Tsunami relief update
It is coincidental that Dr. James Vijayakumar, Vijay, was here to view the Tamil tsunami affected areas of Sri Lanka just before the 4th month anniversary of the tsunami, but, as a fellow traveler with him, it afforded me an opportunity to informally assess what progress has been made in the north and east toward helping tsunami affected people build a new life for themselves.
In a very few areas a lot has been done, but in most of the places we saw that progress is distressingly slow. This is true for most of the island, from what I read and hear, but I can attest to what I saw and heard along the northern and eastern coast of in the Jaffna Peninsula, and on the east coast of the mainland in Mullaitivu, which is under Tiger control, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa. In the latter two cases I was seeing the devastation for the first time so had to just imagine what it was like immediately after the tsunami, from what I saw and the tales I was told. For all the other places I can compare the progress now because I personally observed the damage when it was very recent. Along the peninsula’s coast I have made frequent trips to the area stretching from Chulipuram in the north to Kudaththanai in the east, which is the area in which the Tsunami Relief Committee of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India (JDCSI) has mainly been working.
I wrote an earlier letter describing Mullaitivu so I won’t dwell on the utter destruction that I saw. You have all seen pictures and heard accounts of the terror of the waves and the aftermath. Now, as I toured with Vijay and Diane Faires, my fellow missionary with Global Ministries, we saw that much of the rubble had been removed and in places there was just an open, blank wasteland. In some areas there are temporary housing camps situated right in the ruins, as long as they are 100 meters from the sea, as there is a government ban on constructing any building closer to the sea than either 100 meter, or in much of the north and east, 200 meters. In the LTTE governed area the ban is 300 meters. In a few places there are a few new or repaired structures that are in use, but mostly the towns are eerily quiet, seemly empty memorials to the dead and missing.
Many of the early relief camps were set up in schools, and they were long in being moved, but I think now all schools that survived the tsunami are functioning as schools. Most children are going to school, but the quality is very uneven. The JDCSI has done a lot to help school children with uniforms, school supplies, and in some cases temporary shelters, and in the Sri Lanka style our pastors in the affected areas are putting up sheds for after-school “tuition centers” and day care centers. I know this is true in Batticaloa in the St. John’s church center as well. That center has done phenomenal work for the villages around Batticaloa.
I have not seen ONE newly built permanent house. The closest I have seen to permanent houses have been tiny houses of about 300 square feet which have a cement brick wall about 3 to 4 feet high with a cement floor and four corner posts holding up a tin or thatched roof which can be completed later with full walls, additional rooms, and detached kitchen and toilet. The rest of the temporary shelters are made of an ingenious combination of cement brick, wood, corrugated tin sheets, tents, tarpaulins, straw mats, and thatching. In most of these communities the shelters are crowded very close together and strewn with refuse. They all have rows of toilets and several wells, and the people are fed by the government, the LTTE, NGOs, or a combination of these. In the east from Trincomalee on south the rains have come and they have been very heavy. The shelters are immediately flooded.
One thing that is holding up the building of permanent houses is that land is now scarce since the buffer zones have prevented the people from returning to their own land. There is also the complication of specific housing plans made by governing authorities which require much larger and more substantial houses than most of these folk have ever had, which will require a lot of money. The fishermen and their families are not happy to be moved so far from the sea because of the difficulty of transporting/protecting their boats and equipment.
The above rather bleak picture has a more positive, less easily seen side, however, and that is that much is being done to get the fishermen back to work so they can earn a living and end the humiliating dependence on handouts. This is the area in which our JDCSI Relief Committee has been doing the major share of our work – livelihood. Village by village our devoted pastors are finding and supplying boats, outboard motors, nets and other equipment needed for the men to go back to the sea. For fishermen who do not want to go back or whose family can’t bare for them to go back we are helping them find alternative jobs by training the men in different trades, and providing them with small amounts of capital to start small businesses. We have started Vocational Training Centers for the women and girls, and are working toward getting them involved in non-traditional jobs such as carpentry. There are many other organizations doing this kind of work and we are cooperating with several other churches so as to work together rather than in competition with each other. On the administrative level our Protestant Churches in Sri Lanka are having a hard time working together, but in the grassroots of the affected villages the pastors are working together with true ecumenical spirit and focusing, as we all must, on the true goal – helping the people.
There is another issue I must speak to you about relating to the situation here in Jaffna and much of the rest of the war-affected areas, and that is the suffering of the people displaced by the 20 years of war. They have suffered from a man-made disaster and donors are not so anxious to help them, as though somehow they are responsible for their suffering! It is so much easier to pour out concern and money to people devastated by nature’s wrath – those incredibly powerful, terrifying waves. But these tsunami-affected people have suffered for 4 months, the others for up to 20 years, and then there are those whose lives were destroyed by BOTH. Sensitive, fair-minded people and relief agencies are beginning to recognize that the war-affected people must be helped alongside the tsunami-affected. Sometimes the villages are right beside each other or across the road. For those of you who are contemplating further donation toward the needs of Sri Lankans as they get into the second and third phase of relief, please consider stating that the money you send can be used for ANY suffering people, war and tsunami alike. Or send some for one group and some for the other. Surely it is only right that we salvage some good out of a disaster of this proportion to improve the lives of all who suffer.
Thank you to the multitude of you who have contributed in the most remarkable outpouring of compassionate aide to the tsunami-affected people all through South Asia. God bless you all.
Yours in Christ,
Common Global Ministry Missionary in Jaffna, Sri Lanka
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.