Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: tsunami

Ten Years After

 

This article was written in December 2014 to mark the tenth anniversary of  the tsunami.

 

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?

Those words were written by a grieving husband on the side of a rusting railway carriage at Peraliya in southern Sri Lanka. On 26 December 2014, it will be ten years since 36,000 to 50,000 people (the numbers of dead vary depending on the source) died in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami. 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. Rescuers recovered only 824 bodies, 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, the great wave spared only ten.

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 Hiroshimas. 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 in our home up in the Namunukula Mountains.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle 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. The wave took away a friend of my wife’s family and 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. Ten years on, he is still suffering.

A strange phenomenon occurred 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?

At Batticaloa, in the Eastern province, there were 1,200 dead and the naval base at Trincomalee was submerged with about 800 reported dead in that district. In Amparai district in the north east, the death toll was 5,000. One thousand dead were counted in Mullaithivu, in the Northern Province, which was controlled by the Tamil Tigers. Many of the dead throughout the country 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

Thousands of houses and other buildings, railways, bridges, communication networks, and other infrastructure and capital assets suffered massive damage. 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.

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dhane, the alms-giving.

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 telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not 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 it seemed as if the earth had halitosis. 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.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari (village official) at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

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 at the temple insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. 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, lentils, 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. People seemed to be united in adversity. Nature had not discriminated, although some middle class Christians told us that the disaster was their god’s punishment on heathen Buddhists.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their 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.”

By this visit, the miasmic odor had gone. 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.

There are complaints in Sri Lanka today about militarisation. Ten years ago, 20,000 soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

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.

Ten years on Hambantota is unrecognisable. Hambantota has a natural harbour close to international shipping routes. Construction of the Port of Hambantota (also known as the Magampura Port) by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sinohydro Corporation, has given the town  the largest  port in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and able to accommodate 33 vessels at any given time. There has been resistance from Colombo enterprises. A plan to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port authorities and some in the motor trade. “The port in Hambantota will be the catalyst to make Hambantota the new commercial capital of Sri Lanka in the next three years,” said Dr Bandu Wickrama, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

A new international airport has been opened near Hambantota. The airport at Mattala has one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than Singapore Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi? There are still concerns about the environment and the unique wild life in Yala and Bundala National Parks. Peacocks have endangered flights.

 

There are also concerns that these projects are wasteful and designed to enrich the ruling family.

Critics see the port, the airport, sports stadiums and convention centres as white elephants that serve no useful purpose except to boost the egos and bank balances of politicians at the same as getting Sri Lanka in hock to the Chinese.

Soon after the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be running for his third term, after using his two-thirds majority in parliament to introduce the 18th amendment to the constitution to allow him to do so.

The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Today the outlook is promising. Hambantota is the fiefdom of President Rajapaksa. He and his brothers currently dominate Sri Lankan politics, and he is grooming his son Namal, who represents a Hambantota constituency, future greatness. It should also be noted that Sajith Premadasa, who is (somewhat ineffectually) challenging for leadership of the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), also represents a Hambantota constituency.

Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The government’s stated aim is to establish a gateway for investment in the south and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but also in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara. As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear in Sri Lanka that anything that was not Colombo was described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

 

 

Killing Dogs – Again

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 15 2012.

 

The present-day Sri Lankan Minister of Health Maithripala Sirisena made a statement in Kalutara on January 6, 2012, that he has decided to revive the policy of killing street dogs “in the traditional way”.

 

If I have any regular readers, they will have noticed that I am not a great fan of tourism. However, if Sri Lanka really does want to attract tourists it would be a good idea to provide hotel rooms that don’t have stained towels, filthy rugs and alien hairs in the bedding. Another good strategy would be to avoid-cutting paying customers’ throats and sexually assaulting foreign women on the beaches. Calling it “Eve-Teasing” really does not make it into a quaint and lovable local custom. The New York Times has dropped Sri Lanka from its list of recommended holiday destinations.

A very painful process

Another quaint local custom foreign tourists probably will not appreciate is filling the streets with dead dogs. Calling mass slaughter of street dogs the “traditional way” makes it sound like one of those quaint old folk ways that tourists will flock to see.

Back in 2002, I was strolling past the Bandarawela Hotel in the tea country, a favourite destination even then for western tourists, and also crowded with visitors from all over Sri Lanka during public holidays.

I thought I noticed two sleeping dogs huddled together, prone on the sidewalk. A few hundred yards on I saw two more prone dogs. Then there was another three and they were covered with flies; the dogs were making no efforts to dislodge the flies. All along Dharmavijaya Mawatha and back along Main Street, dogs lay motionless on the pavement. Crows were pecking the eyeballs of some. Outside a stall on the market selling vadais, a dog was a seething mass of bluebottles, which were also sampling the vadais and moving along to the fish and meat stalls.

 

This was a consequence of the “traditional way”. The “traditional way” is a very painful process. Dogs undergo immense suffering after the poison is injected, sometimes writhing in agony for hours, jerking with muscle spasms and frothing at the mouth.

 

Horrifying films

Being of an interfering nature, always interfering with nature, we decided to do something about this situation and tried to organise our own sterilisation programme with a friend who is a veterinarian. She took us to a meeting of vets and medical officers of health at the Uva Provincial council Health HQ. The chief government vet Dr PAL Harischandra and Dr Nilamani Hewageegana, who was then deputy provincial director of Health services for Uva Province, addressed the meeting.

We saw horrifying films of actual rabies victims in their death throes, strapped to hospital beds, screaming and writhing and frothing at the mouth. They crave something to quench their thirst but scream in agony at the sight of water. They cut their own arteries as they frenziedly crash through glass in a vain attempt to escape from the horror.

 

Every ten minutes, somewhere in the world, someone dies from rabies infection. Of the reported cases, 30-50% are children under 15.

Rabies is a vaccine-preventable disease but it is still a public health problem in many countries in Asia, even though safe, effective vaccines for both human and veterinary use exist. Most of the 50,000 deaths from rabies reported annually around the world occur in Asia, and most of the victims are children.

 

Knowledge of these horrendous facts might be a deterrent to someone planning a holiday in Sri Lanka.

 

Back in 2002, Dr Hewageegana invited us to her home one evening and gave us advice on how we might approach our modest project. We did not have any huge ambitions but hoped we could help in a small way. Dr Hewageegana informed us that she was having discussions with the chairman of the Urban District Council about her Healthy cities project. During the course of those discussions she had received an assurance from him that the slaughter of street dogs in his bailiwick would cease.

 

Dr Harischandra corresponded with us regularly, gave us helpful advice and invited us to meetings and seminars.

 

In 2005, scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage after the tsunami. 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 Harischandra courageously resisted 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, Nimal Siripala de Silva, to carry out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccinations and sterilisation of dogs.

 

In June 2006, President Rajapaksa’s website proudly carried a letter from Monika Kostner in Germany: “Mr President, let me congratulate you on the path that you have chosen. Please continue pursuing it. I greatly welcome your pledge to bring stringent laws against cruelty to animals. Do not give way to those political forces and vested interests, which are keen to continue the outdated, cruel treatment of animals. After all, they are living and feeling creatures.”

 

Visakha Tillekeratne, one of the five trustees of the Animal Welfare Trust, responded thus to Minister Sirisena’s statement: “I believe he is being wrongly advised.” Animal welfare groups united to explain that mass slaughter has been shown in many countries to be ineffective. Sterilization is the only solution.

 

Unfortunately, a good policy established by Nimal Siripala de Silva has been bungled and undermined by greed and corruption. Nevertheless, despite what Minister Sirisena claims, rabies deaths in Sri Lanka have reduced, not increased. The Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry said that the number of deaths caused by rabies dropped in Sri Lanka by 50% last year compared to the deaths reported during 2006 to 2010. According to Health Education Bureau statistics, 18 rabies deaths  were reported from the Western Province in 2009, while this figure had dropped to 11 in 2010 as a result of a number of awareness programmes carried out by local government institutions in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

 

We thought we were making progress when a dog-lover, Nimal Siripala de Silva, whose wife is an animal welfare activist, was health minister, and the president, many times reiterated his no-kill policy. Thanks to Minister Sirisena, Sri Lanka is again being shamed. An international petition is being organized and is attracting comments like: “Sri Lanka, the world is watching you.”

 

Champa Fernando of KACPAW speculated: “Is he trying to bring discredit to the president? The No-Kill policy came from the president and this is the only humane way.”

 

The president had said that mass slaughter was against the Buddhist philosophy of living in harmony.

Minister Sirisena had said some sin , must be committed in order to gather merit.

 

Health Ministry spokesman WMD Wanniniyaike Iater said that there was no move to kill stray dogs and said that Minister Sirisena’s remarks had been taken out of context. Let us see how long it is before this subject comes up again.

 

Tsunami Today

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday December 30 2014.

 

Colman's Column3

tsunami today2

I wonder what little Liam Cutler in Melksham, Wiltshire, would think of the current politicking for the presidency in Sri Lanka. Well, Liam is not so little any more. Ten years have passed since Liam’s heart was broken by the tsunami. He must be around seventeen years old by now. Have things improved in Sri Lanka since Liam decided to do something positive at the age of ten?

I wrote in these pages recently about the art of giving and the nature of the gift relationship. Reactions to the tsunami ten years ago highlighted many aspects of the gift of giving and the relationship between people and politicians. It is particularly instructive to examine the actions ten years ago of two politicians who are still in conflict today – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

International Compassion

The feel-bad effect of the disaster triggered 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 in 1994. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire in the UK. In 2005, 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 Cleeve 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.”

Feelgood even in Sri Lanka.

Amid all the suffering, there was a hint of a feel-good factor even in war-battered Sri Lanka itself. Unlikely partners were working together, including combatants on both sides of the conflict. There was initially 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.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: “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”.

Even within the government itself, harmony was short-lived. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee. Despite government failings, 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. Sinhalese and Muslims wanted to go to the North and East with supplies but the LTTE refused to allow them into  areas under its control. Up-Country Tamils went to the South to help Sinhalese victims.

Role of the Army

Today there are concerns about the role of the army in various aspects of life after the victory over the LTTE. After the tsunami, 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.

Some security personnel lost their lives trying to save civilians during the tsunami. Tamils in refugee camps flocked around soldiers without any fear. Members of the armed forces even helped Tiger cadres. The LTTE too helped save affected security personnel. On our first visit to Hambantota in January 2005, Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit. Cynics had warned us that soldiers would pilfer relief supplies. Our experience was that soldiers refused to take supplies from us saying that people would appreciate receiving gifts from our hands while looking us in the eyes.

On our visit three months after the tsunami, there was no sign of the army.

 

P-TOMS

CBK set up the Post Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS), the joint mechanism, after a Sri Lanka donor conference in mid-May indicated that much of the promised $S3 billion in aid depended on a resumption of peace talks. Many critics saw this as in irreversible step towards conceding Eelam. Wimal Weerawansa said the JVP would “defeat this betrayal with the sacred intention of safeguarding our motherland”. He accused Kumaratunga of taking the decision without informing her coalition partners.

Tsunami Today

Part of the reason for the muddled initial state response was the rivalry, which continues to this day, between CBK and MR. As prime minister, MR set action in progress from Colombo in the absence of CBK who was on holiday in Britain. According to DBS Jeyaraj, as soon as she returned, she set about unpicking his plans and placing all reconstruction and relief under presidential control. Mangala Samaraweera has his own view of MR’s contribution.

Worldwide sympathy for the victims meant that funds were flowing into the country. However, CBK decided to go for over-ambitious plans, which excluded not only input from victims but also input from the rest of the government or the opposition parties or politicians from affected areas. Government spokesman, Tilak Ranaviraja, admitted to the media that after five weeks 70% of the tsunami victims in government-controlled areas had not received government aid.

Speaking recently at an event at Crow Island in Colombo to mark the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, CBK recalled that soon after the tsunami, political parties had united for one cause and this ensured the country recovered from the disaster within a short period of time. She said that the unity among the several political parties backing Maithripala Sirisena for President guaranteed they could win.

Mangala Samaraweera, who once served as MR’s foreign minister, previously served as CBK’s media advisor, and previously planned Sarath Fonseka’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, also brought up the tsunami in the current election campaign. In a speech on December 26 2014, he gave CBK credit for the public’s generosity. “Ordinary citizens across the world stood in solidarity with us, and on then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s request gave generously of their resources and time.” He contrasted this with “a man who is contesting to be President of this country does not care for people’s suffering. He has consistently put his own private gain above the people’s pain.”

Ten years ago, the tsunami generated harmony and compassion. Today it is exploited for political advantage. I wonder what Liam Cutler, Pete King, Sheila Ward and Beverley Martin in Wiltshire, would think.

 

 

 

Ten Years after the Tsunami

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on December 27 2014.

Colman's Column3

It is ten years since the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. In her book, Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala describes what happened to her at Yala: “I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual”.

At 0.58 UTC, 6.58 Sri Lanka time, December 26 2004, there was a seismic subduction on the seabed off the west coast of Sumatra. Scientists called it the great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. A 1,200-km section of the sea floor moved. The earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale, lasting up to ten minutes. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska.

On Christmas Eve, 2004, we were having dinner with a 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 the thirty-year conflict. Luckily, we decided to stay put in our home up in the Namunukula Mountains.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle 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.

A strange phenomenon occurred 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?

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dhane, the alms giving.

Back in 2005, just outside 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 corpses had contaminated the catch. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.

We saw the first derelict house, then another. Broken trees littered a graveyard. 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 telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not 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.

Orphaned furniture clogged a canal. 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 it seemed as if the earth had halitosis. 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.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

On our next visit, there were fewer people at the temple. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were at the temple insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. 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, lentils, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from our 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 latecomers 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. Adversity seemed to unite people. Nature had not discriminated, although some middle class Christians told us that the disaster was their god’s punishment on heathen Buddhists.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. Another woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All were dignified 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.”

By this visit, the miasmic odor had gone. 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.

Ten years ago, 20,000 soldiers assisted in relief operations. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. This was in sharp contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travellers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway were neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west.

Ten years on Hambantota is unrecognisable. Construction of the Port of Hambantota has given the town the largest port in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and able to accommodate 33 vessels at any given time. A plan to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port authorities and some in the motor trade..

A new international airport at Mattala has one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than Singapore Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi? There are still concerns about the environment and the unique wild life in Yala and Bundala National Parks. Peacocks have endangered flights.

Soon after the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, President Rajapaksa will be running for his third term. Critics see the port, the airport, sports stadiums and convention centres as white elephants that serve no useful purpose except to boost the egos and bank balances of politicians at the same as getting Sri Lanka in hock to the Chinese.

The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The government has stated that the aim is to establish a gateway for investment in the south and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but also in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara.

As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear in Sri Lanka that anything that was not Colombo described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

Everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone who lost someone to the tsunami. In Galle, the wave took away a friend of my wife’s family. 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. Ten years on, he is still suffering.

Everyone can empathise with loss of a loved one – either through death, separation, rejection. Everyone knows the agony of revisiting scenes that one once shared with someone who is no longer there. Sonali Deraniyagala is still suffering. Her book is a poetic account of the bleakness of loss – she lost her parents, her husband and her two sons. She has tried to rebuild a life in Sri Lanka, London, New York – but how to live with such pain?

She also feels guilty for being alive. “Although we were only doing what we always did, and although it was those tectonic plates that slipped, I can’t rid myself of the feeling that I led them to harm when they relied on me”.

 

 

 

 

They Do Things Differently in Louisiana

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday August 27 2014.

Colman's Column3

The Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies recently honoured me with an invitation to the launch, on August 15, in conjunction with the Marga Institute, of a publication titled: Issues of Truth and Accountability (The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka).

I first encountered CHA in 2010 when I purchased a magazine called Groundview. The Groundview magazine was published by CHA and contained an article that dealt with the aftermath of the war in Sri Lanka.

Post-War Reconstruction

In that article, one Joshua M Shoop chastised the Sri Lankan government for its laggard lack of action in the Northern Province. “The destitution and ineptitude in Mannar Town and the surrounding area is visible to anyone,” he wrote. Josh was studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had been living in Sri Lanka for all of three months when he wrote his article. “Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “In progressive nations, this is where a government would come in to assist.”

Josh conceded the government had built new roads, which help the local economy, but he was unhappy because the roads were “helpful for military operations”. This reminded me of the Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese as Reg of the PFJ (People’s Front of Judaea) complained, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” “Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? PFJ Member: Brought peace? Reg: Oh, peace? SHUT UP!”

Dependency Culture

 

Josh claimed the military was depriving “the locals” (that is what tourists call “the natives”) of jobs. “Several international and community-based organisations are operating in the area, assisting where they can, while further perpetuating a dependence on foreign aid.” Josh was one of those perpetuating that and planning a career based on such dependence. I would be interested to know how his career had developed. A Google search did not enlighten me.

 

Third World Louisiana

 

“Natives” in Louisiana, particularly blacks, are still “suffering immensely from the impacts” of America’s own civil war. That war lasted four years and ended 145 years ago. Sri Lanka’s civil war lasted 30 years and only ended 16 months before Josh wrote his article. Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to those of third- world nations. The average life span of an African-American in New Orleans is nearly as low as for a North Korean. By contrast, Sri Lanka is a paradise. The World Health Organisation has said that Sri Lanka’s health indicators are improving all the time.

Tsunami and Hurricane

We are coming up to the tenth anniversary of the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka’s coastal areas. Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana on Monday, August 29, 2005. It would be instructive to contrast Sri Lanka’s reaction to the tsunami with the US response to Hurricane Katrina. The immediate Sri Lanka state response to the tsunami on 26 December 2004 was weak, but 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, “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”.

Twenty thousand Sri Lankan soldiers were deployed in government-controlled areas to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. 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.

In 2008, Judge Stanwood Duval of the US District Court placed responsibility for surge protection failures in New Orleans on the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). USACE could not be held financially liable because of sovereign immunity in the Flood Control Act of 1928.

Primum non nocere

Sheri Fink’s brilliant book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital describes what happened to hundreds of patients stranded in the Memorial Hospital in New Orleans for five days.

The hospital was part of a private for-profit chain owned and operated by the Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corporation. There was no generator mechanic on duty; there was no evacuation plan, despite the city’s history of hurricanes and flooding. The hospital generators were expected to work for 72 hours, but most were in the basement, which soon flooded. On August 31, the last generator gave up. Sewer systems and essential medical equipment were not operating. Staff smashed windows to let in air. In some parts of the hospital oxygen supplies ran out. Fifty-two patients, few of whom could walk, were in an intensive care wing without light or air conditioning. Could they survive?

Doctors felt the need to make some hard decisions and later referred to their behaviour as “battlefield triage”. This was not a war. Conditions were difficult but the hospital had food and water and was only a mile from dry ground.

Reverse Priorities

Patients who could walk were placed high on the priority list for evacuation and those with “do not resuscitate” orders were placed at the bottom. Evacuation began slowly on the third day. On the fifth day, the euthanasia began. On September 1, 2005, morphine and midazolam, a nervous-system depressant, were administered. Some of these patients, it later transpired, were not as infirm as they appeared, and fatal injections were given even after rescue helicopters had arrived.

New Orleans’s public Charity Hospital had about twice the number of patients as Memorial, a lower ratio of staff to patients, and no helipad or corporate assistance. There was similar flooding and lost power, but only nine patients died. The public hospital had a different ethos than the for-profit Memorial – “the sickest were taken out first instead of last”.

Homicide?

When the evacuation from Memorial was complete, 45 patients were dead. Forensic consultants determined that 23 corpses had elevated levels of morphine and other drugs, although few of these patients had been prescribed morphine for pain. The investigators decided that 20 patients were victims of homicide. One patient in particular, Emmett Everett, was alert and in the hospital awaiting surgery for a condition not acutely life-threatening. He was only 61. He had fed himself breakfast that morning. One of his nurses later told investigators he had said, “Cindy, don’t let them leave me behind.” Dr Anna Pou was alleged to have administered a lethal cocktail of drugs to Everett with the intent of ending his life.

One doctor admitted to Fink smothering a man to death with a towel when the morphine did not work. Fink focuses largely on the investigation into the actions of Dr Pou and two intensive care nurses, Cheri Landry and Lori Budo, all three of whom were charged with second-degree murder. Anna Pou was regarded locally as a heroine who worked under desperate conditions and was now being victimised by the inept authorities who were responsible for the city’s plight. The charges against Landry and Budo were eventually dropped, and a grand jury chose not to indict Pou in 2007.

Hippocratic Oath

The main precept of bioethics, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, is “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.” Dr Bryant King, an internist at Memorial, told CNN after he had escaped by boat, “I’d rather be considered a person who abandoned patients than someone who aided in eliminating patients.” Bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote in his expert report that the administration of the drugs was “not consistent with the ethical standards of palliative care that prevail in the United States”. He wrote that the death of a patient must not be the goal of a doctor’s treatment; and death, in his opinion, was the goal in these in cases.

Anna Pou went on to make much money as a lecturer on “ethical considerations” in disaster medicine. In her lectures, she has been less than candid about the conditions at Memorial hospital. She neglects to mention her decision to inject her patients with fatal doses of morphine.

Licence to Kill

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro testified, “human beings were killed as a result of actions by doctors” at Memorial after Hurricane Katrina. …whether or not there was a homicide and whether or not there is a case that can be brought are different matters”. The documentation compiled by investigators (50,000 pages) has been sealed by Louisiana courts. Pou refused to be interviewed by Fink based on her lawyer’s advice.

Pou helped write and pass three laws in Louisiana giving immunity from most civil lawsuits to health care workers operating in mass casualty situations.

Seven Years after the Tsunami

This article was published in the Sunday Island on December 17, 2011 

On 26 December 2011 it will be seven years since 36,000 to 50,000 people (the numbers of dead vary depending on the source) died in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle 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.

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?

A local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success. 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.

There are complaints today about militarisation. Seven years ago, 20,000 soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

Eye Witness

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dane.

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 telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not 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 it seemed as if the earth had halitosis.
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.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

Three Months Later

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. 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, lentils, 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. People seemed to be united in adversity. Nature had not discriminated.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their 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.”

The miasmic odor had gone. 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.

Hambantota today

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 were still many ruined buildings, like post-blitz London in the 1950s.

Port

Hambantota has a natural harbour close to international shipping routes. Construction of the Port of Hambantota (also known as the Magampura Port) by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sinohydro Corporation, started in January 2008. The total cost of the first phase of the project was estimated at $360 million. It was officially opened in November 2010. The second phase, which will include a container terminal, is expected to be completed by 2014. The second stage of the port is estimated to cost around $750 million. The third phase will include a dockyard. When finished, the port will be the largest in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and accommodating 33 vessels at any given time.

“The port in Hambantota will be the catalyst to make Hambantota the new commercial capital of Sri Lanka in the next three years,” said Dr Bandu Wickrama, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Volkswagen/Audi has already forwarded a proposal to assemble vans for the local market in the port zone. Two companies from Korea and Europe have sought to establish SUV assembling plants. Associated Motorways has expressed interest in setting up a Maruti car assembly plant. The Micro Car Company has tendered to set up a factory.

Airport

The Mattala International Airport is currently under construction 15 kilometres north of Hambantota. Chairman of Sri Lanka’s Airport and Aviation Services, Prasanna Wickramasuriya, confirmed that the project was on target to be inaugurated at the end of 2012. The first phase is expected to cost $209 million. China is helping.

The aim is to establish a gateway for investment in Sri Lanka and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara.

Convention Hall

Construction on the Hambantota Exhibition and Convention Hall was launched about two years ago on a 17-acre block of land. It has now reached the final stage. The Government’s contribution to the project is 19 billion rupees. Korea is contributing six billion rupees. The main auditorium has a seating capacity of 1,500. There are six auditoriums, a restaurant, car parks and an open air theatre. The complex will most probably be the venue for the Commonwealth Summit in 2013.

Criticism of Hambantota development

Hambantota today is a very different place to the devastated community we saw in early 2005. Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka 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 UNP, also represents a Hambantota constituency. In Sri Lankan politics requires him to support development projects for Hambantota.

Sports grounds are being handed over to the military. “We are doing this because we are not in a position to afford the maintenance costs,” Brian Thomas, Sri Lanka Cricket’s media manager, said. Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota, which would have been the venue for the 2018 Commonwealth Games if Sri Lanka bid had been successful, is in debt. Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage has admitted that Sri Lanka still owes more than $18.1 million to the Chinese construction firm that built the stadium.

Although it is claimed that the airport project is environmentally friendly there are still concerns about the fate of Yala and Bundala National Parks. The airport at Mattala will have one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than SingaporeChangi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi?

There is resistance from Colombo enterprises to the development of Hambantota. Plans to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port and some in the motor trade.

As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear anything that was not Colombo described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

Sri Lanka Escapes Tsunami April 11 2012

Tsunami Warning

A  twenty-six-year old British NGO intern on a short-term contract in Sri Lanka,  asks on her Facebook page why  people in Colombo are making such a fuss about earthquakes.

“Anyone else in SL felt earthquake tremors?”

“Not entirely sure why Colombo has become a ghost town and everyone seems in mass panic when a). we’re in Colombo and b). no waves have been reported.”

My wife has just been talking to her aunt who lives in Colombo. She said she felt the bed shake and has heard reports from other people around Colombo that they felt tremors. Colombo escaped the tsunami in 2004 but it is on the coast and there is no guarantee that it would escape if there was another huge wave.

When I saw the comment, I was not aware of the tsunami warning (we do not have a TV or radio) and I responded thus:

“Colombo becomes a ghost town this time every year because of the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. All the Tamil workers go home to their villages and the middle classes take advantage of the long weekend to go on trips to the country or the beaches.”

She responded.

“I know. But this mass migration was accompanied by panic.”

It would be surprising if people who remembered what happened in 2004 were not frightened at the prospect of the same thing happening again. There is a superstition that bad things happen at new year. One  could make a value judgement about this fear and label it “panic”. One might risk being thought lacking in compassion if one did so.

I checked out my news updates on the internet and saw that the Director General of Geological Survey and Mines Bureau Dr. N. P. Wijayananada had said a tsunami alert had been issued following  a US Geological Survey report of a 8.6 magnitude earthquake centred 20 miles (33 km) beneath the ocean floor, around 269 miles (434 km) from Aceh’s provincial capital. There had been three aftershocks of 8.2, 6.0 and 5.2 on the Richter scale. “We are still on alert,” he said.

Could It Happen Again?

I responded  thus: “I know that you have been in Sri Lanka only a very brief time but surely you must have read about the horror that was the tsunami of 2004. See: https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/tsunami-update/ Can you really blame people for panicking when a new earthquake is reported? People we knew very well died in the tsunami and that is typical of everyone here. Please don’t belittle the fear.”

She responded:  “Yes, I am well aware of what happened and the devastation it caused. And I could understand the panic/fear/worry if waves had been reported when I was outside and witnessed all this chaos, or we were on the East/South coast. But people are obviously not following the news updates.”

I am not sure what point she is making here. Is  she saying because she felt no tremors and saw no waves there is nothing to worry about? The huge wave happened very suddenly in 2004. Is she saying people are behaving stupidly or irrationally?

The 2004 Tsunami Affected All Sri Lankans

The 2004 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. The number of casualties cannot be accurately stated. In Sri Lanka, the authorities reported 36,000 dead and 5,644 missing. There were 21,441 injured, 516,150 internally displaced.

A friend of my wife’s family, was killed with her brother on a bus in Galle. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. We stay at her husband’s apartment in Mount Lavinia from time to time and he  is still from survivor’s  guilt.

Galle bus station

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. Up to  2500 passengers 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 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?”

 Coping with the 2004 Tsunami

In 2004, the government was slow to react to the tsunami but 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. 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. 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 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.

Viewing the Devastation

We visited Hambantota on several occasions to give what small help we could. Just outside the town 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 could not 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, 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.

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.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone  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.”

A brilliant series of photos by JB Russell can be found at http://www.jbrussellimages.com/#/reportage/tsunami-in-sri-lanka/SriLanka050115-006

Nona, mother of ten children in a fishing village on the south coast.

April 11 2012

We live far from the coast, 4,000 feet above sea level. I did not feel any tremors on April 11 2012. However, our four dogs became unusually agitated that evening. The Avurudha firecrackers were suddenly drowned out by the loudest thunderclap I have ever heard and for several hours we sat in darkness (all the fuses tripped) as deafening  claps and brilliant electric flashes succeeded each other with hardly any intervals. This may have been unrelated to the earthquake but it was damned scary.

Whatever  the NGO intern might have felt  or not felt in Colombo, the Aceh tremor of April 11 was reported to have been  felt in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and India. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said a tsunami watch was in effect for Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Maldives and other Indian Ocean islands, Malaysia, Pakistan, Somalia, Oman, Iran, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa and Singapore.

Minister of Disaster Management, Mahinda Samaraweera, urged people not to panic, but to move to safer areas. The government ordered the armed forces to move in to ensure criminal elements did not take advantage of the situation. The Sri Lankan Navy was ordered to take all vessels out to sea in case huge waves hit naval bases. The Meteorological Department advised citizens living in coastal areas to move to safe places. The department warned that there was the possibility of a tsunami striking Trincomalee on the east coast at 4.10 pm, Colombo at 4.50 pm and Jaffna on the northern tip at 6.00 pm. Sri Lanka Railways temporarily suspended all trains on the coastal belt and also the Puttalam line, while the southern coastal road was closed for traffic for several hours. The government announced that people could use the Southern highway toll-free in view of the emergency.

The government lifted the tsunami warning at 6. 30 p.m. A spokesman for the Information Department said that people could now return to their homes.

Can’t Do right for Doing Wrong

In 2004, the Sri Lanka government was criticised for not issuing a tsunami warning. Because it was a holiday period it seems that no-one was minding the shop. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee.

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.

At another holiday season an earthquake is reported and the government, learning from its mistakes, takes what it believes is appropriate action. The Mancunian expression “Can’t do right for doing wrong” springs to mind. Is she condemning the government for causing unnecessary panic?  What if they had not issued tsunami warnings and there had been a big wave like in 2004? Damned if they do, dammed if they don’t.

Tsunami Update

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.

Death and Destruction.

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. 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 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.

Relief Effort

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. 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

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.

Tourism

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.

Devastation in Hambantota

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.

Three Months After

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.”

Compassion and Suffering

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.

Four Years After

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.

Seven Years After

According to the Sunday Leader, seven years on there are still problems.[i] “In 2007, construction of the Mertuvattai Housing Scheme began. Funded by the Venezuelan government, 30 acres of land was acquired for the scheme, though only 10 acres have been used. Last month the construction came to completion, however, the houses have yet to be handed over to the displaced people.

Two thousand nine hundred and ninety six (2996) families, a population of 11,086 people, were affected by the tsunami in Marathumunai alone.  Four hundred and seventy (470) families were located within the 100 meter buffer zone. After protests against the 100 meter buffer that prevented residents from rebuilding on their own land, this restriction was brought down to 65 meters from the sea shore. Those who lived within 65 meters from the sea shore have received no compensation or relief thus far.”

 

Hambantota today

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 were  still many ruined buildings,  like post-blitz London in the 1950s.

Port

Hambantota  has a natural harbour close to international shipping routes. Construction of the Port of Hambantota (also known as the Magampura Port) by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sinohydro Corporation,  started in January 2008. The total cost of the first phase of the project was estimated at $360 million. It was officially opened in November 2010. The second phase, which will include a container terminal, is expected to be completed by 2014. The second stage of the port is estimated to cost around $750 million. The third phase will include a dockyard. When finished, the port will be the largest in South Asia, covering  4,000 acres and accommodating  33 vessels at any given time.

“The port in Hambantota will be the catalyst to make Hambantota the new commercial capital of Sri Lanka in the next three years,” said Dr Bandu Wickrama, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Volkswagen/Audi has already forwarded a proposal to assemble vans for the local market in the port zone. Two companies from Korea and Europe have sought to establish SUV assembling plants. Associated Motorways has expressed interest in setting up a Maruti car assembly plant. The Micro Car Company has tendered to set up a factory.

Airport

The Mattala International Airport is currently under construction 15 kilometres north of Hambantota. Chairman of Sri Lanka’s Airport and Aviation Services, Prassanna Wickramasuriya, confirmed that the project was on target to be inaugurated at the end of 2012.  The first phase is expected to cost $209 million. China is helping.

The aim is to establish a gateway for investment in Sri Lanka and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but in nearby Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara.

Convention Hall

Construction on the Hambantota Exhibition and Convention Hall was launched about two years ago on a 17-acre block of land. It has now reached the final stage. The Government’s contribution to the project is 19 billion rupees. Korea is contributing six billion rupees.  The main auditorium has a seating capacity of 1,500.  There are six auditoriums, a restaurant, car parks and an open air theatre. The complex will most probably be the venue for  the Commonwealth Summit in 2013.

Criticism of Hambantota Development

Hambantota today  is a very different place to the devastated community we saw in early 2005. Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka 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 support development projects for Hambantota.

There is resistance from Colombo enterprises. Plans to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port and some in the motor trade.

Sports grounds are being handed over to the military. “We are doing this because we are not in a position to afford the maintenance costs,” Brian Thomas, Sri Lanka Cricket’s media manager, said. Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota which would have been the venue for the 2018 Commonwealth Games if Sri Lanka bid had been  successful  is in debt. Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage has admitted that Sri Lanka still owes more than $18.1 million  to the Chinese construction firm that built the stadium.

Although it is claimed that the airport project is environmentally friendly there are still concerns about the fate of Yala and Bundula National Parks. In Lakbima News,  Namini Wijedasa wrote: “At 4,000 metres long and 75 metres wide, the airport at Mattala will have one of the biggest runways in the world. .. Singapore’s Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world, also has a runway 4000 metres long and 60 metres wide. These specifications can cater to A380 aircraft, the largest in flight. Under prevailing circumstances, it is unimaginable that the Mattala airport will one day be as heavily frequented as Changi–and by A380 aircraft at that.”

Of her visit to Hambantota, Namini Wijedasa wrote: “The activities now underway in Hambantota  inspire a sort of awe. The roads are a pleasure to ride on, smooth and tarred to perfection. Even the traffic signs are gleaming. But viewed from a foreign perspective, through alien eyes, it is mystifying why so much money is being lavished on a location this remote and so devoid of people. “

As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear anything that was not Colombo described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

 

After the Tsunami

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.


[i] http://practicalaction.org/south_asia_tsunami

[ii] http://www.lse.ac.uk/Depts/global/Publications/HumanSecurityReport/Tsunami/Sri%20Lanka%20tsunami%20Response.pdf

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