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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 November, 2003, 01:02 GMT
Unsung hero of Sri Lanka turmoil

Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Vanni

While countries like Afghanistan and Iraq continue to seek foreign aid for reconstruction, Sri Lanka is in the unusual position of having billions of dollars pledged for re-building after the long years of civil war but of not being able to spend the money.

International donors want to see progress in the peace talks, which began last year but are currently suspended, before they will part with the funds.

But while the politicians try to sort out their differences, children in the north-east of the island are going hungry.

After a while it became unpleasantly intrusive to inquire into a mother's inability to care for her children in the most basic way
It is a situation in which individuals can make all the difference.

"I have job satisfaction even if I don't have electricity." I am still haunted by the words of a Tamil doctor struggling to run "well baby" clinics in the jungles of northern Sri Lanka.

Man of the people

Dr Gunaratnam is one of the unsung heroes of his country's civil service - a man truly dedicated to serving his people.

Displaced from his home town of the former Tamil Tiger stronghold of Jaffna by fighting in 1995, he fled to rebel territory with half a million other refugees.

He proudly tells me how he fought off cholera epidemics - how he reduced the malaria rate from 70% to 4% and today has a higher immunisation coverage than in the south where the war has not devastated the health infrastructure.

Dr  Gunaratnam's clinic
Many of the children are chronically underweight
"I trained a battalion of volunteers," he jokes - describing the village women he has turned into nurses.

During the war it was not uncommon for doctors in rebel territory to treat up to 1,000 patients in one sitting and be forced to operate without anaesthetic.

By some strange bureaucratic quirk health department employees continued to be paid their salaries by the central government although they worked in rebel territory where there is a parallel administration.

I asked Dr Gunaratnam how that worked out in practice and he explained that as long as you did your job conscientiously the rebels would never set foot in your office.

Not that you could call it an office - his clinics take place under a large tree.

Now there is a ceasefire Dr Gunaratnam's family has returned to Jaffna, but he is still living in his thatched jungle hut.

He says he thought about getting solar panels now they are available and even buying a fridge.

"But then what's the point," he adds, "when nobody else here can afford these things. Why should I have them?"


Like many people in northern Sri Lanka Dr Gunaratnam wants desperately to tell his story.

It has nothing to do with boasting - it is about venting deep-seated trauma.

In a place where BBC radio has been a friend through years of war I find total strangers suddenly opening up to me - recounting their personal histories in a way that leaves an indelible mark.

It is almost as if they do not know when they will have the chance again to speak to outsiders - having endured nearly a decade of total isolation - and they want to grab the opportunity.

It is traumatic indeed to be a doctor and have to explain that the main health problem in your area is hunger, not disease.

Baby weights are laboriously marked on growth charts where there's a grey shaded area for acute malnutrition, but many of Dr Gunaratam's patients' weights fall beneath even the shaded area - off the chart.

With horror I realise my three-year-old child - who is not immensely large - weighs double a child of the same age here.

A mother's choice

In the local school I meet 12-year-old Vivek, but he looks no more than eight.

His growth has been stunted by years of hunger.

For the best part of a decade the central government used food as a weapon of war.

Rebel controlled jungles were sealed off and very little food and medicine allowed in lest in fall in the hands of the Tigers.

The rebels survived fine but half a million civilians went without life-saving drugs and enough to eat.

I have job satisfaction even if I don't have electricity
Dr Gunaratnam
We went to interview Vivek's mother who said she'd been told to feed her children eggs but if she bought eggs she wouldn't have money left to buy rice.

After a while it became unpleasantly intrusive to inquire into a mother's inability to care for her children in the most basic way.

In Colombo I had bought crayons and paints to give the children we met. There they seemed simple, unostentatious toys.

In Vivek's tiny shack they stood out as alien objects of little use in a place where there was no money to buy paper.

My gift seemed crass in a place where filling empty stomachs are the priority.

Just as Dr Gunaratnam's solar-powered fridge seemed an inappropriate luxury to him.

Jeeps and offices

But people like Dr Gunaratnam have spoiled the local population - who now see his missionary zeal as the norm for humanitarian workers.

People are shocked to see an army of NGO and United Nations workers moving into rebel territory, driving around in expensive four-wheel-drive jeeps and sitting in comparatively smart offices.

They complain that for the outsiders aid work is just a job like any other - and a rather well-paid one at that, they suspect.

I can't help thinking Dr Gunaratnam's reaction would be - they may have electricity, but do they have job satisfaction?

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