Fourteen-year-old Vinoka Rosari’s story is an all too common one among the civilian population in northern and eastern Sri Lanka where the decades-old conflict and the 2004 tsunami continue to affect lives.
A camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Alles Garden, not far from Trincomalee, is the only home Rosari has ever known. Her family, along with dozens of others, was forced by fighting to flee to the camp in 1990 from Kinnya village, a short distance away.
As the displaced families set about resuming their lives in the welfare camp, they also re-established, in 1995, their village school, called Sri Matumai Ambal. It was not much to boast about - just three small structures - but it provided an education for the many children living in the camp. Unfortunately, the school was one of the many institutions damaged by the December 2004 tsunami.
Rosari’s school is one of 183 that were damaged nation-wide by the waves, according to the Tsunami Education Rehabilitation Monitoring Trust (TERM), a Sri Lankan non-governmental organisation (NGO) tasked by the Ministry of Education with overseeing the school reconstruction effort. Over 100,000 children had their education interrupted by the tsunami.
School reconstruction in north, east
The post-tsunami school reconstruction effort in the conflict areas of the north and east has achieved considerable success compared to other sectors like housing and livelihoods where significant delays and other problems have occurred.
According to TERM statistics, 80 schools nation-wide have been reconstructed and were back in operation as of August 2007. Over half of these (50) are in the three eastern districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. Those districts were hit hard by the tsunami - 103 schools were damaged. In the same districts work is in progress on 33 other school rehabilitation projects, TERM said.
Rosari’s school in Alles Garden is one of those already rebuilt. It consists of a three-storey building with 16 classrooms, an administrative office, a laboratory and play areas, and is able to accommodate over 300 students, and 20 teachers and administrative staff. The post-tsunami school reconstruction efforts have required considerable technical expertise and funding. In the case of Rosari’s school both were provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). The agency also paid for the school’s furniture and oversaw the landscaping of the grounds.
“The complexity of the school reconstruction projects demanded direct implementation by agencies, with highly-qualified technical staff carrying it out,” Joern Kristensen, NRC Country Director, told IRIN. She noted the importance of this approach to the success of the school projects, saying that many housing projects got delayed because they got overly bogged down in the owner-driven decision-making process.
NRC agreed to reconstruct 24 tsunami-damaged schools and has thus far completed work on 22. The projects suffered some delays in the northern and eastern districts due to the upsurge in violence since December 2005. NRC said that construction on some sites had been delayed by at least six months due to security concerns and bad weather.
“Killings, abductions, incoming and outgoing shelling, made it nearly impossible for the contractors to recruit sufficient workers,” NRC’s Kristensen said. “A considerable number of days were lost due to `hartals’ [strikes during which all public activity is suspended] and unrest.” The NRC country director said construction crews were sometimes forced to remain at the sites overnight in order to avoid the danger of travelling on insecure roads.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has agreed to reconstruct 39 schools nation-wide, but said some donors had pulled out of school reconstruction projects.
“A number of schools destroyed by the tsunami remain to be reconstructed,” UNICEF spokesperson Gordon Weiss told IRIN. “Potential donors have withdrawn due to increases in construction costs [in some areas by as much as 30 per cent] or delays due to land allocation or security concerns.”
The two northern districts of Jaffna and Mullaithivu have been hit hardest by the donor pull-out and work stoppages, according to Upul Ranasinghe, programme manager of TERM. “Almost all the donors, except UNICEF, have now pulled out of tsunami reconstruction in Jaffna and Mullathivu,” he told IRIN. Twenty-five schools were destroyed by the tsunami in the two districts.
UNICEF has undertaken to repair at least 11 schools nation-wide after the original donors pulled out, UNICEF’s office in Colombo said.
Insecurity hampers reconstruction
Work in 41 schools in the north and east, including all 26 projects in the three northern districts of Jaffna, Mullaithivu and Kilinocchchi, has been stopped due to the prevailing security situation, according to TERM.
Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi districts are under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The latter district, however, has only one school which needs repairs. The NRC has abandoned work on two schools in Mullaithivu District and one in Tricomalee due to lack of access, Kristensen said.
According to TERM, not a single tsunami damaged school has yet been reconstructed and handed back in the three northern districts of Jaffna, Mullaithivu and Kilinochchi.
However, some agencies now feel optimistic that the security situation in the east is stabilising and could enable school reconstruction work to restart in the 15 suspended projects in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts. The government now controls all areas in the east, after regaining over the past year large areas of land that had been held by the Tamil Tigers.
“This development in the situation is likely to provide a space for rebuilding and recovery, and progress on tsunami reconstruction projects previously suspended,” UNICEF’s Weiss said.
Ranasinghe hopes so but has his concerns about donor staying-power. “There were some schools in Trincomalee District which were located in the LTTE areas, including Sampur, Eachchilampattu, Malaimunthal, Verugal and Vakarai divisions, where construction could not be started [due to the fighting],” he said. “Now these donors have come to the end of the period in which they committed to build and won’t even start work on these projects.”
Should they need some convincing, they need look no further than Vinoka Rosari at Sri Mutumai Ambal, her rebuilt school in Trincomalee District. For the first time in her life, Rosari said, she was getting the opportunity to attend a real school.
“It has motivated me to study hard,” she said. “I want to be a doctor and earn some money… and to help people and make my parents happy.”