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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. 

Friday, December 23, 2005

Sri Lanka: "We cannot afford to only help people affected by the tsunami"

ReliefWeb: 13/12/2005" By Callie Long, ACT International

The cemetery lies baking in the sun -- a sandy stretch of land set aside some twelve months ago as a final resting place for those who died on December 26 last year, when a tsunami roared in from the India Ocean, destroying everything in its path as it hit Sri Lanka's coastal areas.

The small cemetery near Kilinochchi, along with several other "tsunami cemeteries" that dot the landscape and bear silent witness to the horrific events of December 26, did not exist a year ago.

Only twelve months ago, everyone buried here today was alive: perhaps just getting up, rousing their children, working in their homes, walking along the road, or even staring out to the ocean with which their lives were so inextricably bound, only to see it rising up as high as the palm trees that line the beaches.

Wanni, which is made up of Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu districts, is a region deeply traumatised -- not only by the tsunami which struck the coastline, but by two decades of war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and successive national governments of Sri Lanka that left the districts in ruins. The death and destruction that resulted from the tsunami came as yet another blow to people in the two districts, which is today controlled by the LTTE.

Nearly twelve months after the catastrophic events of December 26, it is still hard to discern between the ruins of war and that of the tsunami. Both left the shores of this region broken and crumbling.

But, it's the war that people keep coming back to. Reverend S.D.P. Selvanal, or Selvan as he prefers to be called, of St. Mattias Anglican Church in Thanneerootu, says that as terrible and destructive as the tsunami was -- an event that cost so many people their lives -- it was essentially over in three minutes. The war dragged on for decades, "and nothing compared with that. Every day we knew people would die, just not how or when. Every day we expected death. When a plane flew over, we knew someone would die."

He explains that a small percentage of people in this region have been affected by both the tsunami and the war -- otherwise, the majority of the people are all survivors of a brutal conflict. "We were starting to rebuild after so many years of war," he says. "Then the tsunami came and destroyed even more."

Reverend Selvan is one of several pastors whose churches are members of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL). NCCSL -- a member of the global alliance, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International -- has been assisting people whose existence had over the years become increasingly precarious. For many, the natural disaster of December 26 felt like one blow too many.

For Reverend Selvan it is vital that anyone involved in humanitarian assistance not create divisions in a community already so deeply traumatised. "There are so many people affected by the war," he says. "Now we have people whose lives are affected by the tsunami," he says. "We cannot afford to only help people affected by the tsunami."

Reverend G. Manoruban of the Anglican Church, who had himself been wounded in Batticaloa during the war when he was only 13 years old, recounts with horror the day after Christmas when some 3,000 people died in this region, with at least 6,000 injured. "It was difficult." He too is quick to point out that the war had had a traumatic effect on people. "People were already affected by the war, had lost their loved ones, [although] not in a few minutes."

He snaps his fingers. "Then, the tsunami. It affected people mentally." He himself had rushed to the beach to help where he could, recovering bodies and scrambling to gather clothes and food from his small inland parish. Crashing his off-road motorbike in the rush to get back to the beach with his load strapped to the back of the vehicle, he carried on with the help of friends, in spite of his injuries sustained during the accident.

Nearly twelve months later he is happy to show visitors the work his small parish has done along with the local fishing communities through NCCSL and the support of ACT's members around the world. The assistance came in the form of bicycles, boats, catamarans and fishing nets, but it also includes the daily placement of four local newspapers in the community centres in the many temporary camps that have sprung up to house people displaced by the tsunami.

The idea, explains Reverend Manoruban, is that people have access to information, especially as it relates to their own economic and political circumstances. And four newspapers, so that they can compare the news of the day, and come to their own conclusions.

Nadarajah Jeyaganash is one of the young fishermen in the community who received a traditional wooden catamaran through NCCSL-ACT. From the small temporary shelter that now serves as his home, along with his parents and siblings, it is about one and a half kilometres to where they used to live, right on the beach. All that remains of his family's previous home now is a broken shell. But he is happy with the catamaran, except that he says that the five nets he received as part of the critical assistance package, is not quite enough. To fish properly, a fisherman needs five sets of five nets each, all sewn together. Extra floats and weights for the nets would also be welcome, he smiles.

"It has been a difficult year," he says, "but what can we do?"

Jeyaganash says that life is slowly improving since he received the catamaran.

"Now we have some hope. If we don't have hope, we don't have life. It's important to be alive," he says.

Having saved his own sister, Shanty, from drowning during the tsunami, which she described as "waves rolling, rolling, hitting people," life is indeed precious to Jeyaganash. When storms blow in off the Indian Ocean now, he stays at home, no longer willing to risk the waves.

In Mullaittivu, Dheiveram Thoivarankan, another fisherman whose boat was replaced by NCCSL-ACT, is mending his nets. Still living in a temporary shelter in a camp for the displaced, he explains how the ocean is his whole life -- he was born next to it and raised on it. The boat with its outboard motor stands right next to the small shelter, a lifeline for him and his family. A small contribution by NCCSL through ACT to rebuilding livelihoods perhaps, but significant nonetheless, as having a boat is one step in the direction of restoring his family's life -- although his daughter Thanushian's whole life has been here, in the makeshift shelter that serves as their home.

Born ten days after the tsunami, her birth gave Thoivarankan and his wife Thayana something to hold onto during the dark days following the loss of everything they had ever owned. Receiving the boat helped bolster his hopes: now he can fish, earn a small income and support his family and help feed them with his catches. Three teaspoons full of chilli powder, a pinch of salt, a chopped onion and a dash of coconut milk mixed in with a fresh fish caught that morning and cooked from 15 to 20 minutes with boiled rice make a good meal, explains Thayana.

By the end of September, NCCSL-ACT had replaced 55 boats and 25 traditional catamarans, 500 fishing nets, 30 out-board engines for the bigger boats and 250 bicycles in the districts. Far from being only a physical replacement of a lost item, they have helped restore people's dignity. For Jeyaganash and Thoivarankan and other fishermen such as Mr. Sathaiyamoorthy, Mr. Thlasitha and Mr. Parmeswaran, it has meant that they are once more self-employed, like in the past, and not forced to work as day labourers, sometime earning as little as 100 Rp ($ 1 US) a day. "It is our only job. We don't know anything else, and can't do anything else," says Mr. Sathaiyamoorthy.

The local NCCSL and ACT-related churches in the region have long worked closely with the Roman Catholic Church, which helped with the NCCSL-ACT distribution of boats, catamarans and bicycles. Assistant parish priest, Father Thirumaguan echoes Reverend Selvan's words. "This is a good time to help people affected by the war as well," he says, explaining that those affected by the tsunami and those affected by the war should "all be treated in the same way in order to avoid possible tension and economic imbalances."

Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu are places of immense sadness. But also small pockets of hope. The humanitarian assistance that came in the wake of the tsunami brought some relief, but the wounds in these communities are deep and long from healed. Reverend Selvan warns that in the end, decisions should be taken by those receiving the assistance, and not by those giving it. "[We cannot believe] that instead of giving people a voice, we are only giving them something. Just because people are at the end of the line does not mean that they don't have a voice."

Callie Long is the communications officer for ACT International


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