By Corinne Adam
the internal conflict in Sri Lanka continues the ICRC transports
people in need of medical treatment from Jaffna to Colombo
and back. An account of one such voyage.
Colombo, 6 a.m. The town is quiet, for today is Poya,
the feast of the full moon. In front of the delegation of
the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a group
of people is scattered about, waiting. Some have already
taken their seats on the bus, to shelter from the rain.
Eleven patients and as many attendants are about to embark
on a journey. Their friends chatter to them through the
open windows. A child with a band-aged head cries in his
mother’s arms. A Sri Lankan Red Cross (SLRCS) ambulance
carrying a wounded person is ready to go. The ICRC convoy
leader puts the last papers in order and gives the signal
to depart: the time is 6.30.
The four-hour drive to Trincomalee is broken once, for
a one-hour stop to eat in Habarana, a village halfway between
the sacred sites of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Setting
off again, just after the Kantale reservoir, the road starts
to deteriorate. All around, farmers toil in their paddy
fields and yoked cattle work the land. The landscape, dotted
with coconut palms, flattens out, the vegetation begins
to change and then we are crossing wild-elephant territory.
Following this section of the journey, interrupted umpteen
times by Sri Lankan army checkpoints, the vast bay of Trincomalee
– Asia’s largest natural port – comes
into view. The convoy draws to a halt in China Bay, one
of the bay’s three coves.
Java Gulf, a vital link
Docked there is the Java Gulf, a magnificent vessel
painted a flamboyant orange. This high-seas tugboat, designed
initially for the supply and maintenance of oil rigs, has
been refitted to carry passengers and cargo. Equipped with
two motors and two radars, it can easily confront the strong
winds and currents that prevail in the Indian Ocean during
the monsoon. Since June 1997, it has been in the service
of the ICRC, which rents it for US$3,450 a day from an offshore
company in Singapore. A further 2,000 dollars should be
added for each journey it makes, on average a once-weekly
round trip. The boat can carry a maximum of 30 patients,
including their companions, if they are too weak, too young
or too old to travel alone.
The Sri Lankan navy, which maintains a base at the mouth
of the bay, lives in fear of attack. On 18 April 1994, LTTE
(Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) divers sunk three navy
vessels, shattering the cease-fire. Now, navy officials
inspect the entire cargo, a process which takes around two
hours. While each crate, each box of medicines, each one
of the passengers’ meagre belongings are meticulously
searched, the crew busy themselves. The 11 crew members,
made up of Indonesians, Filipinos and Burmese, came with
the boat and have easily integrated themselves into the
Trincomalee community where they are based. Some of them
have married Sri Lankan women and started families. Now,
however, each one is concentrating on the task assigned
to him by the captain: checking machinery, supervising the
cargo or preparing passengers’ meals.
Meanwhile, the patients and their companions have settled
themselves on mattresses spread on the floor of four containers
specifically kitted out for this purpose. Windows have even
been installed. The passengers get comfortable for the crossing,
which will take about 17 hours, men on one side, women and
children on the other. Before setting to sea, the captain
explains how to use the life jackets in case of an emergency.
“What would we do without this boat?”
Aranya is three years old. It is not his first trip. His
mother recounts how it all began when he was three months
old and the doctors in Jaffna discovered he had a heart
defect. A year later he was sent to Colombo’s general
hospital for surgery. He has just undergone his second operation
for which he spent four months in the same hospital. He
will have to do the trip again in six months’ time
for a check-up. She adds: “I don’t know what
we would do without this boat. It is so difficult to come
and go from Jaffna. Before, there was also the plane, but
it was expensive and there were long waiting lists.”
When we asked her how she had heard of the boat, her response
was almost mocking: “Everyone knows about it. We hear
of it on the radio, we read about it in the newspapers.”
The patients, their families and representatives of the
ICRC and SLRCS are not the only ones to travel by this boat.
It also carries members of other humanitarian organizations.
Whilst transport and food are free for the patients and
their families, the ICRC requests a symbolic contribution
from passengers from NGOs active in the Jaffna region.
It is also thanks to this boat that all the medicines and
medical materials supplied by the ministry of health, the
cargo for programmes run by the international organizations
and sacks of mail reach Jaffna. Without this link, the inhabitants
of the peninsula would be cut off from the outside world.
Since 1983, the conflict between the Sri Lankan government
and the LTTE has resulted in the death of over 50,000 people.
Many more have been injured and more than 300,000 remain
Civilians are affected by the low-intensity warfare in
the east, particularly in and around Batticaloa and Trincomalee
but it is in the Vanni jungle region that hostilities are
concentrated. There, the governmental offensives aiming
to establish a route to the Jaffna peninsula through LTTE-controlled
areas are ongoing. Traffic on the road that used to link
Colombo to Jaffna being interrupted, the ICRC boat is the
only independent link between the two parts of the island.
Present in the country since 1989, the ICRC has 48 expatriates
and 270 Sri Lankans working in its offices in Colombo and
11 towns in the north and east of the country. The International
Federation is also present in the country working closely
with the National Society.
For eight years now, both parties to the conflict have benefited
from the boat’s services and have agreed to allow it
to maintain a regular connection between the Jaffna peninsula
and the rest of the island. In order to do so, the ICRC must
notify the ministry of defence and the LTTE of each trip the
boat makes and provide a list of all passengers. For security
reasons, it was agreed that the Java Gulf should
sail more than 65 kilometres off the coast, outside territorial
At last, the port of Kankesanturai is in sight. Before approaching
the peninsula, the Java Gulf drops anchor several
miles offshore so that navy divers can ensure – as they
had already done in Trincomalee – that no mines had
been attached to the boat’s hull. Once the check is
over, the passengers are able to disembark in Kankesanturai,
from where they are taken home by bus.
On 29 September 1998, a Lionair plane, which flew between
Jaffna and Colombo, crashed off the west coast of the northern
Vanni region with 48 people on board. Since then, the airline
has cancelled all of its flights. Following the incident,
the Java Gulf also welcomes aboard staff and doctors of the
ministry of health. With a few exceptions, the ICRC boat remains
to this day the only regular means of transport between the
peninsula and the rest of the island. Thus, in the first ten
months of 1998, the Java Gulf transported 929 patients, 671
attendants and 79 medical staff, as well as 316 representatives
of the ICRC, SLRCS, ministry of health and various international
It is midday on the quay at Kankesanturai. Another group
of patients and their loved ones is getting ready to embark
on the Java Gulf for a new voyage. Destination: Colombo.
Corinne Adam is ICRC press officer for Asia and Latin America.
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