back but is waiting her turn.
``Though the number of people in the camps have reduced, the situation is not good. They long to get back,’’ Father Devarajah from the church said.
For some, like Sridhar and his wife Ajanta, the freedom to move out of camps was a step forward. ``The situation has improved,’’ Sridhar said.
It could not be known whether Pillai got her audience with Rajapaksa when he mingled with the 1000-odd Tamil refugees gathered dutifully inside the church. But Rajapaksa made promises when he addressed a group of Tamils – again a first for him since the refugee camps were set up – in the Zone 2 camp inside the Manik Farm complex few hours later.
Rajapaksa’s speech began in Sinhala and but ended in Tamil and applause. He promised development to the community, ``enslaved for 30 years’’, houses and jobs for the displaced, education for their children and a united Sri Lanka under one flag. The President promised to resettle the remaining displaced by January 31.
``We only have 94000 (refugees) left in the camps now. We should be able to do it (resettle them) as the President promised,’’ GA Chandrasiri, northern province governor, said.
Earlier in the morning, Rajapaksa also made promises to look after the families of war heroes who died fighting the LTTE. He unveiled – again a first – the ``Victory Monument’’ in Puthukkudiyirippu (PTK), barely a kilometre away from the Nandikanthal lagoon where hundreds of combatants died in fighting in the last few days of war.
The area around the monument, which rises out of a pond, was devastated in the war; six months later a new parade square, a war souvenir centre, a helicopter pad and the soft gurgle of the pool have replaced the burnt down trees, the houses without roofs and the thuds of heavy artillery.
The soldiers said they were mighty pleased with Rajapaksa’s speech. A certain former soldier should also be grudgingly happy: general Sarath Fonseka, along with the President and defence secretary Gotabhaya, gets a pat for ``decisive command and military leadership’’ in the war against the LTTE in a booklet on the monument.