Relief organization for tsunami victims
On Friday, the 7th, I went to Mullaitivu, a town on the northeast coast which has been totally destroyed by the tsunami. I have heard from one source that half the people died and 80% of the children.
On Friday, the 7th, I went to Mullaitivu, a town on the northeast coast which has been totally destroyed by the tsunami. I have heard from one source that half the people died and 80% of the children.This is in the Tiger held territory called the Vanni, and is in their high security zone because their navy, the Sea Tigers, has a big base there. Some sources say a very large amount of that was destroyed but the LTTE are not giving out much information about that. Beverly and Trevor Watson, from Australia, Asohan Amarasingham, a Sri Lankan/American here for a year as a lecturer at Jaffna University, and I had not expected to be able to visit Mullaitivu because the LTTE were not letting anyone with a foreign passport go there, but Rev. S. C. Arnold who leaves few stones unturned, was able to make special arrangements, and with a special handwritten pass from some high up Tiger we were able to go, taking a good many boxes of medical supplies. One special item was tetanus toxoid, which had to be kept frozen until just before use. We picked it up at a pharmacy at 7:00 a.m., transported it in a cooler with frozen water bottles, and delivered it frozen at 12:30. The distance we traveled must have been less than 100 miles but some of the roads are bad and we had to stop at 5 checkpoints and go to an LTTE office to get the special pass, which took close to an hour.
After delivering the medicines and picking up a long list of other medicines and equipment that are needed we visited one of the ten refugee camps that have been set up in schools by the TRO, the Tamil Relief Organization of the LTTE. There are approximately 1000 people in each camp, or about 200 families. This is the first phase of the assistance plan and it is almost complete. Only an occasional dead body is found now. All the refugees have been clothed, are being fed, and have a small area to live in where they have access to medical care. The camp gave the appearance of being very well run and I didn’t find it hard to walk around and speak to the people through translation. Everyone had a ready smile in response to our smiles and sympathetic interest. They found us rather interesting, too!
Counseling is one of the greatest needs now that the basic bodily needs are cared for. Catholic priests and nuns who have some training are giving themselves over to the people as counselors and we were able to talk with one, Fr. Anpu (a shortened name), at length and meet some of the children he is trying to help. A girl of 10 was hanging onto him and he told us that she has lost both her parents. He pointed out her two younger siblings. During the first few days after the tsunami she seemed to interact quite normally with others, but when families started to leave the camp she began to withdraw and she stopped talking altogether for a while. Fr. Anpu has been able to get her to talk with him and to trust him and now she seems quite normal again, though clinging. All of us visitors did wonder how he would handle his inevitable separation from her. Fr. Anpu showed us pictures the children had drawn of the tsunami and many showed the water as black. The details were affecting: bodies without head, heads in the water without bodies, people in trees and on housetops.
This community will have a very unnatural proportion of men, women, and children because such a large proportion of the deaths were among women and children. There are many men now without wives to be mothers to their children and in this society men don’t feel they can take care of the young. Many of the men speak of committing suicide. One man said that he cursed his ability to swim. Had he not been able to swim he would have died with the rest of his family and then everything would have been all right.
The TRO management is making plans for continued and more intensive counseling and making provisions for those who need specialized psychiatric care. Rev. Arnold will be looking into making arrangements to send a team of counselors to Mullaitivu from counseling organizations in Jaffna, mostly headed up by Dr. Daya Somasundaram, the one psychiatrist in Jaffna throughout the war years. Daya is a friend of mine who sends his two daughters to Uduvil Girls College. He says this does not require a lot of money, but some is needed for travel and housing for teams, for printing literature on counseling and telling about their services, and, in some cases, a small money gift is given to encourage people to come and talk.
After spending time with Fr. Anpu and the people around him we were taken to meet an official of TRO who sat down with us and gave us a lot of information. Mullaitivu is a town of about 90% fishermen. The other livelihoods are farming and merchants. Many of the farmers have lost their crops because the ocean water invaded their paddy fields. We saw fields that were turning yellow because of the salt. Because the main livelihood is fishing the Phase 2 temporary housing and the Phase 3 permanent housing will be placed 300 to 500 meters from the sea. Reluctant as some of the people are to return to the sea, the reality is that that is their life.
Land is being cleared for Phase 2. Each family will get a small tent, two sets of clothing for each member, and a NFRI package. This is a start-up housekeeping kit for living independently in the tents. It will contain pots and pans, mats, sheets, towel, simple tools, buckets, and probably other things. Facilities for each of the 13 refugee communities will include 1000 liter water tanks, 1 for each 10 families, toilets, a medical clinic, a pre-school, a public gathering place with furniture, and a generator. We were given only a few cost amounts, only these large ones: they have spent Rs50 million on Phase 1, and when Phase 3 is completed they expect the cost to be Rs750 million. UNHCR is providing the 1815 tents they need and ZOA, OXFAM, and a third NGO are providing water and sanitation facilities.
Phase 3 will provide each family with a 400 sq. ft. cement block house. They will construct roads and schools. Help to get the fishermen back to work will be given throughout the rehabilitation process but that will be a main goal for Phase 3. They will be providing three kinds of nets, those for shallow, medium, and deep water fishing. There is another very large net that a whole community can share that costs Rs750,000. At Hikkaduwa in the evening we watched those huge nets being pulled in by dozens of people, men, women, and children. The Tigers will also be providing motors and boats. Small boats will often be shared by 2 families where as larger trawlers will be operated by larger cooperatives.
There is an urgent need to get the transit camps out of the schools as the academic year is to begin tomorrow! TRO is hoping to have the schools vacated and ready for their intended purpose in 2 weeks. In these current transit camps there are 5557 families and 24,557 individuals. Of these 40% are “directly affected” which means they have lost everything, and 60% are affected by fear. These latter families will be expected to eventually return to the homes and properties that they still have. Nothing was said about assisting them to repair these places, but there are probably plans for that which we just didn’t hear. I was impressed, and I think the others were too, by the efficiency of the TRO’s care of the people, but last night I was talking with a young Tamil woman from CIDA, a Canadian government agency for assisting women, and she pointed out that this was a very military-like program. The people are not being consulted; they are being told what to do, when, and where. There is no evidence of any government aid.
Which brings me to the political situation. I suspect all of your heard today that Kofi Annan was prevented by the government from accepting the invitation of the Tigers to tour the affected areas, specifically Mullaitivu. On Friday we ran into a young American journalism student who came to Sri Lanka for a holiday and has been practicing his new profession! He came along with us to Mullaitivu. He said that journalists are very cautious about writing articles about the problems between the government and the LTTE. It is safer to write the good stories about the cooperation that is going on in many communities, like one in the NY Times recently. I am sad to say that at the moment it does not look like any thawing of relations is going to come out of this catastrophe.
I have been writing to you about one specific community, but I think the needs will be the same throughout the affected Tamil areas from Point Pedro to Ampara. Along the southern and southwestern coast there will be similar needs but also the tourism infrastructure has been badly damaged and there are more diversified livelihoods there. My Tamil “son”, Rev. Jude Sutharshan, has recently returned from a town near Batticaloa where he and 15 of the youth in his church traveled in circles in order to reach one devastated church community because they kept encountering bridges washed out by the tsunami or roads so deeply flooded from the heavy rain that they couldn’t be forded. Once there they worked for three days, shoveling dirt in the hot sun or rain, to fill in huge chasms and holes caused by rushing water. I saw his video of areas that once had 200 houses and not one brick is left. But the church is standing!
I have made suggestions in previous letters as to how you can contribute personally and in groups, and I will not repeat that here, but please write if you want further assistance. It is possible to contribute directly to some causes. I would like to make special mention of the many teachers who have taught with me one place or another who are working with their classes and schools to raise money to help provide school materials and other things for these children. I read that 48 schools have been destroyed or severely damaged, and those which are standing may have lost all their supplies. Another item that has stuck a cord with many people is buying nets for fishermen. These projects make the giver feel connected and they are very generous and good, but giving to the large, experienced, well organized organizations that have special expertise is very important as well. There is a danger of some groups being neglected and others getting an over abundance unless there is good overall coordinator of aid. Jude spoke of angry refugees fighting with aid workers or each other because they felt that the supplies were not being fairly distributed. The TRO’s total control of what happens at the camps is good for organization and fairness, but at a cost of being dictatorial! In the Jaffna Peninsula there is aid coming from both the Tigers and the government, and that is true in Batticaloa as well. There is some competition to be the first and most generous in providing aid! There are also reports of the help of international donors making a big difference. It is comforting to hear that the U.S. Navy is helping Sri Lankans instead of making war.
School begins tomorrow, as I mentioned above. I will not be able to give so much of my time to my email contacts but I will continue to work with anyone who needs my help. Things are getting into more of a groove, so there may not be as much to report on. I will be continuing to welcome emails of concern and with offers of help and will keep you as updated as I can.
God bless you all and God bless the people of Sri Lanka and all around the Indian Ocean who we are trying to help.
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.