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Monday, June 26, 2006

Field Report #1 from Seth Altshuler

Stave It Off is very excited to publish a series of email updates from our good friend and colleague Seth Altshuler as he describes his work with Tamil orphans and refugees in war-torn Sri Lanka. I could not be more proud of what Seth is doing or more happy that he has given me permission to reprint his (slightly edited) letters here. One benefit to this is that a new crop of readers will hear something about his work, spreading some additional awareness of this situation. I encourage you all to leave comments for Seth on the Epilogue post, as he'll be checking back later to hear your feedback. I hope you find his writing as insightful and inspiring as I do:

Hello to you all. Anyone who decides not to read all this jazz is still a good human.

What has happened since I got to Sri Lanka:

After arriving in Colombo, I flew to the north to a place called Jaffna, which is currently occupied by the Sinhalese (Government Army), though it is Tamil Territory. The Tamils are the people in the North and the Sinhalese are those in the south. The civil war here is between these two sides and covers a lot of complicated and intense history, of which I am trying to understand. The two sides’ hatred and distrust actually dates back to the beginning of the written books of Buddhism, and has had periods of peace and war, interspersed with colonization and other issues. It is very complex, to say the least.

Jaffna has a curfew of about 5 o'clock, and then becomes a ghost town. People there are killed routinely and violence is expected, though it usually happens about 5 miles away from where I stayed. I walked around a bit in the day time, and found the place to be a little edgy, but not what I was warned it would be like. I got a chance to talk to some people and was even invited into a military bunker by some 20 year olds with guns. I respectfully declined. I tried my best not to seem pro-anything, and found that by just smiling and being interested in people (not politics) that everyone was quite kind. I found out the next morning that two people were shot coming out of a store at 6. Clearly my sense of security was false.

The next morning I spoke to my contact in Kilinochi (In Tamil territory) who has been arranging everything, and he told me that the odds of the military letting me through are slim, to say the least. He let me know that he had already begun trying to arrange a backup plan for me in the south, as there is no violence there. We agreed that I would try to get through the 3 military checkpoints and get to where he is, but not to keep my hopes up. We arranged a Taxi driven by a Tamil man who would tell the border guards that I was not actually going to Kilinochi (this is the Tamil capitol) but rather that he was my guide and that he was taking me to the ancient cities which lie some miles south in Sinhalese land. When we actually got to the checkpoints, I kept giving the guards Vitamin C grapefruit candies, which they ate the shit out of, and got through without too much trouble. Here are these guys in fatigues sucking on throat lozenges, all the while me and this guy who doesn't speak English are sliding through areas only the UN and other NGOs can go. Basically, I got really lucky.

So I am here. At the moment I am sleeping at an orphanage for little girls who lost their families in the war and to the tsunami. I spend my nights playing a kazoo with them, which I never should have given them. I hear that shit all night long.

I spent the other day at one of the refugee camps, as I am going around and being introduced by the organization I am working for (North East Youth Action Organization… funded by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization.) I met a Sri Lankan nun at one of the camps who was teaching some 6 year olds in makeshift school donated by UNICEF. She spoke a bit of English and told me a lot about how it all happened and how the war has made things all the more difficult. I have arranged a two day program with her and her orphanage (there are plenty of orphans,) which I am really looking forward to. My plan is to stay at a camp on the coast for the majority of my time and to make little trips out to other camps to do one or two days with other kids. I have candy and soccer balls and bubbles. They love it. There is no shortage of people who need help in all its forms. I see UN trucks and World Vision people and Oxfam folks all day long. Though there is a lot being done here, it clearly isn't enough. I am really glad to be here and honored that these people have welcomed me as they have. I am working with an amazing organization and for even more amazing people. I thank my stars.

The EU has just passed an embargo on the LTT (the Tamil army) and it is possible that things will get ugly. I have an escape plan with some other NGO people and really am not worried about my own safety, should things get bad. My concern is not really my own health, but more what I will have to face if I am escorted out while they all stay here. I can't imagine.

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