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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. 

Thursday, May 17, 2007

New beginning for Lanka schools after tsunami

Kuwait Times: 17/05/2007" By Sandra Laville

The derelict shell of Al Hussain school stands like a monument overlooking the clear blue sea, its waters lapping gently on the white sandy beach. On Boxing Day 2004, primary school children sitting at their desks for holiday tuition were washed away by the force of a very different sea, when the Asian tsunami swept Sri Lanka. Fifty-eight girls and boys from Al Hussain were killed. Today, many of those pupils are buried a few steps away from their old school, under mounds of sand in a makeshift graveyard on the beach. Each grave is marked with a small wooden stake, flying a piece of white cotton, the colour for sorrow in the Muslim faith. Two and a half years on, no one in the town of Sainthamarathu needs a memorial to remember the devastation of that day; more than 3,500 men, women and children were killed in this area on the east coast. When international aid agencies rushed to Sri Lanka in the hours and days after the tsunami, few chose to tackle the worst- affected eastern Ampara region, where more than 10,000 of the mixed Tamil and Muslim population died. It is a tortuous 10-hour drive from the capital Colombo to Ampara, which has long been a battleground between the Tamil Tigers to the north and the Sri Lankan army to the south. In 2005, when aid agencies were choosing where to base themselves, the breakdown of the peace agreement and the resurgence of the fighting meant the security of staff, supply routes and workers could not be guaranteed. Yet some did come here and, after battling bureaucracy, corruption and the fallout of the civil war, there are now signs of regeneration amid the rubble. In a country that prides itself on offering free education for all, the emergence of a brand new Al Hussain school this month warranted the pomp of a three-hour opening ceremony for local dignitaries, teachers, parents and children. The four-storey building, with its large classrooms, bright corridors, computer room, science lab and library, stands 400m back from the sea to accommodate those children who are still too terrified to contemplate classes anywhere near the water. In the hours before the opening ceremony, the principal, Ahamed Lebbe Mohamed Abdul Nateer, is overseeing the final touches. "This is a momentous day for us," he says. "The building is such high calibre. We have classrooms here that we never had before. These children are the future for Sri Lanka and now we have a school which will help them find jobs, make the best of themselves and achieve things." Al Hussain is one of 62 schools serving 31,000 pupils in the war- ravaged east of Sri Lanka that have been rebuilt by the aid agency Goal Ireland in what, by any reckoning, is a remarkably short time - 24 months. Each building was destroyed by the freak wave or severely damaged after being used to house some of the 1 million people who were displaced in the disaster. The agency is clear about why it chose to take on the schools programme in the troubled east. But no one could have predicted the problems that lay ahead when Goal staff signed up with the ministry for education to take on the project. Contractors who signed fixed-payment contracts demanded higher and higher fees before walking off site; workers downed their tools during a sand strike; inflation soared by 20 per cent; suppliers refused to drive to the unstable east; and corruption resulted in cement being watered down, so that Goal staff had to demolish work and start again. Finally, Goal withdrew 12 of the 62 schools from the contractors, recruited its own labour force from the local population and completed the buildings itself. Over the past two months, problems have increased as fighting has intensified. The Sri Lankan government jammed all mobile phones for eight weeks to stop the Tamil Tigers communicating, causing huge problems for contractors. Military roadblocks have sprung up everywhere and attacks by both sides are continuing, with a resulting displacement of around 300,000 people, many of whom are taking shelter in the schools that once housed tsunami refugees. "It's been a bit of a nightmare," says Mark Ford, a former British Royal Navy seaman who is coordinator of the Goal schools project in Ampara. "I don't think any of us realised how hard it was going to be. We had to push, push, push to get the work done. "You would go on site to see 20 people doing a job that we had a machine to do. Then there were the 36 public holidays a year, which involved workmen taking the day before and after off as well. In the end, it was a matter of going on site every day to make sure everything was going ahead." Watching the ribbons being cut at Al Hussain makes the frustration and hard graft worthwhile, however. "You do feel a huge sense of achievement," says Ford. For the pupils, the opening represents a new beginning, after two years in which they have struggled to learn in tin huts and hastily built shacks. Many are still coping with the trauma of losing family members and seeing friends die. "They have terrible dreams, wet their beds and are unable to concentrate in class," says one teacher. "If they see a symbol on a blackboard which even looks like a wave, some of them become upset. We take them to the seashore for lessons sometimes, we sit them on the beach and tell them stories, and we keep saying the tsunami will not come again." Al Hussein is number 58 on the list of 62 schools that will be opened by the end of this month, before Goal staff leave the country, their job finished. Each was designed by a Sri Lankan architect and built to modern specifications. For the first time in Sri Lanka, every school was equipped with computers, thanks to the $10m budget for the project. At neighbouring Al Jalal school, the girls of class 6a have been using their new classroom for a matter of weeks. Adambawa Meera Mohideen, 13, finds it difficult to talk about the disaster without crying. "I just remember people screaming and crying," she says. "As the water came, my mother grabbed me and we ran upstairs to stand on our roof. There were bodies being washed up the streets, rocks and rubble floating in the water. We ran away for 15 days. When I came back I saw my school, it was totally destroyed. Now it feels like I am in heaven in this new school." But even when the buildings are ready, issues of bureaucracy, security and petty corruption have combined to keep the gates closed. At a vocational training centre, John Wain, country director for Goal, can scarcely disguise his anguish at the sight of classrooms that are fully equipped but empty of students. The problem, he is informed by a local bureaucrat, is that only half the instructors have been hired. At another school, Wain winces when he sees cattle calmly chewing their way through the sports field. But against a backdrop of allegations that the billions pledged following the tsunami have been embezzled, pocketed by corrupt officials or have simply not materialised, the achievement of the school-building programme in Sri Lanka cannot be overestimated. "When we came here it was just utter chaos," says Wain. "The devastation was massive; just here, half a million people took refuge in the schools still standing. So after the initial relief phase, which took four to five months, the schools were in a very bad state - those that were still standing. "The initial pressure was on to get the work done quickly. All the money had been pledged and donors wanted to see it spent. But you have to consult with the ministry, design the schools, carry out surveys, get architects, engineers and surveyors on board, produce tender documents, advertise for interest and tender out the schools. We had to make the packages attractive to make sure contractors would be drawn to the east, where many of them didn't want to travel because of the security situation. It was only after doing all that that we could start the building work." But it has, he insists, been worth it. "To see the kids in their classrooms is the icing on the cake. They have sports and other modern facilities like any child in the west would have. We can leave with a smile on our faces." At the lavish opening of Al Hussain school, Abdul Jabhar, who runs a charity for social change, reflects on the past two and a half years. "The tsunami was terrible for our country, but some good things - this school and the others that have been built - have come out of it," he says. "And that is really wonderful to see." - Guardian

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