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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, April 15, 2006

Film explores broken Tamil lives

BBC: 22/03/2006" By Priyath Liyanage

A controversial film about the life and assassination of human rights worker Rajani Thiranagama from northern Sri Lanka is being screened in London as a part of the Human Rights Watch film festival.

Rajani was assassinated at the age of 35 in the northern town of Jaffna in broad daylight in 1989, after she published a book about human rights abuses in the north of war-torn Sri Lanka.

No More Tears Sister, screened from 22 March, follows her life and work as narrated by her sisters, husband and two surviving daughters.

Rajani, a university professor, was one of the founding members of a group called Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights. The group chronicled rights abuses committed by all sides involved in the civil war.

Her life and death marked a turning point in the Tamil separatist struggle.

The killing is one of the early assassinations attributed to the Tamil Tigers who have never denied killing her.

Revolutionary women

The film is directed by Canadian film maker Helene Klodowsky and produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

Michael Ondaatje's sensitive narration, and the highly effective use of archive footage and interviews, add value to a film which is powerful and poetic.

The fim portrays a liberation struggle evolving against a background of oppressive politics in independent Sri Lanka.

The lives of the sisters mirror those of many of their contemporaries. They sympathise with and are seduced by the romanticism of the Tamil political struggle, which quickly turns into a fully-fledged armed insurrection against the state.

While older Nirmala pursues the ideals of a socialist revolution, Rajani physically involves herself in the fight against government forces.

The film documents the pressure put on the personal relationship of two committed activists who sacrifice their lives for a cause they believe in.

Interviews with Rajani's husband tell a story of a family torn apart by a conflict that destroyed a whole community. He narrates it with remarkable honesty and emotion.

Campaigner

While the husband - a Sinhala socialist involved in a clandestine armed uprising against the state - rejects the ideals of the Tamil armed insurrection, the elder sister joins the struggle without any hesitation.

Rajani's involvement begins as a campaign to get her sister released from prison and torture.

Nirmala, a left-wing activist from her student days, belongs to a group demanding a political ideology for the Tamil struggle, rather than a purely nationalist one seeking a separate state.

The two women become disenchanted when they find leaders of the Tamil movement as intolerant of dissent as the Sri Lankan government.

Rajani then devotes herself to the people of the north who are victims of the war.

Her loyalty and devotion to the people bring her into conflict with the rebels, as well as with government security forces and the Indian army.

The book (The Broken Palmyrah) she writes along with her colleagues upsets both the government and the rebels.

Betrayal

No More Tears Sister is about a sister, wife, mother and uncompromising activist, who was radical and controversial.

In a series of revealing letters, we learn about Rajani's dedication to her work and family. She writes about love and her personal quest for it.

In one letter she talks about her imminent death. She said it would come from the very people who are near to her.

The film is not only about her life but also about the trauma suffered by innocent people close to her.

Her daughters and her family become the real victims.

The film empathises with many thousands of families around the world who have suffered similar experiences.

It manages to be extremely personal and sensitive and yet be universal at the same time.

Rajani's death is portrayed not as that of an individual but of a whole community and a threat against its consciousness.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has praised Rajani's commitment to peace and justice as "an inspiration to all involved in the struggle for human rights".

Even today, many Tamils in Sri Lanka do not know if Rajani is to be considered a hero or a traitor.

She comes over in the film as a woman who did what she had to do at the time with instinct and dignity - a product of her times and the circumstances she lived in.

No More Tears Sister is about the world that betrayed her conscience and that of others like her.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Rouge NGOs to be exposed

Daily News: 21/03/2006" By Shanika Sriyananda

The local and international Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs), now with 'fat' pockets, will be named soon for their failure to construct houses for tsunami victims.

After repeated warnings to these NGOs, the government has decided to make the public aware the names of those NGOs with details, the quantum of money they received, the expenditure, number of Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) signed, and commitments to build houses as they try to evade responsibility.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit (THRU) Gamunu Allawattegama told the 'Daily News' that the lethargic attitude of certain NGOs was a stumbling block to expedite the housing reconstruction for tsunami survivors.

According to Allawattegama, they have warned these NGOs.

These NGOs claim about administrative problems over the delay in construction of houses. However, the THRU earlier targeted to complete over 30,000 new houses, before the end of 2005, for tsunami victims. But it was only able to complete 5,400 houses after 14-months of the disaster.

Allawattegama said that over 3,000 houses were handed over to victims and 8,000 houses were now under construction.

"Except the highrise housing schemes proposed in Colombo and other areas, housing construction in other districts will be completed during the first quarter of next year", he said adding all the problems including land acquisition, have now been resolved.

He said although the THRU warned the NGOs and had several meetings to negotiate, these bodies yet tried to 'escape' and evade commitment.

"They will be exposed soon as the government keeps a sharp eye on their activity", he said adding that these NGOs had received huge sum of money for tsunami housing reconstruction.

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Rights group concerned about attacks on Auditor General

Daily Mirror: 24/03/2006"

The Asian Human Rights Commission said yesterday it was “gravely concerned” at public criticism of Sri Lanka's audit chief who has exposed government corruption including mishandling of tsunami relief aid.

The Hong Kong-based rights group in a statement said the organisation had asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa to prevent any attempts to undermine the official.

Auditor General Sarath Mayadunne has been exposing corruption as well as wasteful spending at state institutions, including the handling of millions of dollars in foreign aid for tsunami victims.

“The attacks have come in response to several critical reports published by the auditor general recently regarding the financial management of state institutions,” the rights group said.

Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera, who himself had been named in an audit report, had publicly criticised the auditor general.

The finance ministry chief said in a weekend newspaper article that states audits were “discouraging the public sector.”

The Asian Human Rights Commission said it wrote to President Rajapaksa complaining of Mr. Jayasundera's “negative approach towards the legal functioning of the Auditor General”.

It also said: “any unconstitutional and adverse moves against the Auditor General are globally seen as interference with the lawful functions of the legislative auditor.”

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Geneva humanitarian briefing - "A submission from Sri Lanka's humanitarian community"

ReliefWeb - Document Preview: Source: Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), Date: 10 Apr 2006.

INTRODUCTION
The people of Sri Lanka need lasting solutions. They need a marked shift from the ways of the past in order to secure a hopeful future for all. Geneva presents a point of opportunity to change the destiny of Sri Lanka; a chance to move the nation onto a path of what is actually possible through the service of leaders committed to upholding the rights, interests and dignity of every Sri Lankan. In the aim of finding solutions that build confidence and hope in the process of peace on behalf of all Sri Lankans, the humanitarian community has recently completed a national consultation with a wide variety humanitarian agencies. It focuses on the most pressing issues hindering humanitarian actors from contributing to this aim and providing their service to the people.
In consultation with staff and project beneficiaries, agencies working throughout Sri Lanka have identified and cited the greatest constraints that hinder humanitarian relief within their respective organizations. This survey has been compiled, synthesized and further reviewed electronically by agencies as well as in forum discussions. This process has been facilitated by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA).
The consultation highlighted a host of issues. The briefing seeks to highlight just three of these pressing issues in the form of submissions. We view these issues as keys to improving the daily living conditions for the most vulnerable citizens of Sri Lanka. Moreover, these issues have significance with regards to the peace process and sustainable development as perceived by a collective of Sri Lanka's humanitarian community. The issues are:
Respect for civilian neutrality and rights
Implement the outcome of Geneva talks in good faith
Space for humanitarian agencies and security of staffWe wish to draw attention to these three issues so that the GoSL and LTTE, with the support of the people of Sri Lanka and the international community, would combine their efforts around our concerns to formulate and implement workable solutions. Both the GoSL and LTTE, in the past, have accorded priority and special attention to humanitarian needs of the people. In keeping with this our belief is that all sides will seek solutions to these issues in order to assist our efforts to serve all Sri Lankans.
The humanitarian community of Sri Lanka is committed to the nation's people and in our efforts to continue providing assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. As a vibrant, yet diverse sector, we comprise numerous community-based organizations (CBOs), national and international non-governmental organizations (I/NGOs), all united by a common vision: to work for poverty alleviation and sustainable development for all -- regardless of gender, religion or ethnicity (race).
Unresolved political issues and civil unrest has hindered our efforts of achieving sustainable development in Sri Lanka. Decades of conflict and manmade turmoil has had a heavy social and economic impact on the nation. Unexploded ordinances mar the landscape depriving people from continuing their livelihoods, which in turn increase economic disparities and growing pockets of deprivation. Thousands of internally displaced people continue to live in camps and temporary shelters. Reoccurring acts of violence carried out by various groups thrust people towards ethnic violence and a potential resumption of war.
We, the humanitarian community of Sri Lanka, extend our support at this time to the Geneva participants as they work toward resolutions on behalf of the people.
Full report (pdf* format - 204 KB)

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Sri Lanka: Urgent action needed to ensure future of Human Rights Commission

ReliefWeb - Document Preview: Source: Amnesty International (AI), Date: 31 Mar 2006.

AI Index: ASA 37/009/2006 (Public)
With just days to go before the mandate of Sri Lanka's national Human Rights Commission is due to expire, Amnesty International calls for immediate action to preserve the country's key institution responsible for the protection of human rights.
"Given the serious and widespread abuses of human rights that affect Sri Lankans across the country, a fully functional, independent national human rights commission is essential," said Kavita Menon, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International. “Victims of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka have too little recourse to justice and redress as it is.”
The Commission carries out investigations into cases of torture, 'disappearances', political killings and other human rights violations. It also acts to promote and protect human rights. The important work of the Commission is likely to be severely disrupted as the current term of the Commissioners ends on Monday 3 April, with no new members selected to take their place.
Outgoing Commission chairperson Radhika Coomaraswamy, who last month was appointed as the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, has warned that without urgent action by the government, “there will be a real crisis”.
Appointments to the Human Rights Commission are to be made by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, which itself lapsed in March 2005 and has not been reconstituted due to political disagreements among parliamentary parties.
“With human rights under grave threat each and every day, the government should ensure the continued functioning of the Human Rights Commission as a priority,” said Kavita Menon. “In the longer term, the Commission must be strengthened further, including by providing it with adequate funds, and expanding its powers to carry out independent investigations and bring cases directly to the courts.”
Background
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka was established under the Human Rights Commission Act of 1996. It started its work in 1997 as an independent statutory body to investigate reports of human rights violations. It has ten regional offices and five commissioners.
The HRC set up a Torture Prevention and Monitoring Unit in 2004 and a Database on Disappearances Unit in January 2005. On 5 January 2006 the HRC appointed a team headed by a Special Rapporteur to advise the HRC on the measures to protect the human rights of civilians in the context of the use of emergency powers and of alleged violations of the ceasefire agreement between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Constitutional Council is to consist of the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, and seven other appointees who are to be “persons of eminence and integrity who have distinguished themselves in public life and who are not members of any political party.” Its prime function is to appoint members of various statutory commissions such as the Human Rights Commission, the National Police Commission, the Election Commission, and the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption.
Two writs lodged with the Sri Lankan Court of Appeal on 10 February seeking the reconstitution of the Constitutional Council are still pending.
Amnesty International has compiled a number of recommendations for National Human Rights Institutions which can be found in the document Amnesty International’s recommendations on National Human Rights Institutions at http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engior400072001.
Further Information:
For more information please call Amnesty International's press office in London, UK, on +44 20 7413 5566
Amnesty International, 1 Easton St., London WC1X 0DW. web: http://www.amnesty.org

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Too many vehicles in Colombo

Colombo Page: 21/03/2006" Worse traffic jams are expected in city roads by the end of this year.

The average speed of vehicles traveling between Wellawatta, the southern entry point to the city of Colombo to Fort, the city centre is 7km per hour.

This was revealed by a research conducted by the Transport Engineering Department of University of Moratuwa. The situation is similar on the other accesses roads also.

This snail phase causes a huge waste of fuel and time. It increases the pollution of the city air.

Air Resources Management Centre recently announced that the contribution of vehicles to the air pollution is 63%. Ill maintained vehicles are the nastiest pollutant makers.

At the end of 2005 there were 2.53 million vehicles registered in Sri Lanka and of them around 2 million vehicles are used everyday. Each day 630 vehicles are added to this number.

Last year 229,669 vehicles were registered. Of them 130,696 were motor bicycles and 41,085 were trishaws, which cause severe air pollution because most of them have two stroke petrol engines.

Sri Lanka's road network is incapable to bear the uncontrolled inflow of vehicles. Worse traffic jams are expected in city roads by the end of this year.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Airport and Aviation Services bars Sri Lankan products displayed at the only International Airport

Asian Tribune: 22/03/2006" By Q Perera

Sri Lanka is one country where its government is not helping the local industry, but the help is limited only to lip service and towards these dealings, the activities of those government agencies are neither just nor transparent.

This was revealed at a press briefing held at the World Trade Centre recently, arranged by the Ceylon National Chamber of Industries to explain the circumstances that led to the refusal of displaying and sales facilities for Sri Lankan products at the Bandaranaike International Airport. In these manner Sri Lankan manufacturers of confectionery, cosmetics and tobacco products are not allowed at the Airport by the Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd.

On the persuasions Export Development Board, AASL has agreed to allow EDB only 308 sq ft at an unimportant area in the Airport terminal. EDB after a long process selected 12 SL Manufacturers to display their range of products at the Airport.

The proposal for Export Promotion Display/Sales Centre at Katunayake International Airport was initiated in September 2004 by the National Centre for Economic Development, Export Cluster that is headed by Dr P B Jayasundara, Secretary to the Treasury. The proposal was subsequently adopted as a budget proposal of the year 2005 Budget and the stakeholders would be the Sri Lanka Export Development Board and the local manufacturers and exporters.

Despite many requests by the NCED and several meetings by NCED members and EDB with Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd, only 308 sq ft were allocated by the AASSL to the EDB. That too was on the ground floor opposite the old departure gates that were not frequently used by the passengers. Although the EDB tried hard they failed to obtain additional or appropriate space for this project, from AASSL.

Therefore, in the late December 2005, EDB advertised the display centre at the Airport and called for interested exporters to apply. After many interviews with interested manufacturers, 12 were selected to display their range of products at the above centre.

After the selection of the 12 Sri Lankan manufacturers, AASSL by their letter No.CP/1004/58/TR dated 17th February 2006, informed EDB that Tobacco products, all confectionery items such as biscuits, chocolates etc and cosmetics will not be permitted to be displayed at the above centre.

By this stricture of the AASL , four leading Sri Lankan manufacturing companies which are involved in a tremendous volume of export trade to a large number of countries were affected. They are Ceylon Biscuits Group manufacturers of biscuits, chocolates, cakes, organic dehydrated fruits and juices etc; Multichemi International Ltd, manufacturers of herbal cosmetics and detergents; Link Natural Products (Pvt) Ltd, manufacturers of herbal healthcare, ayurvedic pharmaceuticals and wellness and Thansher’s & Co, manufacturers of cigars.

EDB informed this to the respective manufacturers on the 24th February 2006 by their letter 4/13/218 and EDB was pressurized by AASSL to sign the agreement with them excluding the above manufacturers.

Samantha Kumarasinghe, Chairman, Multichemi Group expressing the Sri Lankan manufacturers’ disgust and displeasure over the attitudes of some of the state officials said the Airport is the gateway to the country for foreigners and to promote the country’s products they must have to be displayed at this gateway. Though all other countries have done this, Sri Lanka has failed to take advantage of this.

He said that though for 12 Sri Lankan producers has been allotted only a meagre 300 sq ft, the authorities have allowed a trading company dealing with garments as much as 1,500 sq ft and he said "There is absolutely no justice and transparency".

He said that 150 manufacturing companies have applied to get a place within this 308 sq ft and out of them the 12 companies have been selected. He said that the possible reason for not allowing the products of these four companies could be adduced to an agreement entered into by the authorities with a foreign company some years ago and the agreement would be due to be renewed shortly.

Kumaraisnghe said the attitude of some of the bureaucrats involved appear to be questionable and highly detrimental to the progress of local industry. Therefore the attitudes of these unpatriotic elements in the state agencies must have to be investigated and if found guilty should have to be severely dealt with.

He said that though successive governments have been proclaiming that they have been helping the local industrialists, essential assistance was not forthcoming. He said that the present President too has proclaimed that his government would help the local industry; the claim has yet to be proved.

He said it is a great pity that the achievements of Sri Lankan industrialists are ignored by their own government, and said "In Sri Lanka there are places exclusively to cater foreigners even now, like casinos, but in Japan there are places exclusively cater only the Japanese."

Thasneem Lafir, Director, Thansher’s & Co said that in most countries there are stringent restrictions imposed for imports while their exports are well advertised. But in Sri Lanka it is the other way about. He said their product too is exported to many countries and has won international awards.

Jude Rubera, Export Manager, Ceylon Biscuits Group said they are the market leader with a 60 percent share of the market in the country and theirs are globally accepted brands exported to more than 36 countries around the world. He said that they are not looking at a big volume of business at the Airport, but to portray a proud Sri Lankan product which would bring in more and more business to our products in foreign countries.

The aggrieved Sri Lankan manufacturing companies indicated that the country’s International Airport should not only be a source of revenue to the Government and a service to the passengers, but also a window for the country’s quality products.

They have noted that unfortunately, the short sighted agreement signed by AASSL with a foreign duty free operator prohibits the selling of local products that is in competition with the duty free imported items. The lease agreement of the duty free operator is up for renewal but they understood that this operator is to be given the right to operate the duty free complex indefinitely. These companies have also applied individually for space to sell their products, but they have not received any positive response from AASSL. As they have seen new shops were sprouting out in the meantime, they were questioning the transparency in the allocation of these shop spaces.

These companies lament, it is a serious injustice done to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan industry considering the huge sums of investment and employment generated by these companies directly and indirectly.

They also indicated that they understood that one duty free operator at the Airport is misleading the consumers by selling biscuits and nuts in packets depicting local scenes like tea gardens, Kandyan drummers, elephants and prominently displaying "Sri Lanka" on the front panel. The Sri Lankan image is used to sell biscuits made in other countries and Macadamia nuts, which are not indigenous to Sri Lanka.

These companies cried "This is our country land we vehemently object to the manner in which the EDB, Sri Lankan manufacturers and their products have been treated by the Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd".

They pointed out that the annual turnover of the Duty Free Complex is estimated to be over billions of rupees. The mark-up of duty-free products are said to be 300 – 400 percent. Employment is low in this operation but the profit is colossal. A modest estimate of 50 percent profit would net a few billions of rupees. If run by the government or Sri Lankan industrialists this could greatly defray a large part of the cost of some of the projects envisaged in the "Mahinda shinthana".

Even otherwise, if operated by Sri Lankans, the profit is taxable and will remain in the country, Surely, Sri Lankans can run a retail unit and these companies suggested that Sri Lankan manufacturers be selected on tenders for management and administration, so that colossal profit will rightly come back to the Government, who had incurred heavy expenditure on upgrading the airport.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

TRIPS THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE: Rebuilding Sri Lanka One House at a Time

BTO: April/2006" By Kimberley Sevcik

The tsunami left us all feeling powerless, but the truth is, we can make a difference

For days after the tsunami hit Asia, I stood in front of my television, transfixed by tales and images of children being swept from their parents' arms, of elderly men clinging to tree branches until their muscles burned and their fingers went raw, praying for the water to recede before their strength gave out.

Half the world's charities were soliciting donations, but writing a check felt too remote. I wanted to help in a more tangible way, to feel, in some part, the impact of the destruction that I'd been experiencing in my living room via tidy, two-minute news packages. Apparently, I wasn't alone. Dozens of Westerners were flying to the disaster zones to offer themselves up as unpaid relief workers--and being turned away. Unskilled workers were seen as more of a burden than an asset.

When I learned that Baton Rouge-based tour company Global Crossroad had coordinated a working vacation that offered ordinary citizens a chance to build houses for displaced families in Sri Lanka, I was cautiously excited. My only construction experience at that point had been assembling an Ikea dresser, but the cheerful program director assured me that there was plenty of work for unskilled laborers like me.

I was also uneasy about the prospect of a for-profit company earning money from someone else's misfortune. Global Crossroad insisted that it was merely covering costs. Of the $1,100 program fee, $400 went to construction materials, and most of the remainder was earmarked for food, lodging, and ground transportation. Two hundred dollars was applied to administrative expenses, primarily to pay the in-country coordinators. My doubts were somewhat assuaged when I learned that the cost estimate for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit doing a similar project in Sri Lanka, was about the same amount.

Global Crossroad has coordinated volunteer vacations around the world for three years, though its projects, such as teaching disadvantaged children and feeding orphaned elephants, have traditionally been less urgent in nature. After the tsunami, however, the phone rang off the hook with calls from volunteers pleading to be sent to Sri Lanka. Two weeks later, the company launched a house-building project in the town of Galle, on the southwest coast. A hundred and fifty applicants signed up in the first three days. By the time I returned home late last March, the company had arranged reconstruction trips for 600 people.

But wouldn't the $3,000 that you shell out for the flight and the program fee buy a lot more relief than the one or two houses you could help complete in two weeks? In essence, wouldn't it be better just to write the check and skip the trip?

Maybe. "Five dollars can buy so much over there, so it might make more sense to use the money you'd spend on airfare and hotel to help hundreds of people," said Michael Spencer, a public-affairs coordinator for the Red Cross. But by late January 2005, many organizations, including the Red Cross, stopped accepting money for tsunami relief. They said they had enough.

Besides, volunteerism fulfills a different purpose than a cash donation. "If you invest time rather than money, you're being an ambassador," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program. "You're promoting the idea that we're all connected despite our huge cultural barriers."

I arrived in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, 10 weeks after the tsunami. For many outsiders, the devastation had already begun to recede into memory. Along the coastal road that curves from Colombo to Galle, however, reminders of the destruction were rampant: houses that had been reduced to jagged fragments of wall or bleached wooden skeletons; staircases leading to nonexistent second floors; turquoise fishing boats snapped in half.

For all the gutted buildings that lined the road, and all the money that had allegedly been pouring into Sri Lanka, I saw not a single new house going up until we reached the town of Hikkaduwa, two hours from Colombo. Even then, there were only a handful. Locals said it was a planning issue: With so much of the coastline destroyed, the overwhelmed government was busy trying to allocate funds and decide on building sites. Meanwhile, 500,000 people were living in tents, and monsoon season was six weeks away.

Four hours after starting out, we pulled into Galle. At the bus depot, I recognized a statue of the Buddha sitting in the lotus position in a white concrete shrine. I had first seen it on a newscast, a serene orange-robed figure surrounded by rushing water, two young women clinging to one of its knees. Now, people scuttled past it without a glance.

The next afternoon, the 16 members of our project team assembled at our guesthouse, a minty green replica of a Dutch colonial. We ranged in age from 23 to 67; we hailed from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., and Australia; and among us were an accountant, a graphic designer, a songwriter, a flight attendant, and a retired business owner. We had all come with different levels of experience: There were a handful of unskilled but well-intentioned people like me, but thankfully, there were also Richard, a retiree from Austin, Tex., who had worked on 12 construction projects around the world; Debbie, from Kansas City, Mo., who ran a remodeling company with her husband; and her son-in-law Greg, a broad-shouldered, 27-year-old ironworker. Some people brought other valuable skills. Caitlin, an avid gardener from New York City, arrived with a suitcase full of organic seed packets, hoping to start a garden for the inhabitants of each new house.

With more than 20,000 people in the district of Galle displaced from their homes by the tsunami, Global Crossroad tries to ensure that its reconstruction efforts are focused on the neediest families. The company places an ad in the local paper, asking families to submit an application, and then interviews the family and inspects the damage to their home. Our project coordinator, Paul Ferreira, explained that we'd be building two houses: one for the family of a young man with cancer whose house had been destroyed by the tsunami, and another for the family of a fisherman who had lost not only his house, but also the boat that enabled him to earn a living.

Our days were divided equally between work and relaxation. Every morning at 7 a.m., we were driven 20 minutes inland to our work site in Bataduwa, a languid village where kingfishers sailed over the rice fields and locals gathered at the village well to bathe. During our orientation, Paul had advised us to abandon our Western ethos of maximum speed and efficiency. Our supervisors would be Sri Lankan masons, and as their apprentices, we'd adapt to their building methods. That meant no shortcuts: no power tools, no cement mixers, no backhoes. Instead, we had Iron Age implements to dig the houses' three-foot-deep foundations--pickaxes, shovels, and a heavy tool that fell somewhere between a crowbar and a spear, meant to break up the rocky soil.

It's a common philosophy on this kind of project, one that Habitat for Humanity employs as well. Despite the fact that you could knock out a lot more houses with some engine power, the thinking is that control over a reconstruction project should ultimately rest in the hands of the locals. There's a practical side, too: Replacement parts are scarce in Sri Lanka.

The first day, we cleared brush and dug foundations--grueling work that was exacerbated by the 98-degree heat and ferocious sun. It took about half an hour of chopping at roots with the dull edge of a hoe before we were drenched.

Throughout the two-week project, we were under the tutelage of head mason Lasanta, a lanky, sloe-eyed 26-year-old dressed like an Italian playboy in a pressed black dress shirt and fitted jeans. Lasanta spoke only a few tentative words of English ("yes," "no," "here," "there," and "cement"), and the Westerners knew even less Sinhala. But pantomime proved to be a fine communication method. On the few occasions when it did not, we relied on Ranjith, Lasanta's second-in-command, a sweet, perennially smiling man whose 18 words of English picked up where our two words of Sinhala left off.

At noon, we were driven 20 stifling minutes away to a lovely beach. We'd tumble out of the van, peel off as many clothes as we dared, and run into the ocean. The water was warm and embracing, the surf powerful. Our lunches--spicy vegetables, thin rice noodles, and a piece of grilled fish marinated in tamarind and spices--were delivered to us as we sat beneath the palms.

Because the afternoon heat was so intense, we worked for only a couple more hours after lunch before retreating to the guesthouse to shower and relax before dinner. One day, we returned to the site after lunch to find the family whose house we were building. The young couple and their two tiny daughters in matching pink dresses smiled shyly. W.A. Chandana, the man of the house, was 27 and had been diagnosed with leukemia. He and his wife, Rasangika, had 2-year-old twins, and her belly was swollen with a third child. A laborer in a garment factory earning $3 a day, Chandana had lost his house and all of his possessions in the tsunami. He and his family were living under a piece of tarp stretched over stakes, with a thin mattress on the ground, perpetually damp from the humidity and torrential evening rains.

Meeting Chandana's family lent an urgency to the construction, and made every task feel worthwhile. We learned how to mix concrete--hauling bucket after bucket of it to the bricklayers--and we transferred dozens, maybe hundreds, of boulders from one pile to another, where the masons could access them. By the end of the first week, I'd learned how to puzzle boulders together in the foundation to build a retaining wall, how to lay cinder blocks, and how to make support columns out of rebar and wire. Our progress was slow, and there were definitely moments when our tasks felt Sisyphean--the afternoon we spent shoveling out a six-foot cesspit with half of a coconut shell, for example.

Despite the heat, despite the occasional sense that I was paying for the opportunity to work in a gulag, I found that incredibly, surprisingly, I was having a great time. Our camaraderie helped sustain us, as did the constant stream of villagers who dropped by to kick-start us with cookies, bananas, and homemade caramels. One morning an old man and his granddaughter arrived bearing fronds of aloe. They must have seen half the work team glowing red with sunburn. A posse of schoolkids showed up one day, eager to help--frail boys of 9 or 10 carrying 20-pound rocks and buckets of concrete, staggering beneath the weight.

In the evenings, the project team alternated between the colonial indulgence of sipping gin-and-tonics on the lawn of the Lighthouse Hotel and visiting an unofficial refugee camp where families had pitched tents next to the wreckage of their homes. The government had ordered them to leave. After the tsunami, officials decided to enforce an old law banning construction within 200 meters of the beach break, but these people couldn't bring themselves to abandon their land and the remains of their houses. Each time we showed up, we were mobbed by children who grabbed our hands and begged us to sing or play cricket or teach them to use the perplexing Western toys we had brought--jacks, jump ropes, a football.

Sri Lankans take tremendous pride in having guests to their homes, and invitations were extended to us by everyone we met, from tuk-tuk drivers to 8-year-old boys on the beach. One night Ranjith invited six of us over for dinner. It was a simple place, with concrete floors, cinder-block walls, and plastic patio chairs, but his wife cooked us our best meal in Sri Lanka. We began with a vegetable omelette, roti, and hoppers, a pancake-like dish usually eaten for breakfast. Then they ushered us into the dining room where they served us curried chicken, rice with cinnamon bark, fiery dal, and tuna baked in a clay oven. Sri Lankans don't eat with their guests--they wait until the visitors have gone home--so while we plowed through 12 different dishes, Ranjith's wife and kids stayed in the kitchen, peering out occasionally to monitor our progress.

By the end of two weeks in Galle, my team had dug foundations, built retaining walls, and laid bricks for two houses in Bataduwa. I was a little disappointed that we wouldn't have the satisfaction of seeing Chandana and his family move into their house, but I was consoled when I learned that we would witness the first handover of a Global Crossroad house, in a neighborhood called Dadella. On the morning of the ceremony, my team was diverted to the Dadella site to help with the finishing touches. Thrilled to put her seeds to use, Caitlin designed a semicircular garden in front of the house, and planted it with cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, and marigolds. The rest of us spent the morning clearing debris. As we heaped the garbage into a pile, my shovel scraped across a rolling pin, a tattered pillowcase, a tiny pair of blue pants.

At 4 p.m., the family gathered in front of their new house, a simple cinder-block structure which had been painted a buttery yellow. A monk lit a tall brass oil lamp and chanted a blessing, and we were invited inside to admire the polished concrete floors and jackfruit-wood doors. It was the first of 100 houses that Global Crossroad planned to complete by the end of 2005; but only 26 have been built to date, and the company says it'll continue as long as there's interest from volunteers. Across the street from our celebration was a sea of bright blue refugee tents, a potent reminder of how much work remained.

Before leaving Galle to travel to the north, I stopped by the Bataduwa worksite with a friend from my project team to say goodbye to the masons. A new brigade of volunteers was there, chopping at the soil with pickaxes and those ineffectual iron rods, guzzling water. Watching them work called up memories of my first day--the exhaustion, the feelings of ineptitude, the staggering heat. I lingered, repressing the urge to blurt out know-it-all tips. "I'm so glad I'm not them," I said to my friend as we climbed into a tuk-tuk, glancing over my shoulder one last time. We both knew it was a lie.

Three organizations with disaster-relief volunteer opportunities

For people who feel compelled to hop on a plane in the wake of a natural disaster and offer hands-on assistance, there are a handful of companies and organizations that provide a structure for all those good intentions.

"We take the time to organize a project, assemble materials, and get supervisors in place so volunteers can plug into that when they arrive," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program, which has offered disaster-relief opportunities to volunteers since 1992.

A recognizable name brand also helps your credibility as a volunteer. An organization with a good track record is going to be more trusted than a solo operator who shows up with a hammer or a case full of antibiotics.

Global Crossroad Two-week program fee is $1,199, which includes shared room in a guesthouse, three meals a day, travel insurance, and airport transfers. From the two-week program, $400 is allocated to building materials. GC also has a 2-to-12-week homestay orphanage volunteer experience; the program fee starts at $999 for two weeks. 800/413-2008 or 225/295-4950, globalcrossroad.com.

I-to-I Help restore beauty to Sri Lanka's southwest coastline by clearing debris left in huge amounts by the tsunami and by replanting coastal trees and plants. There are also opportunities to teach English to children in relief camps. The two-week program fee of $1,395 includes shared room in a guesthouse, two meals daily, airport pickup, travel insurance, and a certification course for those who want to teach English as a second language. 800/985-4864, i-to-i.com.

Habitat for Humanity Work teams are being scheduled for Sri Lanka and India. Volunteers are responsible for their own costs, which run $1,000-$1,800 for two weeks. Habitat will help arrange accommodations. 800/422-4828 or 229/924-6935, habitat.org.

Note: This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

CB sheds light on what happened to Rs. 40 b private tsunami relief donations

Daily Mirror: 21/03/2006" Says 80% of the funds have been withdrawn from bank accounts by 256 NGOs

Central Bank yesterday shed some light to the main question of what happened to the billions of rupees Sri Lanka received via private donations for tsunami relief and rehabilitation work.

The Central Bank has been publishing information relating to foreign remittances received for Tsunami relief activities by the Government and private sector through the banking system.

As reported by banks, these foreign remittances stood at Rs. 26.6 bn as at end of January 2006. With a view to expanding this information base, the Central Bank conducted a survey of all bank transactions of NGOs (local and foreign) for the year 2005.Central Bank said according to the survey, 256 NGOs had received donations and other funds amounting to Rs. 40.1 bn by way of credits to their bank accounts from various foreign and local sources during 2005.

The survey revealed that 73% of total foreign remittances were received by 30 NGOs, each receiving foreign remittances in the range of 1% to 12% of total foreign remittances. Further, it was revealed that nearly 79% of funds received in the bank accounts of all NGOs during 2005 had been withdrawn. The 30 NGOs referred to above had withdrawn 85% of funds received in their bank accounts during the year 2005.

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