Kieran O’Brien, Director of Partnerships for UNICEF Ireland, recently visited the Northern Province of Sri Lanka to monitor the progress of our work.
Radika is 60 years old, but she looks much older. When we meet first she smiles with her mouth, but not with her eyes. She has five grand-children, but all her children have died. She has many responsibilities and little hope for the future, but now she has a cow. And that’s why we’re meeting. Radika recently received a self-employment grant funded by UNICEF Ireland and The Cathal Ryan Trust.
The thirty-year civil war ended in Sri Lanka in May 2009. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced during the conflict and an un-disclosed number were killed. Radika’s husband and five children were among those killed -on the 26th March 2009 at 5pm – she tells me with an inward tear and a quiver of her voice. Throughout my time with Radika she never cried once, but everything about her was crying, perhaps she simply doesn’t have any tears left.
During one of the many air-raids in the refugee camp Radika’s family sought shelter in a bunker they’d dug close to their tent. Amazingly some of her grandchildren had fallen asleep during the attack and she stayed with them whilst the rest of her family sat around a picnic table close by. One shell was all it took to wipe out Radika’s life. Without warning a jet had returned catching the family off guard. Her first instinct was to take her own life. As she stood looking at the remains of the man she loved and the children they’d created, the urge to go with them was overwhelming. “But then I looked down at my children’s children and what chance would they have without me” she told my translator, with her eyes fixed to the ground.
Many months later, once they had received authorisation to return home, Radika walked 50 km carrying her two youngest grandchildren. Only once she had arrived home was she approached by an international NGO (she didn’t know their name) for her to hand over her grandchildren for inter-country adoption. “Why would I want to give them up, when I had carried them all the way from Mullaitvu. If I carried them this far, I can carry them a little further. I’m all they have.”
This is where UNICEF comes in. Working with the Department of Social Services we initially provided Radika with a cash grant to get her on her feet. After a few visits from a social worker Radika qualified for a R25000 (€250) self-employment grant. She used the funds to buy a cow. Her rationale for this was simply that she has kept livestock her entire life and the local primary school has committed to buy up to 5 litres per day. I expressed shock at the pressure on one cow to produce so much milk. She smiled briefly and promptly informed me that she was already saving some of her proceeds to buy another cow.
When I asked her about how she would protect the cow from someone stealing it, it took a while for the translation into tamil to be understood. After the second attempt, I knew for sure she knew what I was asking when she raised her chest and glared at me with an expression of disbelief. She took a stick from the ground and with one simple hand gesture left me in no doubt that her cow was quite safe in her hands. The look of sheer determination in Radika’s eyes told me that this cow was more than a farm animal. When life had been so cruel to her, this cow meant she had a chance to provide for her grandchildren, for them to have a better future, for them to go to school and eat well. With so much at stake I have no doubt that this cow will be quite safe and Radika will grow her enterprise and provide for her family. At least now, she has a chance.