`White Granny' defies Sri Lanka's war
Tim McGirk in Killinochchi meets an English missionary who refuses to leave the orphanage she founded
Thursday 09 February 1995
The front line in this ethnic war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas has ebbed a few miles from Miss Hutchins' orphanage, across rice paddies, jungle and a minefield. A ceasefire has lasted nearly three weeks, and it is safe for the Vellai Patty - the White Granny, as her girls fondly call her - to be wheeled out on to her verandah.
For more than 40 years the Vellai Patty cared for the orphans and the mentally handicapped children of northern Sri Lanka. In the beginning, after her schoolteacher's savings ran out, she raised money to feed her abandoned children by sewing pillowcases.Now it is Miss Hutchins' orphans who are looking after her. Two Tamil girls had brushed her white hair, fine as cobwebs, and hugged her with natural affection as though she were a favourite old doll.
"A few years ago, bombs were landing just in front of the chapel," said Dhaya Mohan, the warden of Karuna Nilayam orphanage, "and we had to flee into the countryside." For six miles, the girls took turns carrying Miss Hutchins. Then, when the column of orphan girls and their White Granny reached a church farm removed from the fighting, they tended her for three months, sleeping rough, until it was safe to return to the orphanage. "Miss Muriel didn't want to go, not without her dogs and her belongings," recalled Mrs Mohan, "but it was so dangerous with the bombs falling. We didn't even have time to take any pots for cooking. When we got back, the fighters had put mines in the garden."
Her orphanage in the town of Killinochchi is now held by rebels, the Tamil Tigers. To the Sri Lankan soldiers, the Tiger guerrillas are feared as fanatical and often suicidal killers. But according to an Anglican archdeacon, the Ven Godwin Weerasuriya, who has often visited the orphanage, "Miss Hutchins may be living in the midst of a war, but the Tigers have a good opinion of her. You could say the boys are taking care of her too."
More than 130 girls are being housed, fed and schooled; many were brought to the orphanage after their parents were killed in air raids or crossfire during 12 years of conflict. Miss Hutchins set up the orphanage in her fifties, after retiring as a teacher in Jaffna, main city of the Tamil-speaking part of Sri Lanka. One former resident remembers her as loving, but disciplinarian, quick with her cane.
"She always said she wanted to be buried here," said the archdeacon.
But lately, as Miss Hutchins sits on her verandah beside the flowering temple-tree, her thoughts are straying back to the England of her youth. "Whenever I speak to her in English," said Mrs Mohan, "Miss Muriel gets in one of her moods. She keeps asking me to take her back home to see her people. But that's impossible. I don't think she would survive the journey."
For nearly five years no diplomat from the British High Commission has been allowed to cross into rebel-held territory to check on Miss Hutchins. "There may be a war going on but she's probably best off where she is," said one diplomat. "It seems her orphans are giving her the loving care she needs."
Geoffrey Macnab reviews The Desolation of Smaug - the meat in Peter Jackson's Hobbit sandwich
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba get nods for Best Actor, which no black Brit has ever won
voicesJust when you thought you could find a man, get married, and have a baby by the age of 35... it turns out you’re too late, says Grace Dent
Swedish stars ask fans for £195 pledges on crowd-funding website
Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ sign language interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute in Soweto
French café starts charging extra to rude customers
Australia: Gay marriage law reversed by high court less than a week after first weddings
Church versus state: Scientology faces unholy war after court ruling
Australia incest case: Severely deformed children found in remote farming community after generations of inbreeding
- 1 Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ sign language interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute in Soweto
- 2 French café starts charging extra to rude customers
- 3 Australia: Gay marriage law reversed by high court less than a week after first weddings
- 4 Not all right on the night
- 5 Australia incest case: Severely deformed children found in remote farming community after generations of inbreeding
- < Previous
- Next >
£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Boutique Practice...
Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher York.(Full-tim...
£62000 Per Annum plus benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client ba...
£70 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Group: Cover SupervisorImmediate startLo...