The giant Buddha statue at Pereliya sea. The noise of the waves slapping the shoreline is broken only occasionally by the sound of passing vehicles on the nearby highway.
The village, 90 km south of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, has returned to its former anonymity after the December 26, 2004 tsunami when giant waves crashed ashore and the international media flowed in right behind.
A south-bound train, filled with passengers from Colombo - and scores of others who climbed aboard in a panic seeking refuge from the first huge waves - was quickly derailed, just near the Buddha. The train was flipped over repeatedly by the waves at around 9 am.
The exact casualty figures from the train wreck have never been confirmed, but at least 1,500 died when the eight carriages and locomotive were tossed around like matchboxes.
The painful images of the train and the grief-stricken community were beamed repeatedly around the world. However, Pereliya’s 15 minutes of media attention has long since past.
“There is no point in talking about what happened, the waves came and went back,” R.K. Malith, who works in a coir pit making twine from coconut hemp opposite the giant Buddha, told IRIN. “We got something, others got more, now it is the past,” he said, and quickly waded away to collect coconut husks.
The building where the coir mill now operates was a house constructed after the tsunami with funds from two Sri Lankan expatriates, Mangala and Ruwani Rathnasinghe from Pupakara, New Zealand. No one lives in the building with its windows nailed shut and the toilet pit overflowing. Malith told IRIN the house construction was of such poor quality and the toilet pit so inadequate that the structure was never used as a home.
As the massive post-tsunami reconstruction effort gradually winds down, a general sense of apathy and disillusionment pervades the aid beneficiaries along the southern coast, according to multiple interviews in the region.
Aid workers understand the frustrations. “There has been a disconnect between intended efforts and what has actually materialised,” Maria Kristensen, Donor Participation team leader for ActionAid in Sri Lanka, told IRIN. “Costs have gone up, there have been other bottlenecks, adding to difficulties in project completion,” she said.
Sri Lanka’s annual inflation rate of 17.7% has aggravated the situation, creating budgetary shortfalls on projects, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a report released on December 10.
At beneficiary level, questions remain as to what happened to the massive amounts pledged. “There was so much money, but where did it go?” Ravi Wijesinghe, 17-year old boy, from Hambantota district in the deep south, asked IRIN. “We have a house, but my father still does not have a job. He was promised one.”
The Wijesinghes now live in a fairly large two-bedroom house in Siribopura, Hamabantota district. It was donated by CARE International.
“We have a house, but my father has no job. How is he going to feed us and pay for care and repairs of our home? We have no money for such things,” he said.
Some beneficiaries just receiving relief are disappointed that it has taken so long and is insufficient. A.G. Priyarathana of Wakwella, in Galle district, told IRIN he was pleased to have received seeds, fertilizer and barbed wire from Caritas, a Catholic charity, but worried that it was not enough to cover his losses. “Even though we have recovered now,” he said, “we already lost at least one year of farming, if not more.”
Damian Arasakularatne, the head of Caritas in southern Sri Lanka, told IRIN the agency had been providing assistance to the village since the tsunami, but this was now winding down. “There are other problems that we need to look at and others who need our help.”
ActionAid’s Kristensen believes that some of the criticism is due to assistance not meeting beneficiary needs. “There have been instances where it is a supply-led operation rather than a demand led one,” she said.
Some success claimed
For its part, the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA), the main body that oversaw the reconstruction effort on behalf of the government, claims some success in tsunami reconstruction. RADA has now wound down most of its operations and in March 2007 released, jointly with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a survey stating that over 80% of the over 100,000 new houses were on track to be completed by the end of 2007 and 90% of the affected families had returned to earning an income two years after the tsunami.Sugala Kumarie, coordinator of the Peoples’ Planning Commission, a Sri Lankan non-governmental body funded by ActionAid, told IRIN: “Sometimes all we hear are the frustrations of the people,” and she fears that numbers alone will not be enough to convince the angry coastal inhabitants.
“The third anniversary of the tsunami is getting closer and they feel the attention of the world is not here any more. The problem is that no one is looking at these frustrations and they are very real.”