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Life on the shores of death

Print edition : Jan 28, 2005 T+T-

In Sri Lanka the initial shock gives way to a strong determination to return to normal life, despite squabbling politicians and not-so-efficient distribution of relief assistance.

V.S. SAMBANDAN recently in tsunami-hit coastal districts

MANALKADU, a vibrant fishing village in the northern Jaffna district with a population of just over 1,000, woke up in a panic on December 26. "There was a loud noise and we thought that the war had started. Promptly people hid under their beds as they always do when bombing is imminent. But Army soldiers came running towards the houses, shouting `run, run, it is not the war, the waves are coming'. They ran for their lives and climbed onto a mound where my friends and I were rehearsing for a church function," recalled Vijayakumar, sitting under a tamarind tree on the outskirts of the village, a coffin by his side.

He is now fishing out bodies in his village, which has been reduced to rubble by the huge waves that devastated the Sri Lankan coastline. Xavier, a priest, raises his handkerchief to his nose. "There is a body somewhere here. The stench of the dead is often the first indicator we get. We follow the scent and zero in on the spot, where yet another body would have washed ashore."

Seventy-three persons are feared killed in this village. "This is the 64th body we have found. We are not able to identify our own neighbours," said Vijayakumar, pointing to a huddle of plastic sheet. Beneath it lay the bloated body of a child, probably not more than five years old.

There is not a single building standing in the village, which has a small Army camp. A resident packs up whatever he can from the shattered remnants of his house, loads them on to a tractor and sets out. "Somewhere far away. I am leaving, with no idea when I will return," he said. His pet dog, Ponni, wags her tail and barks at the wind."

Almost nothing has survived the waves along two-thirds of the Sri Lankan coastline. From Point Pedro in the north to some pockets around Colombo, the tsunami snatched over 30,000 lives, destroyed buildings, wrecked livelihoods and orphaned several thousand people. The coastline - pristine in parts and squalid in others - is now mound after mound of debris and rubble. Ten days after the tsunami, shock gave way to strength as the shattered nation engaged itself in the rebuilding process.

A Tamil journalist, Puthirasigamani, who was in the eastern Batticaloa district, recalls the tsunami's fury: "I was on my way back from the Sunday market when I saw people running. I withdrew to a safe place and saw it. Initially, it was like an incursion. The sea water crossed the roads and came into the town. Then it withdrew, taking with it anything that stood in the way. Then, after a while there was a huge wave. Very huge. It was not like sea water at all. It was black - tar-black - as if it carried all the muck of the ocean. That was a killer wave."

The eastern districts are a picture of devastation. In Muslim-majority Amparai district alone, the death roll has crossed the 10,000 mark. "Families have vanished without a trace and nearly every survivor here has lost someone either related or known to him," an eastern resident said.

At the other end, Galle, the largest city in the south and a busy business hub, was flattened. Along the coast, a train was washed away, taking at least 1,000 people to a watery grave. Here, as in other populated towns and hamlets, the destruction is complete. Nearly 500 metres from the coast, the smell of death pierces the nostrils. The marine drive along the southern coast - a gentle turn from the west coast to the south - is littered with deep-sea vessels.

Although the tsunami saw no distinction between the rich and the poor, the largest toll was of the poorer sections, which lived in feeble shacks that cannot withstand even a heavy downpour.

A GIANT crane is salvaging the wreckage of a fishing vessel in a minor port 10 days after the tsunami struck. Suddenly the makeshift chords hoisting it snaps and the heavy boat is flung back into the water. Ill-affording even the emotion of frustration, the workers prepare spontaneously for another salvage attempt.

The approach channels to the Beruwala harbour have been cleared but it will be a few more days before the harbour is opened; the breakwater, the net-mending room, the canteen and the auction hall have all been destroyed.

Lal, a fisherman who was in a deep-seat fishing boat and suffered bruises on his forearms and legs, recalled that "the boat started speeding" with the ferocity of the rising wave. "I just sat down dumbstruck. I could not think of anything. I just waited till the boat hit the breakwater," he said. Upali Peiris, the owner of the vessel on which Lal works, breaks into a cackle. "What did he feel? He was scared. We were all scared. But it's over now. We have to restart."

But the majority of the affected, who are from the informal fishing sector, do not have organised assistance such as insurance. "I don't have insurance. I don't think the government will give me a loan. I won't ask them for one," Peiris said. He plans to repair his boat by borrowing from friends and relatives the Rs.3 lakhs or so that it would cost.

For a country that has faced man-made devastation of one form or the other since the 1970s, there is a willingness to move on. There are thousands who have lost everything, but the most affected are fishermen. The government has appointed three task forces covering all aspects of the relief and rehabilitation process, but its priorities have changed rapidly since December 26. Immediately after the tsunami, the priority was evacuating the stranded to safety. Schools and places of religious worship became instant relief camps. An outpouring of public emotion was palpable as people spontaneously loaded cars and vans with relief materials and took them out for distribution.

"We were all over the southern districts. A few friends and families got together and went to the affected areas," said Perera, a resident in a Colombo suburb that was not affected by the waves. Across the country support and assistance first came from citizens, who responded instinctively. The government machinery took over in a couple of days. The security forces, which had rushed to the disaster areas, discovered that they had a new role to play.

The government cranked up its machinery, but there were lapses in taking the assistance to the people. The distribution of dry rations to the northern and eastern districts ran into problems between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the northern districts, where the writ of the LTTE runs, the rebel group maintains that government supplies do not reach the people and the government accuses the Tigers of spreading misinformation.

(Incidentally, speculation was rife on the fate of LTTE leader V. Prabakaran and intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman. Barring a signed statement expressing condolence to the victims, Prabakaran has not made a public presence, nor did he address the rebel-held Voice of Tigers, fuelling the speculation. The former LTTE military commander, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna), who left eastern Sri Lanka in mid-2004 and subsequently formed a political party, has not commented on the disaster, which took a heavy toll in Batticaloa, his former stronghold. His whereabouts remain unknown since April 2004.)

A glance at official figures reveals a kind of prejudice in favour of the Tamil-majority northeastern districts, compared with the Sinhalese and Muslim areas along the southern coast in the matter of relief. The figures show that 93.18 per cent of the dry rations supplied went to the northern and eastern districts, with the three southern districts receiving a mere 6.82 per cent, in the first 10 days.

However, behind the statistics lies a tale of administrative adjustment. A chunk of the dry rations marked "relief assistance provided" to the northern and eastern districts were stocks that were available in the district's godowns before the disaster. The figures add up significantly to the total of 4,912 tonnes of "relief assistance" provided by the Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. The Ministry's statistics did not provide disaggregated figures of stock that existed before December 26 and those provided after the tsunami.

On another count, these figures do not reflect equitable distribution across the affected districts. The government's position is that the southern areas are more accessible than the districts in the north and the east.

The President's office, in a statement, pointed out that the "people in the affected areas in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu have in fact been receiving more government assistance than those affected in the south," as these districts and "some parts of the eastern districts" were "more accessible" and received "sufficient quantities of assistance from NGOs, the business community and other organisations".

President Chandrika Kumaratunga "is very keen that the relief material should reach the affected people in the northern and eastern districts. From the initial days, we have been sending a major part of the fresh relief stock to these districts," official sources said.

However, according to informed sources, there is no evidence of the relief materials reaching the people at the ground level. "We do not know where the food goes; whether it is just lying in the godowns or reaching the hands of the LTTE," political sources in the north told Frontline.

"Technically, even if a Government Agent (equivalent to a District Collector in India) is authorised to release stocks, either existing or those freshly sent, it can be counted as relief assistance by the government." The Opposition United National Party (UNP) has demanded that the government be "transparent" in its relief operations.

As the tsunami victims continue to languish in camps, a large amount of the rations are also reportedly being "pilfered by officials across the country". In parts of the north-east, Tamil sources said, the officials and the Tigers work in tandem. "There has been a mutual arrangement going on for the last 20 years, in which each turns a blind eye to the other's siphoning off of government supplies," an informed source said. Pointing out that the Army had taken control of relief distribution in the east, the source said: "As this can reasonably halt pilferage and ensure that supplies reach the affected, this should be replicated across the country."

In the final analysis, for a country whose biggest natural calamity in recent times had been a major flooding in the central and southern districts two years ago, Sri Lanka has coped with the tsunami despite the problems along the way.

A major international assistance package for the island-nation is on the cards, besides the aid assistance already given. The aid assistance saw the foreign exchange reserves swell, resulting in an appreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee. Preliminary estimates placed the current year's expenditure at $1.3 billion.

A host of dignitaries - including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell - visited the island. Paying a handsome tribute to the people of Sri Lanka, Kofi Annan said: "I have been quite impressed by the energy of the people and their determination, with a bit of help, to pick up the pieces and carry on."

Annan, who met the President, Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe, Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, and other Sri Lankan political leaders, said there was an opportunity for the country to work together. Asked to comment on the LTTE's disappointment that he did not visit rebel-held Sri Lanka, Kofi Annan said: "I hope to be able to come back and visit all parts of the country and also to celebrate peace."

However, once the high-profile visits are over and the wave of promised (and delivered) financial assistance recedes, the task of rebuilding Sri Lanka would essentially remain an indigenous one and take years to complete.