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9th January, 2005  Volume 11, Issue  26

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

Spotlight

Hope amidst the carnage

Text And Photos By Amantha Perera in Hambantota And Kalmunai 

Waking up among the ruins is an eerie feeling. The skeletal remains of whatever that is standing in Hambantota appear like images out of a Kafkaesque novel. Dark silhouettes on a light red back ground.....

More...


 More Spotlight 


> Scavenging on misery

> Transparency factor in foreign aid


Hope amidst the carnage

Faslan - A ray of hope amidst the rubble, Hambantota's famous salterns being emptied last week, A walk down memory lane amidst the skeletal remains in Hambantota town and Kids playing on a pile of clothes in Hambantota

A devastated kovil in the Kalmunai coastal area and A boat above his head

Al Niyaz and M.K. Nisham - The human scavengers salvaging bodies from the rubble 

Text And Photos By Amantha Perera in Hambantota And Kalmunai 

Waking up among the ruins is an eerie feeling. The skeletal remains of whatever that is standing in Hambantota appear like images out of a Kafkaesque novel. Dark silhouettes on a light red back ground.

Silence is everywhere, there are no vehicles speeding down the road. No early morning travellers. The only noise that of the swirling dust clouds. Loneliness has new meaning.

On the drive up to Hambantota the beam of the Devundera lighthouse creates a ghostly halo above the ruins. Hambantota brings back images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bomb. Skeletal buildings among acres of flattened rubble. The only aberration being the large boats standing motionless on dry land.

Lost treasures

With the first light of dawn, the hunched figures appear as if from underneath the rubble of concrete and twisted metal, hunched, going through the mess, looking for lost treasure. Eyes wide, they stare, nervous and angry at looters who scraped off whatever the sea left behind, in shock at the waves that reared up like demons in flowing blue robes 10 days ago. In fear of the ghosts that they say roam the nights, those swept away by the waves. But much more than that, of the waves themselves.

M. Nalif stared nervously at the ocean as he rummaged through the rubble of what was his scrap metal business, little shop and house. "It was so scary," he described the waves pointing at the bent trees that are nearby. There is no house to talk of, a heap of stone and metal. He has come to salvage whatever was left behind by the looters. "They come as relatives and take away stuff."

Miles away, at the Kalmunai police station, the entrance is clogged with refrigerators and washing machines, making matters even more difficult for the thousands that have come to register lost property and loved ones. "Looters - what we have recovered from them," said the officer in charge.

But Nalif does not dwell on the looters, "see that house - everyone died, everyone, except a young girl," he points at a mound of rubble.

The exact same scene is repeated in Kalmunai, just this time no one has cleared the debris left behind by the waves. "This is my house, that's my neighbour's car. I don't know whose boat that is," Umma Lebbe Sahabdeen, said nonchalantly standing on top of a mound of bricks. That is what he has instead of a house, and it comes with a new back drop, a boat and a car, pushed by the waves, almost kissing. "My boat, I don't know where that is," Sahabdeen says, and looking a little drowsy sits down. He can't stand much longer due to leg injuries suffered during the tsunami strike.

Volunteers

Others like Sahabdeen whose houses were ripped down by the waves, climb over 10 feet of rubble and boats to get to their homes. Then perched on them wait till sun down, for some donor, an aid convoy or even a nosy journalist to turn up. Close to sunset, they trudge back to their temporary shelters, a school, a temple or even a relative's house, to spend the night - too sacred to remain among the ruins where thousands perished.

In Hambantota the rubble is cleared and visitors from as faraway as Mawanella can walk among the ruins. Visitors like M. Mansoor who travelled from 4 a.m. in the morning just to get to Hambantota to see the ruins and the devastation. They gawk at the boats and the buildings unable to fathom the strength of the force that lifted boats 50 feet up in the air and dropped them 100 meters away. "What did this?" Mansoor mumbled standing next to a 20 foot boat. They can get into Hambantota and walk about at leisure because construction vehicles and crews have gotten in. Rescue crews were only retrieving bodies last week from the salterns. One hundred and ten acres of salt tanks are being emptied there after the tsunami. Bodies appear as the water is pumped out.

The JVP has inducted thousands of volunteers, all over the country, but especially here in Hambantota. They form chain gangs and clear the rubble all day. "We have been here since the 28th and will be here till January 10," said W. A. Chanaka, a volunteer from a group of 550 from Ratnapura alone. Able bodied, young and enthusiastic, the volunteers work for hours, forming chain gangs to clear the rubble.

Aid supply

One hundred and twenty among them specifically hunt for bodies along with the army. "We are the only people who are going near the bodies, except for the army now," Chanaka says while adjusting his red bandana, "even the relatives are not going near - the stink is so much."

Not quite though. In Kalmunai, two youth Al Niyaz and M. K. Nisham have been retrieving bodies from as far back as two days after the tsunami ravaged the village of Sainthamaruthu. There was no JVP, there were no bulldozers, no army - just two young guys in shorts, wearing surgical masks, daubing themselves in Dettol and retrieving the bodies and burying them on their own in the beach, in unmarked graves. The JVP was there in Kalmunai as well, but not in the same numbers as in its home base Hambantota.

The JVP was providing food for refugees at camps located in the Amparai town, and getting manpower across to villages in Kalmunai where relief was only getting in because of the persistence of non-governmental relief efforts.

Refugee camps however were well supplied in Hambantota and Kalmunai. Nalif said that they were being provided with dry rations. At Valathapti along the Amparai - Kalmunai Road, 216 refugees living at the old market building were provided with dry rations by Sarvodaya and the government. "They are now cooking at the camp," said K. Kadiravelu who oversees the administration of the camp.

Public health officers visit the camps regularly and posters warn of diseases and precautions against them. The risk of disease spreading was tremendous last week, according GMOA Member, Dr. Uditah Herath. However, so far, there has been no severe outbreak. International agencies like Medicines Sans Frontiers and others from countries like Turkey and Italy together with the Sri Lanka Army are working overtime to keep sickness at bay.

But some of the aid was as overwhelming as the tsunami itself, especially clothes. At the Jumma Mosque just outside Hambantota town, children were playing on a mountain of clothes taller than the 30 foot waves that got them into the refugee centre. Organisers of the centre said that they felt that they had enough stockpiles of food for about half a month at least. They wouldn't even assess the supply of clothes.

No place to go

Some of the refugees who ran away from their homes with the crashing waves have returned to look at what is left. Weary eyed they sit on the rubble with aimless stares, most of the time looking beyond the waves. "Give me a boat and I'll go back to sea," Sahabdeen said. But he has no boat, and a complete boat with outboard motor and nets will cost at least Rs. 350,000. And Sahabdeen is one among thousands left without everything they had worked for.

What lies ahead for the refugees who lost millions through no fault of their own is a frightfully uncertain future. Take R. Prakash, at present living at the Bandaranaike College refugee centre in Amparai town. Hailing from Kalmunai, he ran with 1,500 others to the camp. Now he wants to go back - to what, he himself is not sure.

"The government has said that there will be no houses on the beach. That's ok, but we can't go miles away. Our children's schools are there, everything is there," he said. To top off the confusion amidst the tragedy, schools like Bandaranaike will re-open on January 20. "And where will we go?" asked a confused Prakash.

Refugees in the camp have been encouraged to leave and resettle. They are provided with three days worth of supplies and transport, and according to Prakash that's it.

Hope

"Providing shelter will be the problem," said an army officer touring refugee centres for assessment in the Amparai area. No one is even talking about post-disaster rehabilitation. At Kalmunai, the overwhelmed police station does not have funds to develop the photographs of the deceased buried in mass graves, that is how far post disaster planning has gone.

Despite the discontent countrywide, there was hope. And laughter, innocent laughter of children, reverberating among the ruins. Like Kopiga, clearing debris at her home in Kalmunai, with the sweetest smile there ever was. Like the little children running and playing hide and seek at the Valathapti refugee camp. The best was little Faslan, Nalif's two and half year old son. Walking among what was his home just a week ago, Faslan played by himself, oblivious to the carnage around.

Waves of fear

Folks who live close to the sea are usually the least scared of the waves. Usually that is. December 26th changed much of that. The tsunami has created a generation that will live in fear of the waves for the rest of their lives.

Take 14 year old Keri from Kalmunai. He ran from the gushing waves and saw his own mother and sister perish. "I saw their bodies," he said. With only his father, a brother and a sister left, Keri now wakes up in the middle of the night screaming. "I have nightmares, I see the waves coming at me, I see the people screaming."

People at refugee camps relate stories of children and adults alike waking up in the middle of the night frightened of the waves.

At Kalmunai, they talk of hearing screaming voices from the devastated coast line, they say it's the ghosts of those who perished.

M. Yogesweri's husband suffers from nightmares and is refusing to go back to resettle in his native village at the beach in Kalmunai. "He says that he cannot look at the sea now."

On the day the tsunami came, Yogesweri was looking after three of her nephews and nieces. She got out of the house with two of them, but the smallest was trapped in the kitchen. "My husband went into get him, and he got caught to the wave that big," she said pointing at a king-coconut tree. Her husband was swept away by the wave and suffered laceration injuries and now finds it very difficult to walk.

Yogesweri is a religious person, but since the tsunami she has had no time to go to church. She ran away from home with the waves and has not gone back since. "I don't think of this. I know I am scared. But may be if get a house and my life is back, then I will think," she said.

All over the country ones who once dared the waves are now shying away in fear. The ocean clearly taught who set rules on Boxing Day and few will dare challenge that now.


"I am in pain but we have to go on"

When Al Niyaz heard of the devastating tsunami that had ripped through his native Kalmunai he was thousands of miles away, working in Saudi Arabia. He saw the footage and caught the first available flight back home.

"I was here within two days," he said. He came back to find his home wiped away, a pile of bricks stand in its place. His mother and sister are missing since the 26th. "I spoke to her (his mother) two days before all this. She was telling about giving my sister in marriage. I told her that we could do that," Niyaz reminisced tears welling in his eyes.

Niyaz found himself alone and clueless in Kalmunai, so was his cousin M. K. Nisham, an engineering student at the Moratuwa University hailing from Kalmunai. "When I heard that Kalmunai was hit I ran here," he said.

It was 10 days since the tsunami hit when Niyaz approached The Sunday Leader journalist on the devasted beach front in  Sainthamaruthu. "You want to see the real destruction, then come with me," he said, wearing a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, a cap and a surgical mask. Nisham was right behind him.

It was obvious that both youth were undergoing tremendous emotional trauma, but somehow were trudging along.

While he escorted the journalists along the devasted narrow allies of his village filled with rubble, shocked people and a nauseating smell, he related the last 10 days of his life. "I came here, no home, no mother, no sister, they are missing. So I start looking for them. And I don't find them. But I find lots and lots of bodies. So I bury them. That is what I have been doing."

The expat and the chemical engineering student turned themselves into body scavengers. Armed with an extra large bottle of Dettol they were rummaging through the rubble looking for bodies. The ones they were locating last week had been decomposing for 10 days, and the stench was near physical, like a wall hitting smack on the face.

"The bodies are so bad, no one is helping us, we are all alone in this now. I have taken out may be 100 bodies," Nisham said. When he reached his destination, Niyaz guided the journalists inside a devasted house. The front part which looked like a small shop was being cleaned by the owners, who gestured towards the back. There in the back room twisted among the debris was a badly decomposed body of a child. Outside the two brothers had kept another body, again of a child, may be three, may be four years. Through the padura that was covering the body a small hand jutted out, plastic bangles still adorned that hand.

Niyaz and Nisham could not handle bodies alone and were appealing to others for help to carry the bodies to the beach, 400 meters away and bury. No one was helping. "I don't know whose child this is, but I can't leave this like this," Niyaz said. It was evident that they would carry the bodies wrapped in paduras to the beach by themselves and bury them. Like they had done in the morning.

"I see the tears in your eyes, I know you feel the pain, now you can understand what I am feeling. But we have to go on, we have to get over this," standing next to the child's body, Niyaz said.


"I will do this as long as supplies come in"

On the 26th K. Kadiravelu would never have thought that he would be spending the next 10 days looking after the welfare of 216 destitute souls. When the coastal villages on the Kalmunai beach were hit by the tsunami, people ran from them for dear life.

They ended up in refugee camps miles away. Like the one at the old market in Valathapti. When the refugees flocked, Kadiravelu took it upon himself to look after them. "We went around the village collecting stuff and money," he said, "we took care of them for three days till help arrived from outside."

Kadiravelu amidst the refugees

Among the 216, there are many children including 15 under two and half years. Kadiravelu and his assistant has all this properly marked in charts and each refugee's details meticulously entered in a book. How come they knew all this without any instruction from disaster management professionals? "That's the east, I spent four years in a refugee camp. I know all this," Kadiravelu's assistant answered for his boss.

After three days Sarvodaya and the government commenced relief work. Shell provided the camp with a water tank. The medical officers from Amparai, Sarvodaya and other NGOs are helping in maintaining the health of the refugees.

They appear happy for a bunch who have lost all. The children play, the youth flirt with one another, women cook at the camp with the supplies and the men sit around and banter.

But things are not simple as they appear. While we talk, two women approach the camp, children at hand. They talk to Upatissa , the Police constable stationed at the camp to protect the supplies. Upatissa looks at Kadiravelu. The retired Sugar Corporation employee is suspicious from the beginning. The two women have come to the camp immediately after the departure of a group of army officers who registered all the refugees.

"I can't take these in," Kadiravelu loses his usual gentle self, "no, no, you are from that village close by. You are here because you want the free food, go, go," he chases them away with the help of Upatissa. "I will feed and clothe them, but rogues," he turns back to us replies.

Kadiravelu and his assistant are willing to run the camp as long as the government help keeps coming in. "If the government says leave now, then we can't do this, this is government property. So as long as the supplies come in I will do this. There is no question on that."

And he is in the thick of things. Jostling refugees were all over him trying to register with the army. Kadiravelu thanks the army officers profusely as they depart, he knows that his camp's wellbeing now lies with the supplies coming through the security forces.

They do have shortages at the camp, like coconut oil, sleeping mats and cooking utensils, but Kadiravelu is the first to admit that there is enough for survival. "The problem will be getting houses for these people. They are all from the coast, near the ocean, and there is nothing left, everything has to be built from ground up. That will be a huge task," Kadiravelu said, standing outside the camp with small children running around playing. 


Scavenging on misery

JVP's Sahana Seva balakaya in the devastated areas and One of the health camps set up by the JVP in the south

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti 

While the entire country plunged into deep despair following the December 26 tsunami catastrophe, at least one political party benefited from the tears that flowed and has resorted to extorting consignments of relief reaching devastated areas that are being distributed through their efficient party machinery.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) while being the first political party that ventured to assist those devastated by the wave attack has not stopped there. The party is currently busy converting the relief programme into a political one and in doing so, is also committing extortion and intimidation.

Issuing orders

Several relief workers, particularly working in southern Sri Lanka claimed that the JVP was simply issuing orders to those transporting various goods to refugee camps to unload at their centres.

However, full credit goes to the Marxist party for its innate ability to identify an opportunity when it presents itself - even if it comes in the form of the worst natural disaster this country has ever experienced.

It is also to their credit that while more established political parties like the Peoples' Alliance (PA) and the United National Party (UNP) were going round in circles not knowing what to do, the JVP youth were already working in the devastated areas, clearing the debris and assisting the armed forces and the police to dispose of bodies. Their flawless network did not fail them as they mobilised youth around the country to come to assist a nation devastated by ferocious waves.

What is tragic as well as inhuman is that while doing so, the JVP has not only politicised a national tragedy and simply scavenged upon it - but also demonstrated how ruthless and even criminal they could be - by forcibly acquiring a large quantum of relief that were sent to different parts of the country by different agencies.

"It was nothing short of robbery," claims UNP's Matara District Parliamentarian, Sagala Ratnayaka who says that he had difficulty in getting the lorry loads sent from Colombo to their Matara District relief centres as JVP supporters halted the vehicles and demanded that relief be unloaded at their centres.

According to him, there are some 800 destitute persons at Rahula College, Matara which had been simply taken over by the JVP and converted into a relief centre run by the JVP's Sahana Seva Balakaya or the Relief Services Squad.

Ratnayaka said that the UNP has a centre at the Manthindiya Pirivena, Matara where supplies are re-parcelled and distributed depending on field reports received on the specific requirements of people. The centre largely attends to the co-ordination of relief.

"Outside the Pirivena, supplies were stopped and directed to the JVP's relief centre, which is opposite the Pirivena premises. It is not their's and they were sent to reach specific people at our centres. But in their desire to score points and show the people that only they bring assistance to villages, they extort what is not meant for them," alleges Ratnayaka.

A relief officer there told The Sunday Leader that the centre is run by the government but not even the PA politicians or supporters are tolerated there by the Sahana Seva Balakaya. His explanation was that being the south, the JVP was driven by political ambition - and hence were resorting to all sorts of tactics to gather relief material.

It is easy to identify the JVP relief centres as banners are displayed along with red flags. These centres have been virtually turned into JVP political offices. The relief workers too wear badges identifying themselves with the JVP's relief force.

It is these youthful members who get on to the roads and redirect the supplies to their own centres and when resisted, intimidate those transporting the goods, according to reports.

"It is tragic how they capitalise on grief and use it for political propaganda," said a lawyer from a relief centre in the Matara District, one of the few operated by the PA. He grumbled that the JVP simply ignored the government agencies and had their own programmes causing much embarrassment to the government.

Stumbling block

"They do their own thing and hamper our work as well," he criticised.

However, the truth is that the government mechanism is not working in the devastated areas and hence, the people are thankful largely to the JVP and some NGOs for coming to their aid.

Suren Mahathanthila, a voluntary relief worker working in the deep south was aghast that besides the extortions, that relief packages themselves have become a part of the JVP's propaganda.

While none of the political parties, Non Government Organisations (NGOs) or other agencies resorted to advertising themselves at a time of acute sorrow, the JVP relief packages bear the party label. What is worse is that they also operate independent of the government of which it is a constituent partner and at times clash openly with government agencies when it comes to relief distribution, says Mahathanthila.

But the JVP itself is undaunted by these criticisms. "This is the JVP machinery at work. The JVP has the country's best grassroot network and right now, we want to immediately assist people. If we try to involve the entire government, it would retard our work," said Sampath Udayakantha, a Sahana Seva Balakaya member who works in Mount Lavinia.

When questioned as to why they were at cross-purposes with the government in relief distribution, Udayakantha said that people would trust the JVP to do a better job and an honest one than the government agencies which are known for their lethargy and inefficiency.

Active participation

During our field visits, what we witnessed was that truly, if a political party was active at ground level, it was the JVP and no other. However, there was much exhibitionism associated with the relief work they rendered and were seen, particularly in the south, attempting to consolidate their position in the now sea ravaged southern coast - their strong political bases.

By December 26 evening, lorry loads of youth clad in red bandanas and JVP badges travelled to their respective work sites and began work. Red flags flew at half-mast mourning the loss of lives. All routes leading to the southern coast as Galle Road became impassable due to the waggeries of the sea, were decorated with red streamers.

The JVP had its relief services task force and the labour task force activated in areas devastated by the tsunami, just hours after the massive destruction took place.

"We have inducted a lot of people from the non-devastated areas. As they are not personally affected, they can help others," says the JVP's Fisheries Minister, Chandrasena Wijesinghe.

Saddened by the deadly blow delivered to the fisheries industry, he denies that there is extortion of relief goods by the JVP. "You have to accept that we are a thoroughly organised party. We need not extort, people want to use our network and willingly handover relief goods to us," says Wijesinghe who admits that the government network is slow and does not command public confidence.

When the waves struck the coastal belt, JVP volunteers from unaffected areas poured in their hundreds into the affected areas, most of them very young. In their zeal, they stop most vehicles transporting relief goods and attempt to unload at their centres, according to field reports received.

"It happens. I am a senior government politician, but the JVP does not want me inside the relief centres," said a key PA member from Galle District. He told The Sunday Leader that he was gently told not to bother as things were taken care of by the JVP youth as far as distribution of relief went.

But what he challenges is not their undisputed capacity to efficiently distribute goods, but as to how they actually obtain the goods. "They do not receive enough material for distribution. All they have is the network and the will to run around. Then they resort to the forcible unloading of consignments reaching the areas," he explains.

While their bona fides are being questioned, to the JVP's credit, it is not only relief distribution that they undertake. They actively help people clear the rubble, remove dead bodies and are often seen holding shramadana to put their roofs and houses together - something that a lot of people would not wish to do.

"One has to admit that the JVP was the first to visit our villages. Other parties were largely non-existent except in certain pockets," says Thirimadura Nihal (39), a displaced fisherman from Galle. By the time most relief workers arrived representing different groups, the JVP boys were hard at work.

In the deep south, one of the biggest JVP hubs in the island, JVP youth were seen forming themselves into a minis damwel or a human chain to aid the Sri Lanka Army in clearing the debris. The armed forces, stretched beyond capacity following the catastrophe and hence lacking manpower to have proper clearing operations in the devastated areas were appreciative of the JVP's active participation.

Amidst all this are the incidents of forcibly unloading transported relief and intimidating those who oppose their instructions - incidents that are now becoming regular.

"I was told to unload at a centre in Galle and I told them that I had strict instructions to deliver the goods to the government relief centre which was only a couple of kilometers away. I was told that they wanted the goods and to unload there," says Wasantha Piyathilaka, a truck driver who unloaded the dry rations he was carrying at the JVP centre due to fear.

"I was not threatened, but they were not willing to respect my wishes. So I unloaded. I did not know what to expect," he says.

In the Denipitiya Grama Sevaka Division in Weligama, the Grama Seva officer chased away a JVP team, according to a Matara District government politician. This was due to the Marxists' attempt to redirect the relief sent by government agencies to their own and failing which, tried to convert it into a JVP centre as relief continued to pour in.

Tragedy in to an opportunity

"It is a recurring story. Anybody may send relief, but the JVP will high-jack the stocks and distribute through their network with the JVP label stamped on it," says the disappointed Galle District government politician. He said that it was terribly sad to have this kind of warfare over the distribution of relief with certain groups trying to take credit and turn the tragedy into an opportunity to score petty political points.

According to field reports, the JVP's health camps were instantly located at each main city and people began thronging these to be treated for minor cuts and bruises. They are attended to by doctors.

In Galle, JVP MP Vasantha Samarasinghe manages the health centre and there are 23 such health centres operational in the Galle District at present.

"We will operate till the respective state institutions in the area, which are mostly damaged begin to function again," he says. The health camps he explained are situated in towns in order to treat those affected by the tsunami, but are not in any refugee camps.

"The centres in every main town also function as information desks where people could receive any sort of information they need," Samarasinghe adds. Medical aid for these centres is provided by private sector supporters as well as through various government institutions.

While their clearing operations and medical camps are well planned and provide necessary services to people in dire need, their biggest constraint is that they are not well fortified in the area of relief supplies.

According to Colombo District UNP MP, Gamini Lokuge, it is this factor that drives them to extort goods that are being sent out.

JVP left out

"They have young people to do the hard work and a network that serves them well. But what do you distribute? The UNP receives supplies and the government agencies also get a lot. It is the JVP that is left out - but without something to distribute, what can you do?" he queries.

The efficient undertaking of relief distribution, albeit the extortions and acts of intimidation interestingly follow the rejection of the JVP's top rung by the northern populace.

JVP Spokesman, Wimal Weerawansa who accompanied Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse on a northern tour in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, had to scurry back to the helicopter as the people flatly refused to entertain him on northern soil.

Immediately afterwards, a JVP Deputy Minister, Sunil Handunnetti was also booed when he entered a relief centre at a Ratmalana church accompanied by a photographer.

Understandably, the JVP is politically hit by the tsunami waves. It is the south stretching from Galle to Hambantota that provide the JVP with its strongest political base. Hence, it is largely the Marxists' voters who have got killed or displaced.

Naturally, it is thus required of them to be able to show magnanimity and be able to offer handouts in their hour of grief as well as need. It is this need that the JVP seeks to fulfill - even if it requires them to adopt some of their old tactics - extortion and intimidation in furtherance of political ambition.


Transparency factor in foreign aid

One of the first US helicopters to land in Galle with relief supplies, Hungarian medical students treat victims in affected areas and Officials of the Indian Navy help to clear debris in Galle

Text and Photos by Frederica Jansz in Galle 

The huge challenge facing Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster is the equitable distribution of foreign aid. A key issue has reared its head. It has particularly ugly overtones.  And that is, how much transparency and accountability is being displayed in the distribution of foreign aid to tsunami victims in the island.

Given Sri Lanka's appalling track record as far as corruption issues are concerned there is little trust as far as government and other officials are concerned that the large amount of foreign aid pledged will indeed be utilised in the correct manner. Suspicion extends also to expatriate workers based in the island who are not completely trusted to ensure that aid in such massive quantities will be distributed equally and in a transparent manner.

And this ugly aspect has revealed itself all too clearly when disputes arose over the amount of aid distributed between the government and the LTTE.  In the same breadth, UN aid agencies  also stand accused of being partial towards one or the other.

Nothing received yet

Comments made by the Government Agent for Galle, G. Hewavitarana put it in a nutshell. He said, "Almost all the UN agencies have visited me. They have all pledged aid in varying forms. However I have yet to receive any significant assistance from them."

Commenting further he added, "UNICEF came and asked me what I want - I said cooking utensils.  They promised to supply some.  So far, I have got none.  The US military made air stops in Galle - I don't know what they brought. I have not got anything from the US."

Hewavitarana maintains that over 90% of the aid that has flowed into the Galle District has been from the Sri Lankan public as well as private organisations.

But Benjamin Kauffeld from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has other concerns.  Overseeing the initial air drops by the US military in Galle, Kauffeld asserted that a serious concern USAID does harbour is the monitoring of where and how these supplies will be distributed.  Kauffeld admitted that given the reality of widespread corruption in Sri Lanka, the US is concerned of the possibility that some of these items may not reach the affected.

How effectively the Americans plan to monitor their aid packages, Kauffeld was unable to say. The initial air drops by the US military were handed over to representatives of the Sri Lanka Red Cross in Galle. Contrary to expectations, the items however were not medical supplies.

Marines here

A total of 17 US marines together with 30 US Air Force and technical communications experts arrived in the island Wednesday (5) and began relief operations.

Given the massive publicity surrounding the aid pledged by the United States to Sri Lanka since the tsunami hit, the initial supplies flown into affected areas on US helicopters proved disappointing.  Presumably based on immediate assessment reports, the Americans last week flew into Galle and Trincomalee with basic humanitarian relief material.  They were plastic tarpaulins, plastic water bladders and plastic water containers.

US embassy officials maintain that the Americans are still in the process of flying reconnaissance missions to survey the extent of the damage, asserting that Colombo is already "chokablock" full of American supplies awaiting delivery.

America has so far pledged a total of US$ 2.5 million (Lkr. 262,500,000,) to Sri Lanka in emergency grants where it will be distributed through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Colombo.          Assessment teams are apparently in place to determine where aid can be best utilised.  Embassy officials who asked that they not be named, said the U.S. government is working closely with the government of Sri Lanka and non-governmental organisations to coordinate aid efforts.

US$ 100,000 (Lkr. 10,500,000) in Emergency Disaster Declaration funds have also been pledged  to Sri Lanka which USAID is expected to distribute to the Sri Lanka Red Cross.

Three teams

The US embassy maintains there are three USAID Disaster Response Assessment Team (DART) members on the ground conducting assessments in three areas around the country in the south and east (Galle, Matara and Trincomalee) and coordinating assistance plans as part of the international effort.

USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) last week dispatched two flights to Sri Lanka carrying 120 rolls of plastic sheeting for use as basic shelter, two 10,000-litre water bladders, and 4,200 water containers, valued at approximately US$ 50,000 ( Lkr. 7,500,000).

Coordinated out of the U.S. Military's Pacific Command, the Disaster Relief Assessment Team (DRAT) is working with the Sri Lankan government to determine both immediate needs that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) can provide, as well as mid to long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation operations, such as road and bridge infrastructure and medical teams and supplies.

While the effort on the face of it is impressive, the ground reality is still somewhat hazy.  US officials themselves are not yet certain how to distribute these supplies to the affected in a coordinated and methodical manner. Transparency remains a huge issue.

For instance, a Sri Lanka Red Cross official present at Butterfly Bridge in Galle where the two first American helicopters landed when questioned said plastic water cans and tarpaulins were not the immediate requirement. He maintained there was a far greater need for syringes, saline units, antibiotics and bandages.

This need, apparently students from the University of Hungary had gauged all by themselves. Arriving at the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital in Galle last Wednesday, university students from Hungary said they had collectively conducted a private collection of drugs in the way of antibiotics, bandages, plasters, painkillers and other basic medical requirements which they carried to Sri Lanka and distributed at the Karapitiya hospital.

India better organised

The Indian government on the other hand, appears to be far better organised and committed towards providing much needed supplies in the way of manpower, medicine and other supplies to Sri Lanka.  Despite being a victim of the disaster themselves, India has amazingly been in a position to send immediate relief to Sri Lanka.  Ten days after the disaster of December 26, 2004, the Indian government had deployed upto 1000 Indian relief personnel in Sri Lanka. 

One Indian aircraft carrying 600 kg of medical supplies and a team of one doctor and two medical assistants arrived in Colombo at 1940 hrs on Sunday, December 26, 2004, within a few hours of the Sri Lankan government's S.O.S. to India. 

By Monday, December 27, four Indian naval ships arrived to help carry out relief work in Sri Lanka. INS Sandhayak and INS Sukanya arrived in Trincomalee, while INS Sharda and INS Sutlej were stationed in Galle. These ships brought medical and general relief items, diving teams as well as inflatable boats. One naval helicopter on each of the ships was used for search and rescue operations. Thirty two tonnes of relief supplies have so far been provided by the Indians at Trincomalee, while 40 tonnes of relief supplies have been provided by the ships at Galle.

Six MI-17 Indian Air Force helicopters are performing ferry duties within Sri Lanka, carrying provisions, medicines and drinking water to remote areas and bringing back stranded persons from these areas back to safety.  One Indian naval aircraft arrived in Trincomalee on December 29, 2004, carrying 300kg of medical and relief supplies.

A large transport aircraft arrived from India also on December 30, 2004, at Colombo carrying 25 tonnes of relief material like dry provisions, medicines and tents for the disaster victims.  Two naval aircraft (one Dornier and one Islander) arrived on December 29 and will be stationed here for the next several days to provide relief assistance to the Sri Lankan government.

Medical aid

One Indian naval aircraft arrived on December 30  with 800kg of medical supplies and one health officer, who is a specialist in post-disaster health management. 

A full field hospital consisting of 140 medical officers, medical provisions, beds and other equipment arrived in Colombo on December 31, 2004. One section of this field hospital has been deployed in Hambantota and one section in Matara.

One 45-bed hospital ship, INS Jamuna is stationed in Galle in addition to the two ships already stationed there since Monday, December 27. These three ships are proving to be the backbone of relief and harbour clearing efforts in Galle.

On Friday, December 31, 2004, an Indian Navy ship, INS Aditya, a tanker arrived in Colombo carrying relief supplies, medical teams and provisions. This tanker was sent to Batticaloa.

In addition, Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh announced assistance of Indian Rupees 100 crore (US $ 23 million) for the relief and rehabilitation of tsunami victims in Sri Lanka.

Russian pilots have also been drawn into the international aid and relief effort, flying Russian helicopters and planes into some of the affected areas carrying much needed supplies.

Japan having pledged a massive US $ 80 million is a key donor in assisting Sri Lanka get back on her feet, while the World Bank has also promised massive relief packages by way of grants towards rehabilitation and reconstruction of the devastated areas.

Political tensions

And as Sri Lanka tries slowly to lift herself out of the rubble and dirt, political tensions between governments both international and local and the Tamil Tigers began to brew.

A senior official at the US embassy in Colombo requesting anonymity said the United States would not fly its helicopters or relief personnel into LTTE controlled areas in the north and east.

"The Tamil Tigers continue to be identified as a terrorist organisation in the US, therefore we will not have any direct dealings with them.  The aid supplied by America is being handed over directly to the Sri Lankan government - if need be, it is up to the government to decide how that aid should be distributed equitably to all the affected areas around the island," he said.

Similar sentiments were voiced by a senior Indian embassy official.  Also asking he not be named in the politically sensitive issue, he said India too in similar vein to America would not carry supplies to LTTE controlled territory.  He however maintained it was up to the Sri Lankan government to decide if it wished to send medicine and other items supplied by India to rebel controlled areas.

International aid reaching Tiger controlled territory so far has been only via UN aid agencies. The UNHCR for instance met with the LTTE, with the latter explaining their response mechanism to the displaced persons, namely the creation of two task forces, one to cover Mullaitivu District, the other to assist those affected in LTTE controlled areas of Jaffna.

Forty eight hours after the tsunami, UNHCR shelter materials were delivered to both Tiger task forces. In light of the UN aid agency expressing concern that aid should not be deposited at task force field sites due to the danger of creating a bottle-neck or absence of transparency, the LTTE  has agreed their task forces would not store aid, but rather direct UNHCR lorries to the welfare centres where the beneficiaries reside.

Military at vanguard of relief ops

While Sri Lanka lay shattered to her core after the horrifying disaster of December 26, Sri Lanka's military has stepped in and taken control. Initiating a massive aid and rescue mission, the military is working tirelessly to also coordinate relief work with government and non governmental organisations.

Military Spokesman, Brigadier Daya Ratnayake said that from the very first day of the disaster, the military rallied round initiating rescue missions, relief work, providing security as well as helping clear and organise highways that had been littered with debris after the killer waves smashed into a third of Sri Lanka's coastal belt.

Sri Lanka Army personnel distribute aid

By last week, the military had begun working 24 hour shifts to help restore at least some semblance of normalcy in Sri Lanka's battered areas.

Southern mission

In the south hundreds of military personnel are deployed daily to help clear the roads of rubble and begin a reconstruction and rehabilitation process.  The military has also been actively involved in helping coordinate food and other aid distribution to tsunami victims.

Driving back from Galle last week, among the horror and destruction were also touching scenes. At Hikkaduwa an army truck full of army personnel hailing from down south but stationed as part of the army's 6th regiment in Jaffna had individually collected a large amount of milk powder packets, biscuits and other dry food rations and were seen making stops along the main Galle-Colombo highway distributing the items to tsunami victims.  (See pic)

In Batticaloa the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has established a checkpoint at Navalady to keep track of relief supplies being delivered into the LTTE controlled areas.

Troops by late Wednesday had cleared the road passage up to Matara, enabling public transport to resume regular services. Similarly, over 25,000 soldiers continue to render their services day and night with post tsunami remedial assignments at respective areas in close cooperation with civil administrators.

By late evening on Wednesday, January 5, a total of 555 social and welfare centres with 500,000 displaced tsunami victims in Batticaloa, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Puttalam, Trincomalee, Ampara, Hambantota, Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Gampaha and Colombo Districts were streamlined in order to receive all emergency services including hot meals, dry rations and medicine. Security to nearly almost all those centres has been provided by the local police with the help of the Special Task Force, army and home guards.

Distribution

Beginning from December 28 up to January 5, a total of 738 vehicles laden with relief goods including those from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) entered uncleared areas across the entry/exit points at Omanthai and Muhamalai.  The aid lorries escorted by the military, carried dry rations, clothes, food, medicine and cooking utensils.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Army Seva Vanitha Unit at Army Headquarters which has been entrusted the task of collecting relief items on behalf of the army was able to distribute another stock of hundreds of meal packets among internally displaced persons in Galle, Boossa, Kalutara and many other households affected by the disaster on Wednesday (5).

The Disaster Relief Centre run by Defence Services at the Galle Face esplanade sent continuous relief items and medical teams to Galle and Tangalle after evaluating urgent needs of those social and welfare centres.

In order to learn about the extent of damage and ongoing remedial measures, the newly appointed District Coordinator, Relief Work for Vavuniya, Major General P.S.B. Kulatunga who is also the Commander, Security Forces Headquarters Wanni on Tuesday 4, visited Pulmoddai and Kokilai areas.

Inside devastated fishing villages in the south, north, and east, soldiers were seen clearing piles of rubble while restoring road access to the hamlets.

The Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH), on a directive made by President Chandrika  Kumaratunga has now appointed senior officers as district coordinating officers (DCO) of the armed forces to co-ordinate all ongoing relief and rehabilitation work in the districts with effect from January 3.

Chief of Defence Staff, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri and Army Commander General Shantha Kottegoda were in Jaffna last weekend in order to take stock of the gravity of the tsunami disaster in the peninsula and ensure speedy remedial measures.

On receipt of an urgent SOS call for blood from medical men in uncleared areas in Wanni to the Vavuniya District Secretary, T. Ganesh, health authorities at Vavuniya Hospital turned to the army for assistance.

The late evening call for blood, hours after the disaster struck, prompted Vavuniya hospital authorities to kick off its programme with the help of some 122 army personnel who volunteered to give blood immediately in response to the call. 



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