RAJADURAI Suthakaran was employed in the Maldives as a teacher at a leading school in the archipelago. When the tsunami struck the Eastern coast on the fateful day of December 26, Suthakaran was on a short holiday and was at his home in Thirukkovil. His home is about 400 metres away from the sea.
On that morning when he was in the bathroom, he felt a sudden surge of water just outside his house and he ran out to see what was going on. His compound was a pool of water and he remembers seeing some of his neighbours running and screaming.
There was no time to waste. He jumped into the water and climbed the nearest coconut tree in his garden to save his life. He was worried about his parents and siblings.
He didn't know where they were. Once the water receded, he went searching of his parents and his siblings and was relieved to find that they were safe in a school nearby.
Well.. from that moment onwards, Suthakaran started assisting people in numerous ways and also coordinating with the Army and various voluntary organisations in relief activities. His foreign job was the last thing on his mind. He thought it was time he served his country and people.
"I did not want to go back to foreign employment, leaving my people and my community in misery. Instead, I started getting involved in many social welfare programmes to assist tsunami survivors," he said.
Finally he started working with Oxfam in Ampara and Akkaraipattu. He says he enjoys the job. For Oxfam, he is certainly a precious employee.
REFLECTING the resilence of spirit which is so typical of the common people, tsunami survivors from a village called Umari in the East, are now living in transitional houses in Thandiyadi, Thirukkovil.
This group has undergone prolonged misery but their spirit remains unshattered. They are actually people from the plantation sector who migrated to the East after the 1983 riots. Since then, they have had to undergo immense hardships throughout the conflict, getting displaced many times.
The tsunami too did not spare them. The tsunami's killer waves destroyed all their wealth within seconds, although their wealth was not extensive.
In this village, Thandiyadi, ZOA, an NGO has supported the community to build transitional houses. When we visited the village, we saw some people engaged in upgrading the walls of the tiny, transitional houses made out of 'Takaran' to concrete bricks - a bit of comfort.
People in this camp have got over their initial mental trauma. They are now in a mood to listen to music as many transistors in the camp were on at the time we were there. All what they want now is to restart life with income earning activities, build houses of their own and continue to send their children to school.
Before the tsunami, these villagers were engaged in fishing, brick making and farming.
Another international NGO, Oxfam, conducts a gender programme in this camp. The participants in this programme say that there has not been any major incident of violence against women in the camp.
"But there are lots of issues relating to women. Hence it is better to make people, both men and women, aware of domestic violence and its negative impact on children and women and society," they say.
In this gender programme, men (a couple of them) and women sit together in a circle and the instructor, Ms. Guna, addresses them.
In this session, women are given a basic knowledge of violence and rape and how to avoid such situations or what precautions they should take.
Oxfam has also started a well cleaning and renovation programme in this village and the adjoining villages. After the tsunami, the wells couldn't be used for drinking water as debris filled most of them.
Over 1,100 wells have been earmarked for cleaning and 810 have already been completed. People in the area have access to clean drinking water now. Prior to that, Oxfam provided 240,000 litres of water per day to these communities.
Rajadurai Suthakaran, who is a tsunami survivor, now works for Oxfam in Akkaraipattu. He says that Oxfam works closely with communities, local partner organisations and supporters, to work out need based programmes.
In the East, Oxfam is engaged in various tsunami rehabilitation and reconstruction activities. Their aim is to secure a livelihood, a dignified house, and promote education and health, reduce vulnerability to natural disasters and conflict, ensure the right to be heard and fight for gender equality and freedom from discrimination.
"We do not do things the way we want.We talk to people, and work according to their wishes, so that the whole community can get engaged in the rehabilitation work process", Suthakaran says.
T. Bahirathan, Oxfam's Programme Coordinator in Ampara, says that they are committed to supporting the affected communities in the area over the next several years. "The commitment has to be long-term as there are many issues to deal with in the process of reconstruction and rehabilitation," he says.
After the initial emergency and recovery processes, they have now moved onto reconstruction and development work. Introduction of livelihood activities and construction of transitional housings came as part of this programme.
In Ampara district, Oxfam works in 35 villages where the Tamil population is 50% Muslim, 32 percent and Sinhala 18%. They have also completed 1,050 transitional houses in Thirukkovil, Saindamarudu, and Akkaraipattu. Oxfam has been awarded the Presidential Award for their innovative transitional housing project.
After the tsunami, Ampara's total permanent housing requirement is 23,000. According to present information, agreements have been signed to construct about 7,000. Oxfam plans to build 500 houses as their contribution towards this goal.
"We plan to use a new technology which is cost-effective and user-friendly. We have not yet finalised the programme and when and where the houses would be constructed.
However, we are hoping to get the fullest involvement of the community in this endeavour. This will be a complete self supported programme," says Bahirathan. "We will make use of carpenters, masons and other labour from the area itself."
Currently, Bahirathan and his institution are considering putting up three model houses. "Then the people will get an idea of these houses," he adds.