Visiting a tsunami survivors camp
Yesterday several Jaffna College teachers took a busload of senior students to Manelkadu, on the east coast of the peninsula, to gain some first-hand experience with the impact of the tsunami. It’s part of their group project work, which usually just involves doing a couple of interviews or some book research on a random topic, but this time we wanted them to do something more practical and hands-on, with real results. Under the guidance of the young, energetic CSI pastor, Pastor Rohan, who works in that area, we visited the Kudathany refugee camp for people who lost their homes, and most of who lost family members as well.
We’d prepped the students a bit the day before, but I think they were still a bit nervous and apprehensive about interacting with these traumatized people. But when we rolled up to the camp, after a few moments of hesitation, they dispersed and quickly began chatting with people of all ages, although of course they gravitated mostly towards the children.
I was a bit unsure what I would be able to do while we were there, with the language barrier. I got there and smiled at a few of the children and tried to talk to them in my broken Tamil, and after about ten seconds of shyness, one told me her name, and suddenly I was in the middle of a sea of tiny white school uniforms, mostly first graders. They had the sweetest smiles and were so eager to just hold my hand.
First I got them to sing a few Tamil nursery songs, then I tried to teach them an English song, and we became fast friends. We danced a little, and they showed me the camp’s communal cooking area and their classroom. They all tried putting their hands over my eyes to play “guess who”, until a contact lens popped out, so then I had a crowd of tiny faces mesmerized while I put my “eye” back in. They chattered away to me in Tamil, passed around my hat and sunglasses, all trying them on. They were extremely hyper, and for the most part seemed like ordinary, healthy kids, in spite of their circumstances.
The families are living in small, hot tents. In their discussions, the JC students learned that each person in the camp has a sleeping mat, but there’s not enough room in the tents for each member of the family to lay out their mats. Their basic needs are met – food, shelter, etc… – but it’s certainly not comfortable. Many of the small children told the JC students that they are happy in the camp, because their friends are right there and they can play all the time. But I’m sure after awhile the novelty will wear off, even for them. I think generally, except for the smallest ones, camp life is pretty tedious and boring.
After we left the Kudathany camp, we went down to the Manelkadu beach, where the families in the camp had previously lived, and saw the damage. It was striking because there was a concentrated cluster of houses, just flattened, with the rubble all still lying there, not bulldozed away like in some other affected areas. There’s a nice Catholic church that wasn’t badly damaged, but someone said thirty people who had come for a Christmas pageant rehearsal died in front of it.
It’s such a beautiful beach, with big waves, soft sand, and nice blue water. But not only was it devastated by the tsunami, even before that the war had left its mark. A row of army bunkers extended down the beach as far as you could see. I was imagining that if you could erase the tsunami, erase the war, and instead of bunkers, picture each one a little beach hut with a couple of lounge chairs in front of it, it would be the ideal vacation spot. What a terrible waste. But more than for the potential tourists, what a waste for those people who had their homes there. Now, there’s nothing. To start again from nothing will take so much energy and determination. But at least that’s one thing that the children of Manelkadu still have left.
Diane serves as a Global Mission Intern by the Common Global Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She teaches English and participates in community-based work.