`White Granny' defies Sri Lanka's war

Tim McGirk in Killinochchi meets an English missionary who refuses to leave the orphanage she founded

The war does not always stop at the gate of Muriel Violet Hutchins' orphanage. An Anglican missionary, Miss Hutchins is now 96 and wheelchair-bound. Her hearing and eyesight have dimmed, so she is spared the visions of battle raging around her: t he bullets slashing through the coconut palms from helicopter gunships circling in the sky, the Sri Lankan soldiers hunting down a young Tamil rebel in a corner of the orphanage, past the little chapel where the girls pray.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£17000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity is now ...

Recruitment Genius: Account Executive - Graduate / Entry Level

£22000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital advertising infras...

Recruitment Genius: European Sales Director - Aerospace Cable & Wire

£100000 - £125000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a top tier supplier to the...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Project Manager

£17100 - £22900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral