28th November 1999
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As shells rained on the Madhu church the cries of the dying and the injured filled the air
On the spot report by Leon Berenger and Chris Kamalendran at Madhu junctionChildren lay wounded, shell shocked and helpless on the beds of the run down hospital in this northern city of Vavuniya.
They were the refugees from the bombed-out holy Catholic shrine of Madhu attacked earlier this week and perhaps a bit lucky to be alive.
The artillery shells hit the church without warning. It was the first direct attack on 'Our Lady Of Madhu' even since the ethnic conflict began a little over two decades ago and the result was deadly and tragic.
No one, however, has yet claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 41 people and wounded 61. Among the victims were a large number of children, hardly out of their infancy, who were caught up in the war along with their parents.
At the hospital in Vavuniya there is little hope for the more serious victims owing to the lack of proper facilities and the dearth of medical specialists, but the patients are left with little option but to remain here.
It all began when the army in the Madhu Church vicinity hurriedly urged the refugees to move into the church fearing a Tiger attack. A short while later there were explosions followed by screams of the dying and injured, Ratnam Rengamani 55, who caught several shrapnel wounds on her hands and upper chest, told us from her hospital bed in Vavuniya.
"People were running everywhere. Mothers clutching their children and desperately finding a way out of the inferno, while others were trying to trace their loved ones. There was madness everywhere as the intensity of the shells increased," Rengamani who was displaced due to earlier fighting in the Jaffna peninsula said. Like most people we spoke to, she too was unable to say who fired the shells, or from what direction they came.
The story of Subramanium Selvarani is perhaps the worst, since it is both bloody and tragic. She lost her son, daughter and son-in-law in the attack. They were killed in their sleep and she was lucky to escape with serious shrapnel wounds to her right hand, Selvarani said unable to fight back her tears while clinging to her driver husband for support.
Selvarani, living some five miles from the Madhu Shrine, was earlier in the day advised by the local village headman to move out from the village, since tension was building up in the area.
Along with her children, she later sought refuge at a UNHCR camp, but here she was again told to move into the Church since an attack on the shrine was never anticipated.
"And it was here that my beloved children met with their cruel fate in a senseless war in which we had no part," Selvarani added.
What is even more devastating for this unfortunate mother is that there was no decent burial for her lost children. She was only informed several days later that they had been cremated somewhere in the Madhu area.
27-year-old Muniyandi Ravi, a farmer from Iranailupaikullam in the Wanni district was orphaned along with his12-year-old brother Muniyandi Kodi-swaran and sister M. Udayadevi, 23, after their mother was instantly killed in the attack along with their other brother M. Udayakumar 20. His sister Udayadevi is also hospitalised with sharp wounds caused by the exploding artillery shells. Their father had died several years ago of natural causes.
According to the refugees now at the Vavuniya Hospital there are yet some 10,000 people living in the Madhu Church compound. The army, in the meantime who under instructions from the President has fallen back some seven kilometres from the shrine, has closed exit passages bringing all movement to and from Madhu to a standstill. Attempts by us to reach the church were abruptly halted at the final army outpost seven kilometres from the shrine, by a soldier there who politely informed us that travel beyond that point was not advisable since it was a 'no man's land' heavily mined and anything could happen.
The only people to cross this line since the attack on the church were senior clergymen from the Catholic Church. This group included the Archbishop of Colombo Rt. Rev. Dr. Nicholas Marcus Fernando, Bishop Oswald Gomis, Bishop Malcolm Ranjith and the Apostolic Nuncio in Sri Lanka Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Yeh.
They were joined by a UNHCR convoy carrying relief supplies to the displaced people at the church. The UNHCR was the lone aid agency that was stationed in Madhu earlier. They pulled out following the sudden attack but returned to the area following an appeal made by the Mannar Bishop Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph.
Since then Madhu has been cut off from the rest of the country with the LTTE now reportedly in control.
Later in a joint statement, the Bishops called upon both the government forces and the LTTE to spare the sacred shrine and not allow it to become a strategic objective of the war at any time.
According to military and other sources in the district, the Tiger aim to capture the area was of little military interest for them. It was purely timed at embarrassing the Government of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and perhaps to hurt the vote bank of the Catholics elsewhere in the country, ahead of the crucial December 21 Presidential Elections.
On the spot report from the Mannar mainlandIt is a city waiting to empty its citizens at the first sign of trouble, and the people of Mannar are not taking any chances whatsoever.
The LTTE has so far spared this predominantly Tamil Catholic island although it is well within the range of its deadly artillery power. The menacing threat however has sent a cloud of uncertainty over this jittery city.
The first to pack up and leave were those from the Sinhalese community who fear they would be prime targets should the city fall to the LTTE. On the other hand the Tamils themselves do not feel safe and have taken precautionary steps to face any eventuality.
The worst hit was the Mannar Hospital since, all but one of the 19 doctors on its staff cadre have already fled with emergency and other services left to be manned by nurses, matrons and other minor hospital staff.
The wards are nearly empty of patients and the OPD is deserted. "There are plenty of drugs and medicines but it does not serve any purpose since it cannot be administered to a patient without a diagnosis", a senior nurse said summing up the situation. Patients are being turned away and told to seek treatment from private clinics, she said.
Other than that life seems to go on as usual with banks, cooperatives, schools and other essential services functioning normally despite the looming threat of war. The police and the military are everywhere.
However there is also a looming threat of a food crisis since shipments into the city have turned into a trickle owing to the uncertain ground situation on the main highway which links the island to the rest of the country.
Civilian traffic on the 85-kilometre stretch of road that begins from Vavuniya to Mannar has dropped to zero and entry into the area is only allowed with a valid permit by the military authorities, who have also taken over the issuing of gasoline.
The situation following these restrictions has quickly given way to a roaring black market trade in Mannar with a kilogram of rice going at Rs. 50 and sometimes even more. The prices of other essentials are also bound to sharply increase if the current situation does not ease within the next few days, a spokesman for the Mannar Divisional Secretariat said.
A senior military official based in the region denied there were any restrictions placed on the movement of civilians to and from the island. " Nonetheless," he said "if everyone opted to take to their heels at the drop of an artillery shell then sooner or later we will all end up on a lonely beach front somewhere in the south with only the sea in front of us.
'This madness has got to stop and the people must have confidence in the security forces because we are here to protect them from such threats," the officer said.
Another added crisis facing Mannar is the influx of hundreds of refugees from adjoining villages who have fled their homes for fear of being caught in the cross fire between the LTTE and the security forces.
They decided to move out after the army and other paramilitary units and police, who fell back from other fronts in the recent fighting, began building up defences close to their homes.
Many people mainly farmers and fisherfolk, fled the village of Vankalai approximately 10 kilometres west of the Mannar mainland.
A total of 146 families have been put up at the St. Xavier's Girls' High School in Mannar and the figure is expected to rise in the next few days, says the Grama Seveka for the area A. Sobomati Croos.
"At the moment there is adequate food, medicine and other essentials, but what is worrying is that if the shipments to the island are affected then we will have a serious crisis on our hands,"Mr. Croos said.
He added that another 200 displaced people were also being sheltered at another school in Thalwadu, on the outskirts of the main town. S. Anthonymutte 55, a fisherman fled his village in Vankalai along with his wife and two children and took refuge at the St. Xavier's Girls' High School.
More than a year ago he lost his 25-year-old daughter S. Emmaculate in the unexplained Lion Air plane crash which went down in Tiger country somewhere close to Mannar. She was a student at the Jaffna University and was en route to Colombo where she was scheduled to make the trip to her family's home at Vankalai by road, he tearfully lamented. "And now the whole family is displaced and our future uncertain," Mr. Antonymutte said.
Another fisherman from the same village R. Ratnam 53, did not hesitate to flee his home along with his entire family shortly after the clandestine rebel radio 'Voice of the Tigers' warned of attacks on military targets in the area.
"By now we had already heard as to what was happening in other areas such as in Vavuniya and the Welioya belt in the east, and it would have been foolish to stay back. From now on it will be-a-day to day existence but yet it's safer here, than in the village," he added.
Similar tales were told by Subramaniam Pushparanai, a mother of four who grabbed whatever belongings possible and along with her farmer husband joined their fellow villagers in the exodus to Mannar.
She and her family have no plans of returning to their village just now, since she feels it could be attacked as there is a military garrison in the area.
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