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`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."