|Thursday, 20 February 2003|
Welcomed at the showpiece of the East : Valachchenai - coming back to normal
by Lionel Yodhasinghe
Helicopters, bullet proof limousines, expensive pandals and other fanfare were conspicuous by their absence for Industries Minister Rohitha Bogollagama during his visit in the East recently.
He invited his officials and journalists to join him in a passenger train instead.
The journey took nearly ten hours to reach Valachchenai in the wee hours of Friday for a local investors forum in Batticaloa.
People in the East experiencing the consequences of the prolonged conflict heaved a sigh of relief that day as the Minister announced that the government has given priority to develop the East.
We, a group of journalists were led to the National Paper Mill's circuit bungalows to keep our baggages (though I use the typical word bungalow, it looked unkempt for years). The first impression was good testimony for us to imagine how badly this national asset, once show-piece of the East had been neglected.
The rooms and other amenities were beyond human use. Neither a coat of paint had been given to the walls nor cobwebs cleared for years. But what I realised was the havoc caused by the war as there were holes marked on walls and window panes pierced by bullets.
This describes well the difficulties in Valachchenai. Even a VIP has no proper place to stay a night. The Minister too was compelled to spend the night in his berth in the train.
We were standing helplessly in the sitting room of one of the bungalows as neither proper seating nor drinking water were available.
The circumstances forced us to break the day here and my photographer lit several mosquito coils apparently to repulse the bloodsuckers while I tested the safety of wall switches and ceiling fans.
Journalists should be guys for all seasons, so I believed and spread several newsprints on the planks of a rickety iron bed, placed my head on my satchel of clothes and prepared to brave the night. The night was peaceful except hooting of a herd of jackals , no report of guns was heard.
However, enthusiasm on our part was not diminished as everything stretching around us was news. The sylvan beauty of the forests and the sandy beach stretching as far as one could see, the blue lagoons, and the silhouette of the rising sun in the distant sea kept us afresh. And of course the innocent smiles on the faces of the people, their untold stories kept us interested.
The breakfast served at the NPM canteen gave us energy. They were typical tasty food items of the East, milk hoppers, fresh fish curry, string hoppers, sambol and green gram curry. The canteen waiters busy attending to our needs were a symbol of hospitality in Valachchenai. Residents in the area at where we joined the Minister during his door to door visits to various small workshops were happy to see a Minister stepping into their small huts. It definitely brought them confidence and courage as they had never seen a Minister based in Colombo who dared to step into the interior and listen to their grievances.
There was no sign of enmity or hatred in the face of Tamils or Muslims as some try to interpret. Instead they treated us as their guests by performing traditional welcome rituals.
Children are innocent, whether they are in Valachchenai or Colombo. When I was packing my baggages to leave for Colombo after a hard-day, a child aged six came to me and asked: "Neengal Inga Irruppavargal?" (Are you staying in this house)
I understood only the first two words, so replied "Enaka Tamil Awwalavaha Teriyada", (I understand a little Tamil)
Then he talked to me in Sinhala. He said proudly he could speak three languages. I congratulated him for his achievement amidst lack of facilities for education in Valachchenai. He became thoughtful when I explained him the government's determination to bring lasting peace to the country and develop the North and East specially to facilitate a better life for the offspring. I wish guns would go silent forever, then we can meet here again. Isn't it?", I asked. He smiled, nodded his head in approval while shaking hands.
Produced by Lake House