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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. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

THE TSUNAMI'S AFTERMATH : A second wave of grief

Houston Chronicle: 25/06/2005" Towns and villages are being rebuilt in Sri Lanka, but jealousy and anger over aid divide many residents By TIM SULLIVAN , Associated Press

PERALIYA, SRI LANKA - It was different, people here tell you, in those first few days after the ocean came roaring over the horizon and slammed into Peraliya, driving trees and boulders through the village and leaving behind more grief than anyone thought possible.

Tsunami survivors shared water, food and what medicine they could scrounge. Some passed shovels back and forth, searching for survivors. Others stared at one battered, bloated corpse after another, trying to figure out which body belonged to which family.

It's how things are supposed to work in places like Peraliya, a community of fishermen and small traders where families, friendships and neighborhoods are woven into an intricate web.

"The whole village was like one family" in those early days, said Sriyawathi Malani Gunathilaka, who lost her only son. "We shared the sadness."

'All about the jealousy'

But six months later, the community that has inhabited this sandy land for generations is coming apart, its social networks snapped by jealousy over which family gets how much aid and how soon. The resentment is magnified by officials who have left villagers desperate for information about what will happen to them.

The Dec. 26 tsunami killed about 450 people from Peraliya and an adjoining village, and more than 31,000 across Sri Lanka. About 900,000 people were left homeless.

It's the aftermath, though, that may destroy Peraliya.

"Everything has changed completely," said Sriyawathi, sitting on a water-stained easy chair, one of the few pieces of furniture left after the waves knocked down most of her house. "It's all about the jealousy."

Within days of the tsunami, help began pouring in. Vacationing surfers put up tents and local politicians brought truckloads of food. Within a couple weeks, the professional aid community had dispatched teams across Sri Lanka.

Peraliya still resembles a battle scene, with half-built structures, piles of wreckage and spaghetti-like coils of wiring strung haphazardly.

On some days, only a few dozen people loll around a village where more than 1,500 once lived. Hundreds of villagers have moved in with relatives, found cheap shacks to rent elsewhere, or become squatters inland.

Money troubles

But even the poorest villagers now have somewhere dry to sleep, though sometimes it's just a wooden shack. Everyone gets a few dollars worth of rice and other essentials each week. Homes — real homes of concrete and brick — are finally going up.

Promises of more to come dance around the village. Politicians talk of land, and visiting foreigners talk of engines for fishing boats. Always, there's talk of cash.

And that's the problem.

The trouble can be heard in the grumbling among the fishermen, who have split into rival factions. It's in the silence between neighbors. It's in the virulent undertow of whispers and the relentless covetousness of people who have lost everything.

"Everyone is angry at someone," said Manjula Jayasiri, a fisherman squatting on the floor of his temporary home, a wooden shack built with Danish aid money. Around him, a small group of friends and relatives shouted in agreement. "Since the tsunami, the whole village is divided."

If Jayasiri is exaggerating, it's not by much.

Relationships sour

People still living in temporary shelters are angry at those with houses. Fishermen with no boats are angry at those who received them. People whose homes were within 110 yards of the ocean are angry that the government has said they must move. Many villagers are angry at the committee formed to decide how to distribute the handouts that poured in.

It takes little to drag someone into the bitterness.

Sriyawathi is a formidable matriarch who worked desperately to keep her family out of poverty, particularly after her husband was slowed by a stroke. Her drive left her with few close friends, but she was still cared about in the village. Her neighbors mourned with her over the loss of her 19-year-old son and worried when she cried long into each night.

Now, some neighbors have cut ties with her, jealous that a Buddhist monk raised money for a well-built foundation and reinforced columns for her family's new house, while other nearby homes, though put up more quickly, were built with poorer materials.

One neighbor, who had allowed Sriyawathi to splice into her electricity connection, said the line must go. Another neighbor doesn't speak to her anymore.

The degree of jealousy perplexes Sriyawathi. She points out that her family — and not the monk's charity — will be responsible for building most of her new house.

She has emerged from the worst of the pain of her son's death and has started putting her family's life back on track. She has become increasingly knowledgeable about aid applications, and helps oversee the men building the house's foundation.

She doesn't have time, she insists, to worry about the bitterness that has engulfed the village. Still, she's saddened by it.

"I don't know what we have to be jealous of," she said, smiling gently.

Details lacking, not money

Given the bitterness, it seems strange that there's one thing Sri Lanka doesn't lack: reconstruction money.

Pledges of $3 billion in international aid and debt relief poured into the country after the tsunami, and despite the half-built, half-destroyed feel of most villages, aid officials insist things will improve dramatically over the next year. There is enough money pledged to rebuild roads, schools, houses and more, experts say.

"I'm absolutely not going to paint a picture that everything is fine, but there is a huge amount of activity that has already started, and an even larger amount of activity that is set to go," said Peter Harrold, the World Bank chief for Sri Lanka.

What there isn't, though, is information. If the money is out there, no one has told the people of Peraliya — and most other villages — how it will reach them. Top regional officials have yet to visit, except for a few quick memorial ceremonies.

The people who live within the 110-yard coastal buffer zone, for instance, have heard they'll be given land in a forest about six miles away. But no one has seen the land or knows anything about the houses that will be built there.

The government, for its part, insists things are going well. A recent headline in the government-run Daily News said Sri Lanka's program to distribute foreign relief money had won "global praise."Finance Minister Arath Amunugama said of the program: "This novel system has eliminated unwanted red tape and is a very efficient system."

Few villagers would agree.

"We don't have anything," said Jayasiri, the fisherman. His house was in the buffer zone, and as new homes have been erected nearby, he's become terrified he will be left with nothing. "We don't even know where we're going, and someone a few meters away already has a house?"

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