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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, May 26, 2005

After the tsunami: Seenigama children have something to smile about

Sunday Times: 22/05/2005" By Palitha Kohona

I had, with millions around the world, watched with helpless horror as TV screens were flooded with the images of those ferocious waves crashing in to sea walls, gushing past swimming pools, smashing buildings and dragging buses and cars like children's toys while hapless men, women and children were engulfed in furious torrents of water and debris. Later the same media showed a benumbed world, piles of bodies rotting in the tropical sun or bobbing in rivers, lakes and harbours amidst garbage. I desperately wanted to do something but the opportunity was slow in coming.

Ven Piyatissa of the New York Buddhist Vihara (temple) who had been quietly organising relief supplies for the tsunami victims in Sri Lanka requested me to visit the proposed "Lama Pura" - a project being undertaken by the International Vihara (IV) Foundation of New York to assist a group of children orphaned by the tsunami. The project had the blessings of the Sri Lankan authorities. Having arrived in Sri Lanka on a private visit, I grabbed this opportunity and joined a group of local volunteers of the IV Foundation, led by the formidable Ven Dhammasoka, whose enthusiasm and commitment was overwhelmingly infectious. These volunteers were spending their time and money in developing the Lama Pura project and I was immediately absorbed in to the group. They needed the assistance of every one.

We set off towards Galle on a day that was perhaps very much like that fateful Boxing Day. A blue sky seamlessly merged with a warm sea. The beach glistened in the sun soothed by a gentle breeze. The waves, a little rough, were breaking up in arches of spluttering foam, as is normal in the pre monsoonal period. The road to Galle was bustling with activity. The markets were full and the traffic annoyingly slow and noisy. It was difficult to imagine that on a Sunday morning not too long ago this was a massive watery grave. (Over 34,000 perished and in excess of 4000 are still unaccounted for). At first, only a few ruins adjoining the beach seemed to tell a different story. Many buildings were actually being repaired. And business was proceeding briskly in the midst of the reconstruction, creating the impression of a community rapidly returning to normality.

But all changed as the miles sped by.
A sense of incomprehensible devastation began to unfold overcoming earlier thoughts of complacency. For mile after mile, only cemented foundations remained where once people's homes stood and families lived. There was one house where only the marble topped kitchen bench remained. The odd house that suffered only superficial damage was being repaired. Of these, there were only a few. Some houses were boarded up suggesting that some one with a claim was still alive. Sadly, many a damaged house appeared to be totally abandoned - perhaps, no one survived even to board them up. The doors flapped sadly in the wind for someone to return to their home. Some had erected tents on top of the remaining foundations. But five months after the tsunami, hundreds, perhaps thousands still lived in small tents supplied by the relief agencies. In the pre monsoonal heat and humidity, life in these tents must be hell. Life would be impossible once the torrential monsoon arrived in a few weeks. Their toilette facilities were minimal and water was obtained from black plastic tanks located at regular intervals along the main road by aid agencies. Many of the occupants of these tents had lived in decent homes previously.

I had been on this road before and there was one noticeable change. The usual crowds of children splashing in the surf were nowhere to be seen. The beaches were strangely devoid of people. The larger tourist hotels were beginning to reopen for business but many of the smaller establishments that lined the shore remained closed or abandoned. The tourist industry had collapsed completely. Wrecks of large fishing boats were strewn everywhere. In Galle itself, only the concrete shell of the fish market remained. Galle's picturesque cricket ground, where Warne captured his five hundredth wicket, was overgrown and the stands were wrecked. The central bus station where television images showed large buses being dragged away by the waves was almost back to normal. Large banners along the road to Galle expressed the gratitude of the populace for the immediate response of certain countries in the face of Sri Lanka's tsunami crisis. Italy's Protectione Civile was still assisting at the Galle Hospital. Belgian military medical specialists and Australia's AUSAID personnel were remembered fondly.

The government has just identified six companies, which will be assigned the task of constructing 60,000 houses. (97,000 are estimated to have been damaged). President Clinton's appointment as Special Coordinator for the rebuilding effort will certainly expedite the process.

NGOs and international civil servants attached to aid agencies were very much in evidence along the road to Galle and were the main customers of the fancy hotels in the South. One couldn't but notice their SUVs on the congested roads, giving rise to rumblings of resentment that the millions donated by well meaning individuals around the world were being spent on keeping these international civil servants and NGO staff comfortable.

The Seenigama village, where many of the children being supported by the IV Foundation were from, had suffered enormously. This was a village, though not very poor had not been very rich either. But the villagers had led a relatively comfortable life. The tsunami had changed all that. Many of the bread winners did not survive and a large number of the women who carried a heavy burden in their families were also gone. There were so many children without parents. One little girl could hardly raise a smile - she had lost both parents. There was a curtain of pain on her innocent face. Another twelve year old boy was now nick-named hero, "weeraya". He had dragged his little sister to safety and then struggled to save his mother. The little girl hardly left his side now. This twelve year old constantly regretted that he could not help his grandmother and aunt as they were swept away. The kids in the village appeared to be genuinely happy to see the visitors from the IV Foundation. (They had been visiting regularly). The Buddhist nuns working with the foundation had played a seminal role in restoring the confidence of these children. Perhaps the visitors were a welcome diversion from the torment of their memories.

The day after the visit of the volunteers, 120 of these children with their carerers were taken to the Colombo Zoo by the IV Foundation. The children genuinely enjoyed this outing. It was interesting how two kids who were not orphaned by the tsunami but with whose families some tsunami orphans had been placed, also asked to come on the trip to the Zoo. This seemed to highlight another emerging problem. They were not rich kids and their families could not have afforded to take them to the Zoo. It is possible that these children might begin to resent the excessive attention that the tsunami orphans were receiving. In trying to solve an immediate problem, the IV Foundation may be confronted by another.

The IV Foundation group also visited the land allocated to them for building the "Lama Pura" - a village focused on these children. Lama Pura will be on this 50 acre block, originally part of a run down plantation owned by the government. Considerable resources will be required to build this multi purpose complex which will consist of accommodation for the children and the carerers, a health facility and an education complex. These facilities will cater to community needs as well. Subsequently, more resources by way of funding and skilled personnel, including full time staff, will be necessary to run these facilities effectively. Teachers, doctors and nursing staff will be required and volunteers will help to keep costs down. Already a sponsorship scheme for the children has been established. With the abundant enthusiasm and goodwill of the volunteers, the goals of the Foundation would seem to be achievable. As to whether its efforts will suffice to return the smile to that little girl's face, it is too early to predict. But their efforts will certainly make her life's struggles a little easier.

-The writer, originally from Matale and formerly with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, is now attached to the United Nations in New York. (Further details from nybv@newyorkbuddhist.com)

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