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Lifeboat

By Corinne Adam

While 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 displaced.

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.

 

A long-standing ally

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 waters.

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 organizations.

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
Corinne Adam is ICRC press officer for Asia and Latin America.



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