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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. 

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Tales from the tsunami coast

Daily Mirror: 17/12/2005" By Tom Whipple

The North

The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) has produced a video. It shows water rushing through coastal houses, sweeping away livestock and possessions. Survivors are interviewed about their ordeal, whilst the director focuses on an old woman, crying in a doorway. This devastation is what the film’s director refers to as the “second tsunami”; flooding which, almost a year on, halted aid efforts but went unnoticed in the world outside.Weeks later, the water hasn’t completely subsided - the road from Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu is barely passable in places. Where the jungle clears, vast waterlogged meadows reflect the afternoon sunlight.

We begin our tour of the tsunami coast with Anton, a Tamil water and sanitation expert from Oxfam. After the tsunami, devastated communities were moved wholesale -- the camps named after the village they replaced. So the name ‘Karachchkubupu’ refers to both a temporary camp and a flattened coastal village a few kilometres away.

All that stands of this original Karachchkubupu is the church’s façade. The strongest building in the village, it casts its shadow over the remains of houses below, whilst its congregation work to rebuild the shattered rear.

Here the tsunami and flooding are not the only tragedies though. About half the destroyed houses we see were levelled by bombs. “The tsunami finished off the rest,” says Anton. And leaving the village we pass a demining unit; a reminder that more sinister things can hide amongst trees than the flotsam from a seismic wave.

The other, temporary, Karachchkubupu feels like a cross between a prehistoric village and the aftermath of a rock festival. Evenly-spaced shacks, with palm-leaf roofs, sit alongside water tanks and box-like toilets.

It is in camps like this where the aid agencies do battle. Marking their territory, they emblazon logos wherever they can. Toilets by Care, homes by Worldvision, water and sanitation by Oxfam. Although, Oxfam is annoyed because a UNICEF tarpaulin surrounds its washing area – making it appear like someone else’s work.

Tsunami victims don’t care that their showers double as advertisements for foreign NGOs. They care about progress and results. Wherever we visit, Anton is cornered by villagers. “…When are our toilets arriving?... Can we have another tank?…When will work be complete?…”

Later, he sighs “They always expect something from us.”

But many are grateful, especially those for whom the tsunami was yet another tragedy – differing only in that it merited aid. Mr Amirthalingam, a father of five, earns money fixing nets in his temporary home. How has his life changed? “Before the tsunami I was displaced by the war” he says “I was a refugee then and I am a refugee now, but we received no help in the wartime.”

There are vast amounts of aid in Sri Lanka. Privately, many agencies say there is too much. But it was given for the tsunami, not war nor flooding; even if those victims are equally needy. This is the paradox of relief in the North and East. Thankfully it is a paradox which -- through subtle rewording of aid agencies’ remits or through simple common-sense – is not as significant as it could be.

Martin Linders, the Kilinochchi director of Oxfam, explains, “Our donor has said that assistance can be given to tsunami-affected districts. So our programme can include tsunami-and war-affected areas.” The war or political situation is not as great impedance as might be assumed “To some extent it’s easier to work here” says Linders “There is one group to coordinate things. It’s fairly well organised.”

As if to confirm this, Anton takes us to a permanent camp, Nayaaru. It is impressive. Built on tsunami-proof high ground, there is still access to the sea, as well as solar lighting and sturdy buildings. Then something happens to remind us that, however easy the aid work, this is not a normal part of the world.

Whilst photographing the camp, a jeep pulls up. Its occupants start taking photos of us. They tail us for three kilometres and stop us for questioning. Nayaaru, we learn, is a restricted area. Lucky to leave without arrest, we decide to end our time in the North.

But first I interview a TRO coordinator. Previously I had spoken to TAFFREN, the erstwhile national tsunami relief coordinators. They thought the whole country could be back to some kind of normality, with everyone in permanent housing, within six months.The coordinator chuckles “What is normal?” he laughs loudly “Before this we had 20 years of war” As we leave LTTE areas, another bombing in Jaffna indicates that things may indeed be returning to just that state of ‘normality’.

The East

Chris Bowley, the Batticaloa director of Save the Children, warns me about emotive questioning “It’s been a circus here” he says “People have been asked about the tsunami so many times. They may not be willing to talk; going over these events traumatises them.”

We have entered the section of coast where the physical tsunami was followed by an equally extensive media tsunami; aid workers are wary of exploitation. And with good cause. Later in our trip, we reach Galle. Close to Colombo and well-stocked with journalist-friendly hotels, this area proved popular amongst the international press. I speak there to the director of a local charity “A guy from the Irish Times visited” he says, “We had a grand opening of a project, involving 250 children. He asked me if any of the children had particularly harrowing stories he could question them about. I replied that I wasn’t even going to find out. The day had nothing to do with ‘Oh your parents died, tell me about it.’”

That a journalist could be callous in pursuit of a story is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that he felt the need to search for such tales. Here, in the East’s coastal strip, trauma and drama are still the inescapable background noise to everyday life. What happened a year ago is far from just a memory.

So it is that, sitting in a classroom in a tsunami-affected school near Batticaloa, we hear the story of the clock. Tick-tocking on the wall above our heads, it contains a picture of a smiling girl – the explanation, that it was donated by the girl’s father after she was killed in the tsunami, hardly seems necessary. However, in three different classrooms there are three different clocks, with three different pictures. Each from the same man, each commemorating the death of one of his children. On presenting them he had said, “I won’t be here long either”. Shortly afterwards, he committed suicide.

The school coped better with tragedy. Closed when the tsunami hit, the only casualties were books and computers. But pupils came from along the coast and when I ask Mrs Velaudapillai, the principal, about lost equipment she replies briskly, “I give priority to life. 54 of our children died, 38 lost parents.” It is true, looking around, that equipment is not the issue. In that respect the school is at least as well off as it ever was. The issue now is that, a year on, those sitting their O-levels have missed out on education.

Amidst the post-tsunami devastation, schooling was not a concern. In some cases, schools had become IDP camps or medical centres. And when they reopened, counselling seemed more important than curriculum. So the risk was that a generation who survived th tsunami would still suffer through failing their exams. It was a risk, which prompted Save the Children to fund extra lessons. The forthcoming results day will reveal if they worked.

We leave an LTTE-imposed hartal to follow the coast, taking the road from Batticaloa to Pottuvil. The detritus of the disaster is everywhere. Rectangles of broken bricks emerge from the beach; the footprints of villages that have moved, as one, to temporary camps. Some day all that will remain of these temporary camps will be similar squares of concreted floor - just another footprint in the villages’ journeys to permanent housing. But the unmade road, temporary bridges and loose rubble are reminders of how far away that objective is.

And then, just outside Pottuvil, an STF officer stops us. Seeing we are Press, he takes us aside. “Villagers here have received nothing. The Grama Sevaka is keeping aid to give to the LTTE. Do you want to see?” With half a dozen men in the back of a jeep, he sets off to the village – our van following.

Two families emerge from half-completed shelters. Already poor, the tsunami took what little they had. Doubtless in Colombo, where their village is a dot on a map in an NGO’s office, records will show they received payments, received rations and are benefiting from the unprecedented aid effort. But Colombo is a long way from Pottuvil and just because something is dispatched does not guarantee arrival.

Despite assurances of anonymity, the villagers will not attribute blame. The officer, who also wanted to remain anonymous, whispers, “I could show you 100 people like this. They are scared to say more, scared of the LTTE.”

How much the political situation hampered the aid effort – in the North, but especially in the East – becomes apparent when we reach the South coast.

The South

“If I was heard to say this by certain parties I would be very unpopular but the fact of the matter is, things are alright here.” Jake Zarins, the Group Coordinator of Project Galle, is talking about the relief effort, “There is enough aid promised that, if focussed right, the south coast will be fine.”

Project Galle is an oddity yet, amidst the relaxed tourist atmosphere of the South, its strange beginnings seem almost appropriate. When the waves hit Unawatuna, a group of tourists and ex-pats banded together. They used their contacts to coordinate the evacuation and aid until proper agencies arrived. By the time authorities did arrive, they were still well-placed to help. Gradually their ad-hoc efforts became an organisation, which has distributed $2 million in aid.

But now, believing that the pressing humanitarian work has come to an end, they are winding up “We wanted to end on a high,” says Jake adding“Things are becoming more complicated: jealousies are flaring up and there’s an issue of donor dependency. Yet you go a few kilometres inland and people are as poor as they were before. Resentment in those areas is becoming a real issue, particularly in the schools. All the schools here have computer labs, science labs and sports facilities. I tell people who want to help to donate inland, where the schools have nothing. But people are attached to the idea of the tsunami.”

That is not to say all is perfect. On the ground, people talk about temporary camps remaining for at least a year. And the Southwest has its own problems. Whilst the Northeast has terrorists, flooding and the aftermath of civil war, here the difficulty is more prosaic, but often as pressing: space.

There simply isn’t land for more housing. So agencies build wherever they can; often on swampy ground where dengue and malaria are rife, drainage a luxury. Whereas houses elsewhere are spaced – each with its own porch – here camps are of the kind that would not seem out of place if the word ‘camps’ was prefixed by ‘concentration’. Long wooden blocks of contiguous sheds face each other across narrow gaps, into which kitchen scraps and wastewater form fetid puddles.

In general though, the South coast has performed an impressive recovery. Nowhere is this clearer than in the resorts: Mirissa, Unawatuna, Hikkaduwa. Here, it is all too apparent that the mercenary hare of capitalism beats the well-meaning tortoise of charity every time. Elsewhere, bureaucratic obstacles combined with logistical bottlenecks to slow the construction process, but here - with the tourist dollar king – hotels rushed to fill holes left by the tsunami. The profit motive prevails. And aside from a few photographs on restaurants walls, a few broken buildings on the edge of town, little evidence remains of the greatest natural disaster in modern Sri Lankan history.

Maybe, by the time the next anniversary arrives, the same will be said for everywhere else.


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