After the Tsunami
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
On 26 December 2011 it will be seven years since 36,000 to 50,000 people died in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami.
At 0.58 UTC, 6.58 Sri Lanka time, December 26 2004, there was a seismic subduction on the sea bed off the west coast of Sumatra. Scientists called it the great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. The earthquake moved a 1,200-km section of the sea floor, releasing energy equivalent to 550 million Hiroshima atomic explosions. The earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale. Lasting up to ten minutes, the earthquake had the longest duration ever recorded. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska.
On Christmas Eve, 2004, we were having dinner with our 95-year-old friend and her son at his plantation bungalow. We were discussing the possibility of a trip to Galle on the south coast or Trincomalee in the north east, in a brief hiatus in a thirty-year conflict because of a cease-fire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Luckily we decided to stay put up in the Namunukula Mountains.
The numbers killed vary depending on the source. In Sri Lanka the authorities reported 36,000 dead and 5,644 missing. There were 21,441 injured, 516,150 internally displaced. The NGO Practical Action says: “In Sri Lanka over 50,000 lives were lost”.[i] 226,000 people were killed in 13 countries. Over 1.7 million people were displaced in the worst-affected countries of India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Some 422,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
A friend of my wife’s family, was killed with her brother in Galle. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. Her husband was inconsolable and sorry to have survived. He is still suffering.
On Christmas Day we had heard news that the government veterinarian in Poonagalle, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip with a party of about 20 people. He and 16 others died. His wife and one child survived because they went back to the hotel for a newspaper.
Everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone who lost someone.
A strange phenomenon was noted in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?
The south and east coasts were most badly affected. Between 1,700 passengers 2500 on the holiday train, Queen of the South, perished as the wave engulfed it at Peraliya, between Colombo and Galle. Only 824 bodies were actually recovered, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives without informing the authorities. The village itself also suffered heavy losses: hundreds of inhabitants died and out of 420 houses, only 10 were spared.
Some local survivors thought the wrecked train was a curse upon their Peraliya. Yet when the railway authorities set about removing the carriages during the rebuilding of the line, the villagers realised that the train was now part of their collective soul. They demanded its return. The carriages are still there, a rusting memorial. A fading poem from a husband to his lost wife written on the side of one carriage:
“Did the children and I come to you when the waves came?
Were the kids there with you when death came?
In eternity, do you want to be mine again?
Will you come back at least in my dreams?”
In the Sunday Leader of 24 April, 2005 Amantha Perera reported ghoulish voyeuristic impulses of outsiders prevailed:
“Tourists, local as well as foreign, are trooping to Peraliya like never before, as if it were the star attraction at an amusement park. There is the [foreign] woman in a reddish pair of shorts and matching top [about to have her picture taken]. ‘Move closer; make sure you get the carriage, okay?’ She shouts instructions as her eyes pan the props for the best spot to pose. After several shots, she asks aloud, ‘What happened here? How many died?’ “
At Batticaloa, in the eastern province, 1,200 dead were counted. In Amparai district in the north east, the death toll was 5,000. The naval base at Trincomalee was submerged with about 800 reported dead in that district. 1,000 dead were counted in Mullaithivu. Many of the dead were children and elderly people. One and a half million were displaced from their homes.
Agriculture was badly affected. Vehicles and equipment were ruined. Drains and canals were blocked and water supplies contaminated. 259 square km of paddy land was destroyed or damaged by salinization or deposits of garbage. 23,449 acres of cultivated arable land was affected by salinity
Massive damage was inflicted on thousands of houses and other buildings, railways, bridges, communication networks, and other infrastructure and capital assets. Assets valued at US$900 million were lost. 150,000 people lost their livelihoods – 75% of the total fishing fleet was destroyed. 89,000 houses were destroyed. 183 schools were destroyed or damaged, affecting 200,000 children. 102 health facilities were destroyed or damaged. 53 out of 242 large hotels were damaged along with 248 small hotels. A total length of approximately 800 kilometres of national road network and 1,500 kilometres of provincial and local government roads were damaged. The railway infrastructure on a 160- kilometre-long stretch along the tsunami-affected coastline was also severely damaged.
A local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success despite the understandable confusion which accompanied this effort at times. Even in the poorest, most remote areas people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils.
This presents a marked contrast with the US government’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. US authorities reacted to Katrina with mind-boggling incompetence. Five years on, tourists are back in the French Quarter enjoying the over-rated cuisine, the great music and the transsexuals. Beyond the tourist hotspots, for example in St Bernard parish, homes have not been rebuilt and more than a third of residents have not returned. Tens of thousands of people still live in trailer parks in Texas and beyond. The Lower Ninth Ward was the most devastated part of New Orleans. All that’s left from many of the houses that were destroyed are foundations. Brad Pitt helped to provide 200 affordable houses for residents who would like to return, but few wish to do so. Henry Irvin, aged 74, did return in 2008 and his is the only occupied house on his square. He says the problem is racism and greed. “Some big people in this town are trying to buy all that land to build motels and casinos”. A federal judge ruled that the criteria for awarding rebuilding grants discriminated against black people. A Kaiser Foundation poll found that a third of New Orleans residents say their lives are still getting worse. Blacks were twice as likely as whites to say they still had not recovered from Katrina.
Sri Lanka’s past investments in a broad-based public health system and community awareness of basic sanitary and hygienic practices ensured that there were no disease outbreaks. Essential medical aid, emergency food, and other relief supplies were mobilized within a day. It was possible to feed, clothe, and shelter survivors; provide the injured with medical attention; and ensure that the thousands of bodies were quickly cremated or buried.
Twenty thousand soldiers were deployed in government-controlled areas to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order after sporadic looting. It is probably inaccurate to call this looting. As in the immediate aftermath of Katrina people had to get supplies from somewhere and normal conditions did not pertain.
The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee.[ii] An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades.
Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilize funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks’.
One month after the tsunami, we visited Hambantota, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. We visited again, to take some supplies for the dhane, the alms-giving to mark three months since the tidal wave hit the coasts of Sri Lanka.
The journey from our house in the Namunukula region to Hambantota takes around four hours. The distance is not great in European or American terms but there are no motorways in Sri Lanka and there are many mountains. In 2005, the roads were not good and the government was fighting a war against a vicious terrorist group, the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), which had established a de facto dictatorship in the north and east. We set off at about 7.30. The sun was already strong, but for the first part of the journey through tea country to Ella, the mountains provided shade. Around the Newburgh tea estate, jacaranda mimosifolia, slanting trees with pale pastel mauve blossoms, furrowed bark and feathered leaves, reached toward the mountains and gave a cooling effect to the skyscape; the blossoms dusted the winding road blue.
From Wellawaya, the terrain suddenly flattens out and the sun becomes merciless. A monitor lizard about four feet in length halts the traffic with its saurian saunter across the heat-hazed tarmac. Once in the safety of the grassy verge, it finds the urgency to run. Long-tailed langurs lope across the highway.
It is debatable whether tourism is a good thing for any country. It seems to me, that relying on tourism is a bit like living on immoral earnings. Whatever about that, it is surprising that one did not see any foreigners in the area between Wellawaya and Hambantota. All along the roadside are blazing bougainvillea trees in a dazzling variety of colors, not just the usual purple, but orange, white and yellow. Part of the highway is designated ‘elephant corridor’. There are wild life sanctuaries at Lunuganwehera and Bundula. The main road from Wellawaya to Hambantota runs on a causeway across the Wirawila Wewa. There are vast flat lakes clogged with lotus blossoms.
Water buffaloes luxuriate in the water with egrets perched on their shoulders. Bundula wetland sanctuary covers 62 sq km and has around 150 species of bird, (we saw woolly-necked storks, jacanas, peacocks, their whingeing cry incommensurate with their flamboyance, hornbills) as well as five species of marine turtle, plus marsh and estuarine crocodiles.
Some Sri Lankan tour operators think the tsunami would give a chance to promote a different brand of tourism diverting foreign visitors away from the beaches and plush hotels to the excellent nature trails and national parks. Wildlife photographer Gehan de Silva Wijayeratne, (my colleague on Lanka Monthly Digest and Travel Sri Lanka) who is also CEO of Jetwing Eco Holidays says several rare species of birds and animals can be spotted in many of the country’s natural parks. In fact, we spot a new rare species regularly in our own garden.
The war deterred foreign visitors and when it ended the global economic downturn kept them away. Western accusations of war crimes and human rights abuses also have the potential to deter visitors. The government says that figures are now improving dramatically.
Back in 2005, just outside the town of Hambantota plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt, in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that fish were contaminated by corpses. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.
We saw the first derelict house, then another. A graveyard was littered with broken trees. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from wires near a mosque.
Many houses had been illegally built, so records don’t exist to account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.
A canal was clogged with orphaned furniture. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges.
There was mud everywhere and a smell like foul gas.
There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.
Sadeesha, a veterinarian we knew in Bandarawela, used to commute there every day from her home in Hambantota. Sadeesha’s house had gone and her father had drowned. The rest of the family were safe but had lost everything. One of Sadeesha’s neighbors showed us where his house had been. Now there were just the foundations. The neighbor had saved his daughter from the wave but then she was bitten by a dog. He could find no medicine.
Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of starving and desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service, led by Dr PAL Harischandra, courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and took the opportunity, with the support of tireless local vets, foreign volunteers and the then Minister of Health, Mr Nimal de Silva, to carry out a program of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilization of dogs.
Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari (local government official) at Samodarama. Cynics had warned us about the army pilfering but the major wanted us to deal directly with the people, rather than having us give supplies to him. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.
The main thing we decided about our second visit was that we needed to take more supplies with us but there would never be enough. Mr Dissanayake, our local shopkeeper, who was displaced from his home and hotel business on the east coast by the LTTE’s ethnic cleansing in the 1980s, and who had himself been taking vanloads of supplies to Batticaloa, helpfully made parcels of rice and sugar and even made little packages of exercise books and pens for the children.
On our next visit, there weren’t as many people at the temple. This did not mean that problems were solved. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were there insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. We overcame our reticence and did so. Those receiving feel better if they “receive from the hand”, that they have a direct relationship with the giver. The giver can look into the eyes of the receiver.
We distributed rice, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from the car. The first arrivals were calm and slow; gradually new arrivals became more hurried, breathless, their lateness a sign of having travelled a greater distance than the first-comers. Soon our supplies were gone. The late-comers did have a certain look of panic on their faces. They did show disappointment, but with resignation rather than anger.
We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. Some Christian friends had suggested that the tsunami happened as a judgment of God because Buddhists had attacked Christian churches and opposed conversion. Others said Muslims were taking over the world. Buddhism has become contaminated by Sinhala nationalism and exploited by politicians. Some Sinhalese complain that western NGOs favored Tamils. The Tamil Tigers said the Sinhalese were preventing supplies getting to Tamil areas. Sri Lanka has suffered much ethnic and religious strife over the years, because of the divide and rule tactics of the British followed by the opportunism of the indigenous political elite, but here people seemed to be united in adversity. Nature did not discriminate.
True Buddhism eschews the concept of blame. Karma is not a predestined system for getting your just desserts; it is about dependent origination, cause and effect. Shit happens. Anicca. Everything is impermanence. Some have blamed mankind in general, rather than any one particular faith. In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, published five days after the tsunami, Andrew Browne, argued that the human destruction of coral reefs might have a bearing. Coral reefs would have lessened the impact but many have been destroyed by dynamite because they are considered impediments to shipping. The removal of mangroves and sand dunes for coastal residences deprived the coast of natural protection.
One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, went to market with a child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. One woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All behaved with dignity but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”
Amid all the suffering there was a hint of a feel-good factor. Unlikely partners were working together, including combatants on both sides of the conflict. While there is generally harmony between different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, there was also hope that there might be harmony with the Tamil Tigers as everyone pulled together to cope with the tragedy. Alas, this was not to last long. There was a fragile cease-fire in operation at the time but the Tigers were using this to re-arm, re-group and to impose even more securely their grip on the territories they held.
There was a feel-good factor internationally as people rushed to make donations for the relief effort. Tessa Doe is a friend I met on a tour of South India many years ago. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire in the UK. Tessa sent me some cuttings from her local newspapers showing what the residents of Seend Cleeve and Melksham were doing in response to the disaster.
Melksham resident Pete King took it upon himself to travel to Sri Lanka to deliver and distribute 700 kilos worth of supplies from Wiltshire hospitals and pharmacies which Krishan Perera of Sri Lankan Airlines agreed to carry free of charge (the same man was very helpful to us when we transported our three cats from Ireland to Sri Lanka). Pete King reported: “Over the last two weeks I have seen many individuals in Sri Lanka doing their bit … every little effort helps”.
Seend village primary school organized bring and buy sales. One pupil, Hannah, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck but was safely inland. Many of the pupils expressed empathy with those who were suffering. Jenny said: “It’s amazing how the whole world is sticking together and sending money to the places worst affected. Even if people didn’t get killed themselves, they probably have lost family and have nothing”.
Seven-year-old Liam Cutler was so upset by his Aunt Sara Mapp’s experience in Thailand that, according to his mother, he “stayed very quiet. He always keeps his worries inside him.” He asked to speak to a teacher in private and came up with the idea of setting up a cake stall for the benefit of tsunami victims. “He has organized the whole thing himself. He got most of the parents making cakes and the rest of his class making posters to advertise the event.”
A group called Mums of Melksham held an auction of men in the Assembly Rooms. Sheila Ward said: “I decided to get involved after seeing mothers and children separated because of the tsunami. It must be horrendous and I can’t bear to think what it would be like to rebuild your life without your children”.
I was particularly touched to read about the children at St Michael’s school who raised money for the appeal by decorating and selling heart-shaped biscuits. The interesting thing about this was that the children were encouraged to undertake this task quietly with soothing music and to meditate upon the suffering of those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. Headteacher Beverley Martin said: “We wanted the children to think about what it would be like to have no clean water, no food, nowhere to live, no clothes and, most importantly, no family left.”
Some NGOs expressed frustration with bureaucratic procedures but the government said that new houses must be built to good standards. There was resentment against the arrogance of some foreign NGOs, who were seen as having an agenda which might not put Sri Lankans’ needs first.
Today there are concerns about the role of the army in various aspects of life after the victory over the LTTE. On our visit three months after the tsunami, there was no sign of the army. There were portakabins bearing the legend “greetings from the Kingdom of Kuwait”. There were tents everywhere belonging to UNHCR, Muslim organizations, Sarvodaya and other NGOs. An Irish NGO was much in evidence – GOAL is the lead agency for temporary shelter reconstruction in Hambantota. GOAL volunteers were distributing family kits consisting of mosquito nets, bed sheets, kitchen utensils and underwear. Working with local fishing communities GOAL provided funding for repair and regeneration projects. GOAL’s local partner ‘Women’s Development Foundation’ distributed underwear and sanitary items. GOAL bought and distributed 140 bicycles to local NGOs to help them get around the area and supported 144 workers cleaning up the beaches and other areas.
Some tents belonged to house-owners camping outside their own houses. A neat sign in magic-marker, in an empty plot at the junction, said “Ayub Khan 348 Tissa Road, Hambantota” to stake a claim against squatters.
A gathering of orange-robed priests sat under a battered sign: “Baby’s Dream Pre-school”. Some broken houses were festooned with washing and had goats and chickens in the yard. The miasmic odor had gone.
When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travelers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway are neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west. However, on the outskirts of Galle there are still many ruined buildings like London in the 1950s.
Various institutions have published reports on how things have developed.
The World Bank issued a statement to mark the fourth anniversary. Its $135 million assistance program closed in September 2008. “Sri Lanka’s tsunami reconstruction was hampered from time to time by the dearth of effective institutions, especially at the central government level, to undertake the huge task of reconstruction.”
However, the “relative successes of the livelihood restoration program and the homeowner-driven housing reconstruction program, where cash grants were directly transferred to tsunami victims, show that reconstruction is best achieved when disaster victims are in the driver’s seat”, it stated.
The Bank assisted in the reconstruction of 45,000 houses while the International Federation of the Red Cross said it had completed 22,000 houses, and would reach its full commitment of 32,866 by early 2009.
Conrad de Tissera, program manager of the UN’s Human Settlements Program, UN-HABITAT, in Sri Lanka, which constructed 87,000 houses under the owner-built program, said, “Housing was by far the largest physical asset lost in the tsunami. The strategy enabled re-establishing self-sustaining communities of families affected by the tsunami, through the building of physical and social infrastructure and housing, and set them on a path to begin a normal, self-reliant life recovering from the trauma of the tsunami.”
The Asian Development Bank stated in a report issued on 19 December, 2008, “Early ultra-rosy assessments seemed unrealistic even then. They have, by now, certainly failed the test of time.” “A policy of propping up the nominal exchange rate by ‘leaning against the wind’ in foreign exchange markets (as, for example, appears to have occurred in Sri Lanka following the tsunami) makes it much harder to fund rehabilitation or reconstruction programs with any given amount of foreign aid. Allegations that local traders said to be ‘monopolists’ had indulged in activities believed to be ‘profiteering’ and were therefore ‘exploiting disaster victims’ are not unusual. In fact, it is true that following a disaster such as the tsunami, the local inflation of prices for inputs in short supply (such as skilled labor and certain materials) can create something of a bonanza for suppliers of these inputs. Inflation therefore tends to create a redistribution of construction-targeted aid funds, sometimes seen as an unfair windfall gain, to suppliers of these inputs. The result, within any given budget, is that plans about the scale of construction need to be revised downwards when the costs of construction rise and, consequently, the expectations that had been raised amongst aid-beneficiary groups tend to be disappointed.”
IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in a newsletter the situation in Sri Lanka five years on. In Hambantota reconstruction has ended and no one is waiting for housing or donations, and while survivors still complain that the assistance they received never matched the expectations or the headlines created by the international aid operation, most are content with what they received.
“We are happy with what we got,” says Mohamed Rasik, in Siribopura, a new housing scheme of over 1,500 units. “After all, we lost everything.” He lost 37 family members. The new housing site has its own school, a community centre and transport. “It is good, it is slowly becoming like a village,” Rasik said.
But even here there are signs that the reconstruction effort did not go to plan. Right at the edge of Siribopura is Hungama, a new housing project undertaken just months after the tsunami with public donations from Hungary. Even the homeless refuse to move in as the units are so badly built, say residents. As a result, some have been turned into government servants’ quarters, while others have only been occupied after survivors undertook extensive repairs with their own funds.
Seven-year-old Muffla Mubarak and her friends are revelling in their new homes in the French Friendship Village in Kalmunai, a town on the east coast of Sri Lanka, 300km from the capital Colombo. Muffla has little memory of the devastating tsunami that swept through her family’s village of Maradamunai five years earlier, but she knows the sea is to be feared. Her village and two adjoining it were probably the hardest hit. “I am happy here. I don’t want to go to the sea,” she said smiling.
Hambantota in December 2010 is a very different place to the devastated community we saw in early 2005. A huge international seaport has been developed with the help of the Chinese government. An international airport is planned which will bring in tourists to enjoy the wild-life sanctuaries of the south without having to come through Colombo. There are fine new roads and pleasant housing estates. Prosperity and development have long been concentrated on Western Province and the financial hub of Colombo. The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Today the outlook is promising. Hambantota is the fiefdom of President Rajapaksa. While he and his brothers currently dominate Sri Lankan politics, with son Namal being groomed for future greatness, it should also be noted that Sajith Premadasa, who is challenging for leadership of the main opposition party, the UNP, also represents a Hambantota constituency. In Sri Lankan politics that requires him to win development projects for Hambantota.