An update from Sri Lanka
Grace Bunker – Sri Lanka
Happy New Year. May this year bring a great deal more peace and joy than the last one.
It is raining in Batticaloa and the rest of eastern Sri Lanka, and it seems just too cruel. They have floodwaters of 4 feet in some places. They cannot get to many of the small villages that have been devastated. But the relief workers keep trying, and you can bet that the moment it is possible the aid will get through. Local groups of all kinds have been at work tirelessly to try to help their own.
It was a week ago today that the world changed in much of Asia, and certainly in Sri Lanka. My experience with it left me more disturbed than I realized when I wrote my last letter to you all. I reread it yesterday and was appalled at how incomplete and disjointed it was. As I was writing it I was exhausted, had a terrible keyboard to struggle with, and my mind was just not working well. I am still very forgetful and find it hard to concentrate on anything for long. I am restless and have had trouble sleeping, but last night I had a wonderful sleep and today I am definitely more myself. If I am experiencing this stress from my close call, how much worse must be the mental and emotional anguish of others with so much more terrifying experiences? I shall try to do a much better job telling my personal story, updating you on how the relief work is going, and giving you suggestions for how you can contribute. Many of you who have emailed me express a sense of guilt that you are so safe in your homes and unaffected countries while there are so many who are suffering so much, and you feel the need to DO something. I understand that, and feel the same.
I went to Hikkaduwa, about 10 or 15 km from Galle on the southern coast of SL, with the Lockwoods and Anna Worlein of Kodai School to have Christmas together on the beach. Four of us did a little birding on Christmas Day. In the evening we watched the sun dramatically set into the ocean and then had an exchange of gifts as we listened to the music of the waves breaking against the beach. That sound may never be the same to me. Then we went out for dinner. The next day we planned to leave for Galle at 9:00. The Lockwoods, who were staying in a different hotel, would pick Anna and me up in our rented van. This part was in my letter, I told about our walking along the road and seeing the water bubble up an alley with people running in terror in front of it. Anna and I retreated a few feet inland to a porch and watched the water fill the yard, but it didn’t get more than about 8 or 10 inches deep when it started to recede and we went on our way. I was quite sure it was a tsunami as I had heard that there had been a mild earthquake somewhere in the Indian Ocean about 7 or 10 days before. However, I thought it was not a very big one because we had seen no towering wave and the water had not had any power when we saw it. As we walked along we began to marvel at the walls that were down and the trees uprooted because we had not seen such power. We saw our van abandoned beside the road with debris around and under it. Once at the Lockwoods’ hotel we learned that they had started out to get us, late because the driver was late. Had he been on time we would have been in great peril indeed, and maybe mortal peril, on the beach road to Galle. As it was, the van was swamped in water to its hubcaps and the Lockwoods and driver piled out for fear of it turning over. Merrick had an encounter with a large floating cupboard but wasn’t much hurt and no one else had more than a break in the skin from stubbing a toe. Their rooms, which were on the side of the hotel away from the beach, had been flooded with 3 or 4 feet of water and many of their things were strewn around but most were found. The senior Lockwoods lost memory sticks and a very special radio and a few other things. The junior Lockwoods’ computers were saved because they had put them on a top shelf. People in seaside rooms lost everything they owned and one man almost drowned in his bathroom.
I should explain that in Hikkaduwa we didn’t have the big dramatic wave, or waves, rather we had a series of surges when the ocean level repeatedly went up a few feet with the normal waves breaking on its surface. After the big series were many smaller ones. Someone would yell, “The water is rising,” and everyone would run for the 2nd floor until it subsided but they never got beyond the point where the building began.
After helping with pick up for awhile, Anna and I walked back to our hotel to check on our stuff in our second floor room. It was untouched but the hotel restaurant was utterly destroyed and the debris from it made it look like the whole place had come down. There was fear of another wave coming and we caught the panic so we packed our stuff and hauled it to the L’s hotel. As we toted and dragged our bags along the same road we had traveled twice already that morning, we had another scare and were shoed by concerned fellow travelers into at Buddhist temple where the priest came and took us into his home and offered us rice. We thanked him but went on our way when it was clear. Now along the way everyone was talking, where as on the earlier trip we just looked at each other, stunned. Foreigners and nationals alike were all asking each other and us, “Are you ok? Do you have a place to stay? Do you need food? Do you have transportation? Can we do something for you? Get out if you can, there are more waves coming.”
And we did just that. About 2:30 we left town in the van, which had not been harmed by its encounter with the tsunami. We found wonderful shelter, food, and companionship in the “Why Not Rest” Hotel in Elipittya, as I told you in my first letter. The Swedes I spoke of called Ruth Lockwood, Merrick’s sister-in-law in Boston who is a Swede, to tell her how grateful they were to the Lockwoods for all they did for them, and how guilty they felt to leave all the suffering people behind.
That was a wonderful community experience of ships passing in the night, but it was a time of great anxiety as well because we were out of touch with the rest of SL and didn’t speak the language so were dependent for news on others’ translations, and what we were hearing was traumatically exaggerated. We heard that Colombo was 1/3 destroyed so it seemed unwise to go there. We heard that Jaffna was mostly underwater and the Palali airport destroyed. I guessed that the land bridge at Elephant Pass must be destroyed so I might not be able to get back to Jaffna by land or air. We heard that the areas of Colombo where all my friends lived were destroyed so I feared they were all dead or badly injured.
On the 28th morning we left Ellipitya heading for Kandy where we hoped there would not be huge numbers of refugees, but we changed our plans and went to Colombo after we got into territory where land phones worked and I could call Cherry Mills (Mrs. Shiranee Mills, the new Principal of Uduvil Girls’ College) and learned that Colombo was hardly affected at all. The Lockwoods and Anna stayed with friends of the L’s but I went to a hotel near my friends. On the 30th I traveled with Cherry Mills to Jaffna. I felt I needed to be grounded in the place I knew best in Sri Lanka.
I had been scheduled to go to Batticaloa for a social visit with the head pastor there, Rev. Jeyanesan, and I probably should have gone to be in solidarity with those who suffered, but it was more than I could handle. I feel guilty about that but I have been able to do a little bit to help with the relief work. On the 31st I financed and went on a shopping trip with our pastor to buy medical supplies to be taken today by the Bishop and others of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI) to Mullitaivu, a town on the Wanni’s eastern coast that has been almost totally wiped out. Half the population and 80% of their children are gone. Last night Jude, my pastor “son”, came and we talked over his plans to go to Batticaloa with a group of teenagers, mostly boys, but a few girls, too. By financing his trip I can help that unbelievably battered area a bit. Batticaloa is in the middle of the worse hit area of the east, the Tamil area, and our church people in Batti are working in Tricomalee and Ampara as well. This is where there is new flooding even as they try to deal with death, destruction, injury, and anguish over loved ones, particularly children, ripped from their arms and never seen again, or found broken and spit back by the sea.
The Sri Lankan Army men who live across the road from us came to worship in our Sunday service at the Uduvil CSI Church and Cherry said a prayer in English in honor of them who do not speak Tamil. It was so beautiful and describes the situation so movingly.
I don’t think there is any need for me to add much to the many reports that you are hearing already, except to say that the Jaffna peninsula is almost untouched. Point Pedro on the northeastern tip had water go one kilometer inland so there is much destruction there and is being dealt with by the Methodists. A couple of the islands, Karanagar and Delft, have some damage, but not much, I am told.
Though Sri Lanka is in desperate straights, once again there are tiny signs of hope. In my first letter I said that government vehicles were said to have been allowed in the Tiger area of the Vanni, but the next day I heard that the Tigers had refused the government aide with one hand and were complaining that they were being treated like “stepchildren” again with no help offered. That sounded typical of the Tigers. Today I have heard that the two sides are indeed working together and I have also heard a repeat of the Tiger’s complaint. BBC’s Francis Harrison is back in SL and reported from Mullaitivu this morning and she did not sound optimistic about cooperation between the Tigers and the government. She said that the anguish being felt now is much worse than these people experienced during the war. In yesterday’s paper there are stories of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese working together in Muttur. So we can hope and pray that cooperation will win.
Now, to get information you can visit you the Global Ministries website: globalministries.org or write to these email addresses for information officers: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Here in Sri Lanka this website has a lot of information about different organization, governmental and non-governmental, doing work here: www.aidsrilanka.com. Dr. James Vijayakumar, Executive of Global Ministries South and Southern Asia Office, has confirmed that you can send money to that office for the work of the JDCSI and state where you want it to be used or just send it to be used where most needed. His email is email@example.com. Last night several of us were discussing what other organization we would most recommend to be the recipient of money and we all agreed that for the north and east the International Committee of the Red Cross is the best.
If you have specific questions please send them on and I will do my best to answer them.
One very down to earth suggestion of help is to finance the buying the new fishing nets for the fishing communities, which have been the worst, hit of all in this area and they were among the ones who suffered the most during the war. I have been told they cost Rs2000 to 3000. Give a hungry man a fish and he will eat for a day, give him a net and he and his family will eat for many years.
Thank you one and all for your compassion and desire to help your fellow humans. These Sri Lankans are a contradictory people because they can be so argumentative, stubborn, and contrary, but then they turn around and are so generous and filled to overflowing with the milk of human kindness. Thank you for wanting to help them.
Yours in Christ,
Grace is a missionary who serves with Jaffna Diocese (Sri Lanka) of the Church of South India. She teaches English at Jaffna College and also works with the Uduvil Girls’ School, where she works in the women’s training programs, which includes teaching English & tutoring women and working with women’s empowerment groups.