• Send page
  • Print page

Working between the lines dividing Sri Lanka

05-06-2008 Feature

Sri Lanka has only one crossing point between government-held areas and those held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), at Omanthai. The ICRC has the unique role of facilitating the smooth passage of people and goods "across the lines". Claudia McGoldrick went to Omanthai to meet an ICRC protection officer with a quite unusual job


  ©ICRC / C. McGoldrick / LK-E-00313    
  ICRC protection officer Olav Sinsuat in 'No Man's Land' at the Omanthai crossing point.    

Olav Sinsuat has no ordinary nine to five job. While the 37 year-old Filipino may pretend with typical self-deprecatory humour that he is simply a glorified security guard, he does not under-estimate the significance of his rather unique work.

As protection officer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Olav essentially helps to guarantee the smooth passage of people and goods at Sri Lanka's only crossing point between government-controlled territory and that held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Sitting in a thatched hut in the 600-metre stretch of No-Man's Land separating the two warring parties, Olav describes a typical working day working at " the lines " . " There can be as many as 700 people crossing the lines every day – although more than half that number are traders from both sides who meet in No-Man's Land, exchange their goods, and go back the same way. People here call this type of exchange a'kiss movement'" , explains Olav.

The Omanthai crossing point is a vital gateway between north and south, allowing for the movement of civilians in both directions and, essentially, the supply of medicines and other goods to the population of LTTE- controlled areas in the north, known as the Vanni.

In the oppressive afternoon heat, with heavy skies threatening rain, Olav watches long lines of traders filing past his hut, many straining under the weight of sacks of rice and other produce. They are returning southwards, having traded clothes, plastic goods and other items in the opposite direction. On entering and leaving No-Man's Land they are subjected to thorough security checks on both sides. Meanwhile, huddles of other traders wait patiently to make the exchange.

32 year-old Kamala is one of them. Like many others doing this type of work, she lives in a camp for internally displaced people near the town of Vavuniya. " I don't like doing this work, but I have no choice. My husband is unemployed, and we have five children " , she says. Nadrajah, another trader, add s, " We only have the courage to do this work because of the ICRC's presence. This gives us a sense of protection. "

  ©ICRC / C. McGoldrick / LK-E-00320    
  The ICRC helps to guarantee the smooth passage of people and goods across "the lines". Hundreds of people , including many traders, cross here every day.    

At that moment, an ambulance passes by, heading southwards. Six patients are being taken to the hospital in Vavuniya. Volunteers of the Sri Lankan Red Cross Society, with whom the ICRC works closely " between the lines " , are standing by to provide first aid if needed. Olav looks on as a Sri Lankan army officer searches the ambulance once it reaches the army line. After it is given the all clear, the ambulance meets another one coming from the south and the patients are transferred from one vehicle to another.

" Vehicles as well as people sometimes have to undergo the'kiss movement'" , explains Olav with a smile. However, in most cases, especially serious ones, ambulances are allowed to pass through the lines unimpeded, without any need to transfer patients.

" Being here in No-Man's Land for eight hours a day can be lonely at times " , says Olav. " But I try to look at my work in terms of what it means for the people who cross here. Knowing that through this crossing point we help facilitate access to specialised health care for those who need it, for example, is very satisfying. "

Another key aspect of Olav's job is to transport the remains of dead fighters across the front lines. " Last week we transferred four bodies, the week before it was 20. This can happen at any time " , says Olav. " This might sound like a rather gruesome job, but it is important as it helps to clarify the fate of fighters who might otherwise remain unaccounted for. It is also important for the families to have the bodies of their loved ones, so that they can grieve properly " , he adds.

Then there is the ever-present risk of security incidents to contend with. On several occasions in 2007, fighting between the two sides has come rather too close for comfort, recalls Olav, with shells falling only a few hundred metres from the crossing point. Then the ICRC team would take shelter in the bunker, and the lines promptly closed, sometimes for several days.

" Then just recently, a cow grazing on the verge of No-Man's Land stepped on a landmine, with horrific consequences. In theory, this area is clear of mines, but you can never be sure " , he says.

Soon due to return to his native Philippines, Olav says he will leave with mixed feelings. " My friends back home were surprised that I accepted to take this job, and it certainly is unus ual! " he laughs. " But if I can leave thinking that in some small way I contributed to alleviating the suffering of even a few people here, then it will be all worthwhile. After all, that is what our work is all about. "