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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. 

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sri Lanka Tsunami Relief

PBS: 14/10/2005"

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: In this year of natural disasters it's become clear that recovery from what earthquakes or tsunamis do can be seriously set back by human nature. Our correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro recently returned to Sri Lanka, devastated by last December's tidal wave. He saw the results of generous worldwide emergency aid. He also found rebuilding hampered by bureaucracy, jealousy, and rivalry between religious groups.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Seerithambi Rajendran remembers the tsunami like it happened yesterday.

"I rushed home when the waters came," he says. But there was no sign of his family and barely a trace of the home he shared with his wife and three children. Two days later, he found his wife's body in a hospital morgue. He never found his children. They were among countless victims whose bodies were never recovered or who were buried without identification to prevent the spread of disease. In all, about 31,000 Sri Lankans are thought to have died during the tsunami. Survivors like Rajendran have struggled. He tried to commit suicide. All he now owns from his former life are these two pictures.

SEERITHAMBI RAJENDRAN (Tsunami Survivor) (Through Translator): The one on the top came from my sister's house. The other one was discovered in a photo album that had washed to the other side of the lagoon. Someone recognized it and brought it to me. It's the only picture that survived from the album.

DE SAM LAZARO: What he does have is his job on a team of fishermen. They have new nets and a boat, thanks to its namesake, a British graduate student who raised money from friends and a church back home.

REBECCA WALKER (Volunteer): The main thing they needed was not motivation or anything like that, but to be busy. They needed to be given an option so that they could keep themselves busy and their minds active, because at the time I met them they sat in refugee camps or in their broken homes just with nothing, and just basically, just thinking about what had happened.

DE SAM LAZARO: Walker is among hundreds of individuals and agencies who have brought millions of dollars to Sri Lanka in the global outpouring of sympathy after the tsunami. It's brought train service back, but the old train in which more than 1,000 people drowned stands as a symbol of the tsunami's enormous toll.

Up and down Sri Lanka's coast, emergency relief has become the main industry, providing food, sanitation, and temporary work and housing. Yet the need seems impossible to fully meet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN (Through Translator): The tents are very hot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN (Through Translator): In the rainy season the water comes right in.

DE SAM LAZARO: These tent dwellers said they had received some help soon after the tsunami, but almost nothing for months. They survive through occasional day labor and food handouts. But the local official overseeing aid insists these people are squatters who moved into vacated tents -- not really affected by the tsunami and therefore not eligible for aid.

H. L. GUNAWARDENE (Divisional Secretary): All affected people in this area we give temporary house. Others are not affected families.

DE SAM LAZARO: Who are these people?

Mr. GUNAWARDENE: They are poor families, but they're not affected families

DE SAM LAZARO: What does "affected" mean?

Mr. GUNAWARDENE: "Affected" means by tsunami.

DE SAM LAZARO: One of the grim tasks for aid workers is to distinguish tsunami victims from just plain poor people -- those who had no homes before the tsunami, victims of 20 years of bitter civil war that has drained Sri Lanka's economy.

JUDE SIMEON (National Evangelical Alliance): Enormous support came toward tsunami victims, but there are 800,000 refugees living in refugee camps, and they're displaced in various places. We have a fear that we are going to create a social imbalance in terms of the tsunami victims and the war-affected people.

Father BENJAMIN MILLER, S.J.: Almost every group sees the things they don't have, and they know someone else who has what they would like to have, nd they consider that they are being exploited or denied. And that runs all the way down the coast, wherever the tsunami hit.

DE SAM LAZARO: The picture is that much more complicated in Sri Lanka's north and east, home to most of the Hindu minority who speak the Tamil language. Their long-held grievances against the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority erupted in a bloody civil war in the 1980s. It abated two years ago under an internationally brokered cease-fire.

The rebel Liberation Tamil Tigers control much of the land here, which it wants to turn into a separate Tamil nation -- a cause that has claimed thousands of young lives. More immediately, the Tamil Tigers have insisted that they, not the Sinhala-dominated government, supervise all aid efforts here. That could doom those efforts, says Father Benjamin Miller, an American Jesuit who has lived here since 1948 and long sympathized with Tamil causes, though not the rebels, known as the LTTE.

Fr. MILLER: Quite a number of governments that are giving money have been very specific that "we will not put any money in the hands of the LTTE because we have already declared them a terrorist group."

DE SAM LAZARO: The wrangling over tsunami aid has raised tensions again and threatened Sri Lanka's cease-fire. There are almost daily reports of killings and abductions of children to serve as soldiers -- a trademark LTTE tactic.

PATTIPILLAI VELLUPILLAI (Through Translator): They come on motorcycles and just take the kids away on the back of motorcycles. A lot of parents don't even let their children go to school because they are afraid. One 16-year-old boy was taken from here just yesterday.

DE SAM LAZARO: Relief groups worry that deteriorating security will hinder or drive away workers and threaten aid pledges for long-term recovery. And Christian agencies, among the largest aid providers, have faced added complications. There are allegations that, along with providing emergency aid, they've tried to force conversions.

AMPITHIYE SUMANARATHANE (Buddhist Monk) (Through Translator): They take advantage of people's poverty. They say tomorrow we'll be giving aid; they get all the people to come to church. And when they come, they give two- or three-hour sermons.

DE SAM LAZARO: He points the finger at newer evangelical churches. But the allegations have triggered a backlash against all churches, especially in some Buddhist circles. Some in Sri Lanka's parliament have even proposed a so-called anticonversion law. Christian groups say it could declare much of their work to be coerced conversions and therefore a crime. The Evangelical Association says proselytizing has been the exception among missionaries here.

Mr. SIMEON: Our corporate responsibility towards the community is to show God's love and people to understand God's love but not to use as a bait -- not to use our development services for people to become Christians. But we cannot control 100 percent because even all the churches are not part of alliance. They are affiliated to different groups in the country.

DE SAM LAZARO: And yet at the same time the whole Christian community gets tarred with the same brush?

Mr. SIMEON: Yes, they get tarred with the same brush.

DE SAM LAZARO: So far, Sri Lanka's politics, war, and bureaucracy have not significantly hindered emergency relief, but there's growing worry that they could drive away some of the $3 billion that's been pledged but not yet delivered for long-term recovery.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred De Sam Lazaro in Galle, Sri Lanka.


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