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.....
factor in foreign aid
amidst the carnage
- 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
devastated kovil in the Kalmunai coastal area and
A boat above his head
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
factor in foreign aid
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.