Date: 17 Feb 2006
By Callie Long, ACT International
Jaffna, Sri Lanka, February 17, 2006 - Just over a year ago, the tsunami killed some 40,000 people in Sri Lanka-a devastating blow to this island nation, and one that exposed the fragility of an uneasy and tenuous cease-fire agreement brokered four years ago.
Nowhere is the fragility more evident than in Sri Lanka's Jaffna province, where the conflict between the government and the Tamil rebels fighting for independence is ever-present in the scattered ruins of a war that has claimed the lives of at least 60,000 people over the decades.
A recent escalation in violent incidents in the north and east of the country has re-opened deeply felt psychological wounds, coming as it did in the lead-up to the setting of a date and location for the restarting of peace talks-now agreed on by the government and Liberation Tigers Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to happen on March 22 and 23 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Yet the violence continues, including more recent abductions and attacks on humanitarian aid workers in the north and east.
This prompted Christian leaders in the country to call for a stop to the spiral and culture of violence that is "spreading dangerously and indiscriminately." The call, signed onto in a media release by heads of churches of the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka (NCCSL)-a member of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International-and the Catholic Bishop's Conference, expressed concern that "no-one [is] even taking responsibility for wanting to stop this trend."
The heads of churches condemned "all killings, whether innocent civilians, service personnel, LTTE cadres or cadres of other groups," calling for "an end to these continuing and senseless killings in our country. The killing of any human is a judgement on us all. Whatever the rationale or ideology, any killing is an indication of our failure to live with differences and our inability to find a non-violent, inclusive and civilized way to deal with grievance and conflict."
It is within this complex political environment that the Jaffna Diocese of the Churches of South India (JDCSI) has been working, bringing immediate relief in times of crises to people mired in poverty, and continuing its work with the local communities.
Communities living on the edge
In what can be described only as an ongoing emergency for at least one impoverished community in Chillipurum, 15 years have come and gone in which they have been displaced several times. The small community of 115 families lost their original land when it was appropriated to create the high security zone that spans the northern coastal region of the country. Living in a camp for displaced people that cannot be upgraded or renovated, as it is on private land, the people have come to rely on assistance.
The Rev. Joshuva of the Moolai JDCSI congregation in Jaffna province's Valliganam district says the reason the churches, in a country where less than ten percent of the population is Christian, and of which the mainline Protestant churches are by far in the minority, can continue their work is "because our work in the long-term (and through the last two decades of civil war) has not been geared to proselytizing." He explains that the work they do within the community is about "community upliftment" and that they focus on issues of social justice.
The small community that has benefited from the churches' assistance, through JDCSI and members of ACT International, has seen some tough times. Prone to leprosy, many of the families that make up the community not only live in the shadow of poverty, considered a lower status (or caste), but have also been ostracized because of the skin and nerve affliction that has seen people cast out from society through the ages. Right now, 46 cases of leprosy are known, with only eight considered active.
Already living on the edge, the small community lost all their sea craft when the tsunami crashed into the coast of Sri Lanka. The families themselves were spared, living as they do outside of the high-security zone, where they leave their boats at the end of each day.
Then, nearly a year after the tsunami, toward the end of December, torrential rains flooded the area where they live-and again, JDCSI, working through the NCCSL and the ACT alliance, responded with emergency relief-dry rations and other food items-to see the community through the worst of the crisis.
For some, hope comes in the shape of a house
Some of the families have, however, now opted out of life in the camp, and having saved money, are, with the assistance of JDCSI and ACT, building homes and starting a new life in Katapulam, a short distance from the old camp in Chillipurum and within sight of the high-security zone where their old homes were.
For most people, buying or building a house is simply not a "political issue." However, for the small, displaced community, it is, as it means that they are giving up their dream of ever returning to their original land.
Others still cling to the hope that one day they will be able to "go home"-a view that JDCSI supports as an advocacy issue, while respecting and assisting those who now want to start a new life.
Shiranee Mills, the chair of JDCSI's Tsunami Relief Committee and a school principal in Uduvil, explains that there is no pressure on people like Mr. Thavachelvan, for instance, to relocate or build a house. Not only would it mean "giving up" on their dream of returning to their land, but simply saving money is difficult, if not impossible, when the only source of income is from erratic and unsustainable casual labor-income that at best may amount to Rp 200 (less than US$2) a day.
Of the 115 families, 18 have so far opted for new homes-several of which are under construction by the owners themselves.*
Dr. Preman Jeyaratnam, a retired anesthetist from the U.K. who was born and raised in Jaffna, says the tsunami dealt the poor communities yet another blow, as prices of property sky rocketed. Dr. Jeyaratnam says that with the sudden "demand" for land by NGOs, "a small plot of land, which would have cost Rp 1,000 before the tsunami, now sells for close to Rp 100,000." Having returned to Jaffna as a volunteer with JDCSI, as well as the Green Memorial Hospital where he originally trained in the 70s, Dr. Jeyaratnam says that having a house makes a "big difference" in the lives of people, showing how one enterprising family is using their small plot of land to raise chickens and plant rice.
The work done by the churches in Jaffna province is relatively limited-mostly "gap filling," as ACT coordinator Michelle Yonetani, who is based in Colombo, describes the assistance-but often vital, and always welcome. However, the assistance is all too often hampered by a lack of infrastructure. Communications can be difficult, as telephone lines and mobile networks are not reliable, which also means that access to the Internet is sporadic. The recent violence and attacks on government forces in the area have also meant extra security and long lines at military checkpoints. Movement around the peninsula is sometimes constrained, with most people ensuring they are back home and indoors well before nightfall. Many families have already left the peninsula and moved to the LTTE-controlled Vanni region.
And there is always the fear and reminder of a war that dragged on and claimed so many lives, as well as the year-old tragedy of the tsunami. On the issue of despair in the face of so many challenges, Rev. Joshuva adopts a pragmatic approach. "Some people blame God, while others thank God that the disaster was not bigger," he says. "Others blame Satan." For him, however, "death is natural. God simply takes us from one life to another. From a life of hardship into his own hands." He pauses, then adds, "* like the war has taken us."
*Eighteen of the Chillipurum houses are now built to the level of the roof and way ahead of the implementation timetable with a high proportion of the labor being done by the families themselves.
Callie Long is the communications officer for Action by Churches Together (ACT) International.
For further information, please contact:ACT Communications Officer Callie Long (mobile/cell phone +41 79 358 3171) orACT Information Officer Stephen Padre (mobile/cell phone +41 79 681 1868)
ACT Web Site address: http://www.act-intl.org/
ACT is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide. The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.