By Mel Gunasekera
COLOMBO (AFP) - England cricket legend Sir Ian Botham has described his shock at the destruction and hardship that Sri Lanka’s war-displaced civilians have had to face, following his tour of the region.
Botham, who on Sunday visited Sri Lanka’s former war zone to oversee plans to build a sports complex, said he was “horrified” to hear tales of young children dragged off to fight the decades-long war that ended in May 2009.
“I was completely shocked. The scenery was unbelievable. Flattened lands for miles, houses shelled, treetops burnt,” he told reporters after visiting the project site at Mankulam, 300 kilometres (187 miles) north of Colombo.
“I was surprised how wide spaced the place (northern war zone area) was, everything was so flat. It was like a wilderness,” the former player said. The project is led by Sri Lanka’s world record bowler Muttiah Muralitharan’s charity, the Foundation of Goodness, to help thousands of children in the former conflict zone.
Muralitharan, who has a record 800 Test and 538 one-day scalps to his credit, plans to build a school, English and IT training centres and an Elders’ Home over the next two years to help war-displaced people rebuild their lives.
Botham, who was joined on the tour by former Ashes-winning England cricket captain, Michael Vaughan, played a friendly match with local children, which included several former child soldiers.
More than 500 child soldiers were picked up by the Sri Lankan military after they defeated Tamil Tiger rebels in a bloody final battle, ending 37-years of ethnic bloodshed.
“These children, they looked so innocent, warm and friendly,” Botham said of the former child soldiers, who have since been rehabilitated and allowed to return to their families.
Botham and Vaughan also visited a school in Mankulam and handed out food, mosquito nets, torches, cooking utensils and stoves.
“It amazed me that so many things I took for granted like clean water, mosquito nets, bicycles, meant a lot to these people who have endured decades of a horrible war,” the 55-year-old said.
Vaughan, who also distributed bats and tennis balls to 100 children during the visit organised London-based Laureus Sports said he was happy to bring a little joy to young people who have suffered a terrible tragedy.
“Their eyes lit up, when we gave them a bat and ball, and played a short game of cricket. The children were all smiles. It was touching,” Vaughan said of the visit.
Vaughan said he hoped the sports complex will breed promising cricketers such as Muralitharan and Sri Lankan skipper Kumar Sangakkara, who play a key role in the home team.
“In 15 years time, I hope to hear of another Sanga (Sangakkara) and Murali (Muralitharan) emerging from the north. That is the vision I like to see for this country,” Vaughan said.
Botham visited Sri Lanka days after the December 2004 Asian tsunami to drum up aid. Around 31,000 people were killed in the worst natural disaster to hit the island.
The England hero began supporting the Foundation of Goodness in 2005 and returned in 2009 to oversee the build-up of a similar sports centre in the southern town of Seenigama that was hit by the tsunami.
Muralitharan’s charity is also supported by Sangakkara and former international teammate Chaminda Vaas.
Kiwi PM Key turns down Mahinda’s invite
NEW Zealand Prime Minister John Key has declined an invitation from Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the cricket World Cup semifinal between the two countries.
New Zealand play Sri Lanka in Colombo today(NZT) for a place in the finals after beating South Africa by 49 runs on Friday.
A spokesman from Key’s office said he had to decline the invitation. (NZPA)