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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. 

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Salt in the wounds: A year later, what has become of tsunami survivors?

Oakland Tribune: 26/12/2005" By Jonathan Jones, STAFF WRITER

KALMUNAI, SRI LANKA - A year after the tsunami, there are no monuments or memorials to honor the dead, only sticks in the ground near palm trees and coconuts to mark the mass graves.
Along the road next to a magnificent sandy coastline, a few market stalls are selling fresh papayas and mangoes. Men are sitting outside of tea shops and smoking cigarettes. Children are playing cricket on a dusty field. And fishermen are bartering with wholesale dealers about prices for their daily catch.

But the mounds of rubble, piles of garbage, gutted homes and concrete foundations are a stark reminder of the damage caused when the world's fifth-largest earthquake in a century unleashed a series of tidal waves here.

This eastern fishing village, one of several near the town of Kalmunai, was among the thousands of beach communities devastated by the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, which left more than 216,000 people dead or missing.

Of the 35,000 Sri Lankan voices silenced that day, half were in Kalmunai and its surrounding villages. The dead included grandparents at home unable to overcome the pull of the waves, mothers sitting down for tea, and more than 40 children at a nursery school of a local mosque.

One year later, tens of thou-sands of families here still live onsmall plots of land in crudely built shacks and huts, or with relatives, where feelings of disappointment and exasperation run high. But in a country where 500,000 Sri Lankan families lost their homes, the complaints of villagers here barely raise an eyebrow.

So when Meerasaibu Aribay, a 64-year-old petroleum shop owner representing 416 families in Kalmunai, learned that a local government official would be coming to their village to discuss housing, he begged a foreign journalist to report on it.

"We've heard rumors that they're building in other parts of the country," said Aribay as he sat surrounded by piles of debris and garbage yet to be cleared. "The main problem is housing. We are still asking the government for help. We want to rebuild this village far better than it was before. We want to develop its economy and meet the basic needs, electricity and education for our children. The government should be doing better than they're doing."

Up and down Sri Lanka's coast, nongovernmental aid organizations including the Red Cross, Oxfam and World Vision, supported by ordinary citizens in the Bay Area and across the globe, put thousands back to work, drilled new sewage lines, prevented outbreaks of disease and helped almost 90 percent of the children affected by the tsunami return to school.

But for all the money pledged for reconstruction in Sri Lanka — $400 million at last count — the actual rebuilding of housing has been slow to occur.

In Kalmunai and its surrounding villages, more than 12,481 homes were destroyed. But so far, only 26 homes have been handed over to displaced families. And more than half of the homes proposed for construction — nearly 7,000 — have yet to secure funding, according to district summaries from the government.

Most survivors live in "transitional shelters" made of wood and tin with little ventilation, where they share toilets and rely on handouts of rice, sugar and lentils to survive.

One year later, the lack of progress in eastern Sri Lanka reveals the complications of disaster relief in a region where the northern-dominated ethnic Tamil rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the southern-dominated Sinhala government have been fighting each other in a civil war since the 1980s.

The road to Kalmunai from the district capital, Ampara, where most of the aid agencies are based, closes after dark and sometimes during the day if violence breaks out.

In addition, many aid agencies, including the American Red Cross, that landed in Sri Lanka after the tsunami positioned their efforts in the south to avoid aiding the rebel Tamil Tigers, who are on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

"There has been a lot of racial tensions (in the east) for a long time, so operating in those (areas) has not only been difficult for us, but also for aid agencies," said Ramesh Selliah, director of housing, urban development and the environment for the Sri Lanka Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation. "It's a tricky situation there."

According to villagers and government officials, delays in construction also were exacerbated by the government's decision to restrict villagers from rebuilding near the sea to create a "buffer zone" against another tsunami.

But in Kalmunai, many of the displaced survivors are fishermen. They say they need to live near the ocean to do their job.

"We can't live anywhere else and do our business," said Ajmal Mohideen Mohamed, a 38-year-old bearded wholesale fisherman. "We are fishermen. This is all we know."

The difference between those who have permanent homes and those who do not can be found in people such as Ajmal.

He, his wife and three of his sons survived the tsunami, but he spent several of the following days driving around in a truck looking for his 11-year-old daughter, Jiya, his parents and 20 other relatives.

When he finally found his daughter's body several days later, he recalled, "I thought it was pointless to go on living."

Instead, after a local businessman offered to loan him money, he decided to reopen his fish distribution business and "stop thinking about the past."

Today, Ajmal has a new permanent home, a new stereo, a motorcycle and a job. He said he is doing better than many of his neighbors, who have lived in transitional housing and still do not have jobs. He said they seemed distraught and removed from any effort to rebuild their community.


"I have lost my relatives and my possessions," he said. "Even though I have my fish business, the memories of my lost family members haunt me. But if I try to think about what I lost, it makes me feel depressed. I try to concentrate on the business."

The ethnic Tamil and Muslim villagers of Kalmunai say the lack of progress in rebuilding and the lack of information from the government have left them bitter and frustrated.

Many villagers, mostly Muslim men, have marched by the thousands in protest. But the protests appear to have resulted in little more than the closing of the roads into town.

Now, they seem at the edge of despair.

"Before the tsunami, I wasn't dependent on anybody," said 45-year-old Abu Baker Adbul Haleem as he mended someone else's fishing nets and smoked cheap tobacco rolled in a temburni leaf. "Now, I'm dependent on someone for everything, and the government isn't supporting us."

Abu, a lanky man wearing a sarong and an undershirt, said they had received some help from the government soon after the tsunami but have heard virtually nothing since. In the wake of the tsunami, aid workers quickly found shelter for hundreds of thousands of people, housing displaced families in schools, tents and basic huts before building new transitional housing.

For the displaced villagers, the new transitional shelters, which sometimes had electricity, seemed like an upgrade from tents and temporary shelters. But now many of these tiny shelters, sometimes divided into two rooms by a blue tarp, flood whenever it rains, and people are getting restless.

In Tirrukovil, a Tamil village south of Kalmunai and a frequent site of rebel activity, security checkpoints and barbed-wire fencing surround the clusters of primitive transitional shelters as a handful of military officers stand on guard, apparently without orders to be involved in the rebuilding process.

Twenty-five families call this small plot of land home. While a few women make rope out of coconut husks, most of the people living here have nothing to do but draw lines in the sand. Some have radios, bicycles or an occasional sewing machine, but most have little more than a sheet and a plastic tub.

"We've been here for six months, and we still have no water facilities," said Kandasamy Maheswari, a 45-year-old woman who used to own a grocery shop along the coast. "We're just idle. We have no jobs. We do nothing but sit here all day in the camps."

Helping Hambantota

But the southern coast tells a very different story. In the districts of Hambantota, Matara and Galle, funding has been secured to build 12,705 new homes. That's 4,136 more homes than the total 8,569 homes destroyed by the tsunami, according to government data.

Down a dirt road two to three miles outside of the town of Hambantota, hundreds of two-bedroom, one-story brick houses with a veranda and gardens have been built for tsunami survivors.

In Hambantota, the home district of Sri Lanka's new president, Mahinda Rajapakse,
4,591 new homes are being built although only 1,057 homes were destroyed, according to government data.

There are plans to build a school, a mosque and a church to help strengthen the sense of community. But right now, the new housing project is disconnected from stores, schools and places of worship in town.

Some of the new residents, such as 55-year-old Seiadu Mohamed Marook, said the new housing has been a big help for his wife and two children. Before the tsunami, he shared a small house with two other families. Now, each family has its own home. But for others, such as Chandrika Preethi, the location of her home may be different, but the sadness is the same.

The 44-year old widow had lived with her mother and two children, and rented out the extra rooms in their former home before it was destroyed in the tsunami.

For 10 months, she lived in a tent before moving into a new house, which she has decorated with pictures of her late husband, mother and two daughters. She says she has no one.

"I am alone," she says as tears stream down her face. "There is no one to take care of me."

Like others, she sells an assortment of biscuits, peanuts and detergent from her home to neighbors. But she said she is unable to earn enough money to make a trip into town, and most days she stays at home alone, consumed with grief.

"This is too much," she said. "I'm fed up with life."

In the run-up to the Nov. 17 election, opposition leaders routinely criticized Rajapakse, then prime minister, for attracting donors to help Hambantota after the tsunami while neglecting other areas.

Police launched an investigation into allegations of misappropriation of tsunami funds to his constituents in Hambantota, before the Supreme Court eventually halted their inquiry.

Ramesh Selliah, the director of housing, urban development and the environment for TAFREN, Sri Lanka's reconstruction task force, defended the disproportionate number of new houses under construction in Hambantota. Selliah contends that in the wake of the tsunami, multiple aid agencies began working independently on new housing there.

Selliah added that the government also has disbursed the first installment of cash grants to 4,848 villagers in Kalmunai and its surrounding villages through the homeowner-driven program to encourage resettlement.

Horrific year

The government says most of those displaced by the tsunami will be moved to permanent housing in 2006. But the lack of information provided to people in Kalmunai had left many with little hope they would be moving anywhere anytime soon.

Just inland, Abdul Sakam's transitional housing looks like any other from the outside. But inside, jars of lollipops, lottery tickets, orange soda and fabric softener are for sale.

A former fisherman, he converted his transitional housing into a convenience store two months after the tsunami using the money he received for the loss of his wife and four children.

As he stood next to his 11-year-old daughter, the 42-year-old widower said he'll never return to the sea. The housing may be transitional, but the changes in his life are all too permanent.

If the government allowed people to rebuild on their land, Ajmal said, villagers could recover from the tsunami. But people here are very upset by what they see as government's indifference to their plight, he said.

"The government says be patient, and said in the newspapers and on TV that they'd begin to build houses within three months," Ajmal said. "But it's been 12 months since the tsunami, and they have not done anything. We're not sure what's happening."

Ajmal believes that once villagers rebuild their homes, Kalmunai and the surrounding villages can be restored to their former selves within four years. The United Nations says 10 years is a more realistic time frame to expect communities in Sri Lanka to recover completely from the tsunami.

But no matter how long it takes, the first anniversary does not mark much of anything for most of the survivors, except the passing of one horrific year.

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