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24th December, 2006  Volume 13, Issue  24

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                                    

Issues

Civilians suffer in battle over Vaharai

By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

The past few days have seen thousands of pathetic Tamils described officially as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP's)fleeing...

More....


More Issues

 > Battle for the foreign secretary's post (....Pot Shots)

 > More questions over Rehan's mysterious death

 > Two years on, promises still only  promises (....tsunami 2 years later)

 > Scorched earth policy in force


Civilians suffer in battle over Vaharai

Displaced people at a camp in Vaharai

By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

The past few days have seen thousands of pathetic Tamils described officially as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP's)fleeing areas such as Vaharai, Kathiraweli, Paalsenai etc. in the Koralaipattru North division of Batticaloa  District and seeking refuge in other parts of Batticaloa. A few hundreds have even gone back to villages in the Eechilampattru division of Trincomalee District.

According to official circles the number of displaced people from the Koralaipattru AGA division had reached 27, 837 by the evening of Thursday, December 21.

Most of these helpless people have fled their homes and temporary dwellings with the clothes they were wearing and a few belongings. They have overcome tremendous obstacles to reach what they believe will be a safe haven of refuge.They have resorted to jungle footpaths and water crossings to reach safety.

People driven out

With about 40, 000 displaced Tamils from Trincomalee District taking refuge in the Koralaipattru North division of Batticaloa District the Vaharai region population had swollen to more than 50, 000.The Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) for politico - military reasons wanted the people driven out. De - populating Vaharai was deemed crucial to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In a sense it was like a re - play of what went on in Sampur region in Trincomalee. A calculated campaign of aerial bombardment and artillery firing was conducted to de - populate Sampur.  When the security forces walked into Sampur after the LTTE had vacated it, there were no Tamil civilians left.

Military campaign

Now a military campaign on those lines is being implemented to de - populate the Vaharai region. Aerial and artillery attacks are conducted; food and medicine supply is restricted; refugee camps are shelled; movement of people to and from the area is curtailed; NGOs are prevented from providing aid; proper housing , schooling and sanitary facilities are denied. In such a situation the people naturally wanted to get out of the area.

Initially the GOSL security forces allowed people from the LTTE dominated Vaharai region to move into other GOSL controlled areas of Batticaloa District. Around 10, 000 persons moved out in this way. But the LTTE got worried about this slow exodus. Restrictions were imposed.

It was Mao Ze Dong who compared guerrillas to fish and the people to an ocean. If the ocean is drained then fish will flounder . Likewise a region bereft of people will render guerillas vulnerable. The LTTE did not want that to happen. So the LTTE enforced strict controls. People wanting to move out were threatened with dire consequences. Shots were fired in the air to disperse people on the move. Some were beaten. Roads were mined. Other routes were blocked or monitored.

 Blockade

Strangely enough the security forces too imposed a blockade. The entry - exit point at Mankerny was blocked. Movement of people to and from the region was stopped. This in turn led to a drop in the outflow of refugees towards GOSL areas. The state had an ignoble purpose it seemed. It wanted to deprive the people of essentials and make their suffering acute.

Moreover deliberate targetting of refugee camps by artillery went on. Restrictions were placed on taking injured people out. Even others needing urgent medical treatment like pregnant women were not allowed in.

The people undergoing immense suffering would have left the LTTE areas for the relatively safer GOSL areas but for certain reasons. One was the hope that the International Community (IC) would expedite action and end their agony. The other was a fear of what lay in store for them in GOSL controlled areas. The most important reason however was the LTTE refusal to allow them out. The fear of consequences at the hands of the LTTE was a major factor.

Situation worsens

The situation however got worse. No hope seemed to be in sight. The advent of the monsoon made existentialist problems a misery. Absence of proper dwellings aggravated the situation in a climate of rain and floods. The acute shortage of food, education , sanitation and medicine increased the suffering. Continuous artillery attacks threatened life and limb. Furthermore there was also the forced recruitment of young ones into the LTTE.

No people on earth can continue to suffer like the people of Vaharai. There had to come a breaking point. The first signs came when the LTTE began moving out some cadres, artillery and military assets out of the region into Verugal area in Trincomalee and the Paduwaankarai - Tharavai - Vadamunai region in Batticaloa District. The people realised the LTTE was not going to hold out much longer.

Bloody battle expected

Yet the people with long experience of war situations knew a bitter, bloody battle was likely before the final withdrawal. This meant a no holds barred onslaught by the armed forces. It also meant an unrestrained defence by the LTTE that would not pay much heed to the welfare of civilians. There was also the danger of drastic conscription to fight a last ditch battle. Adding to their woes was the weather that would make existence a tremendous burden.This fear of bad weather provided further impetus to the refugee outflow.

So the people began moving out. Initially it began as a trickle but soon became a flow. From hundreds a day the outflow increased to thousands per day. After some attempt to prevent the exodus the LTTE apparently gave up. The local Tigers from the area did not have the 'heart' to prevent the people from going out. There was some friction among the Tigers on this matter. Ultimately the LTTE either turned a blind eye or was simply lax in preventing the people from going out.

Roads blocked by LTTE

With the main roads mined and effectively blocked by LTTE sentries the people resorted to two routes by sea and land.One way was to go out to sea by boat and land on the Mankerny and Kaluwankerny coasts. Another  was to go out to sea and then turn inland into the Uppaaru lagoon and reach Pethalai and Nasivantheevu in the Valaichenai area.

The land route was to use jungle footpaths. People used jungle routes to reach the Thirukonamadhu -Kattumurivu areas on one side. They also used jungle routes to reach Welikanda areas. Ridithenna became the oasis of refuge and safety.

Increase of displaced

The rapid flow of displaced persons in such large numbers and within such a short period was something unexpected. Neither the security forces nor the civil administration was equipped to handle this.

More than 17,000 had arrived via land and waterways in nine days. Those coming by boat had taken great risks because of the choppy waters. A few boats had capsized killing several people. Yet the people came braving the dangers. Life is the most important thing to humanity. Humans are prepared to risk death in order to seek life.

By the evening of December 21 the IDPs coming out of Vaharai region had reached 27, 837. With the total population in the area placed between 50 - 53, 000 (permanent and temporary) this figure amounted to more than half. At the rate that the people are coming out, the figure is likely to increase beyond 60 %.

People in transit camps

"The people are being kept in transit camps for a maximum of three days and then moved out to permanent camps. The UNHCR, ZOA (Dutch NGO) and IOM are providing buses and vans to transport IDPs from security camps and posts after screening. These organisations take them first to transit camps and from there to permanent camps.

According to Batticaloa officials there are 13 transit camps and 20 permanent camps. These camps are mainly in schools which are now closed due to holidays. Some IDPs are being housed in transit camps in Polonnaruwa District too. With schools scheduled to commence classes in two weeks alternative accommodation has to be found speedily.

Finding accommodation

Batticaloa Government  officials in association with humanitarian organisations are engaged in finding alternative accommodation. Batticaloa Government Agent Punniyamoorthy told a Tamil newspaper that the relief assistance provided by the government was inadequate to cater to IDP needs. It was only NGO assistance that was helping to supplement relief assistance.

Two areas in Mayliambaweli and Chenkallady have been identified to set up large, permanent camps. Other areas being looked at are in Kiran and Sithandy. There is however concerns for two reasons. One is the weather and the possibility of floods. Will the proposed camps be  set up in a manner to overcome adverse weather conditions?

The other is the bane of the east - conscription. The LTTE as well as the TMVP Karuna faction are engaged in conscription. The IDP camps are fertile grounds for conscription and/or recruitment. Stationing security forces in IDP camps to prevent conscription could bring about new problems.

For one thing the role of security forces in aiding and abetting the Karuna faction conscript children has become highly suspect in the aftermath of the Allan Rock mission. Also the LTTE may target security personnel stationed at IDP camps thereby endangering refugees.There could also be LTTE - TMVP confrontations in the vicinity of IDP camps.

Screening of IDP s

Another disturbing area of concern was the security screening of IDPs. Many of those fleeing had come out mainly to safeguard their children. They wanted a 'future' for them. A major fear was conscription at the hands of the LTTE. But a new danger awaits many in the GOSL areas. The security forces suspect that the LTTE may have infiltrated the IDPs. Some feel that the Tigers may have engineered the exodus to smuggle out cadres in the guise of refugees. These cadres could be a potential fifth column in GOSL areas.

So an elaborate screening process is underway.This is given priority. Instead of civilian government officials or UNHCR officials recording particulars of IDP s'the security screening is done first.The Karuna faction or TMVP screens the  IDP s first. 'Suspicious' persons are detained. After the preliminary screening the security forces do another screening.

Again people are detained on suspicion. Those cleared at screenings are registered by the army and given light refreshments like tea, and biscuits. Those in bad health are sent to hospitals. Others are sent to transit camps. The 'shuttle' service provided by UNHCR, ZOA and IOM look after transport.

Karuna faction

The Karuna faction has opened up temporary 'posts' or offices to screen the IDP s. People are treated roughly and suspiciously. For instance, a boatload of IDP s were 'screened' at the TMVP office in Nasivantheevu. The wet and chilled people were kept for long hours as the screening was on. An old woman collapsed during this wait. Many people caught chills because proper attention was not paid as they waited long for screening.

One of the stories troubling IDP's is that at least 12  youths have gone 'missing' after screening. Since there is no official record of IDP arrivals prior to security screening it is quite possible for people to go missing. Any complaint by family members could be officially denied.

Also the IDP s themselves feel very insecure and would hesitate to pursue matters of this nature firmly. At present NGOs catering to IDP needs are trying to ascertain the varacity of the story of 'missing' persons. The danger of recurring 'missing' instances is very real.

Fact finding mission

A fact - finding team comprising members of two NGOs - INFORM and IMADR - undertook two field trips to Kantale on December 12  and Batticaloa on December 13 - 15. The preliminary report of INFORM draws attention to this security screening issue. The report also makes some concrete suggestions in this regard that should be actively considered by the authorities. Excerpts from the report are given below :

"There is no denying that people who have been at the receiving end of shelling by the LTTE and by the SL security forces have suffered tremendously, not only in terms of loss of lives and property but in terms of the psychological harm inflicted on them because of the insecurity and fear generated by the conflict. "

"However, there is a clear difference between the IDPs in Kantale and those in Valaichchenai and other locations in Batticaloa, due to the security situation. The IDPs coming out of Vaharai are viewed with some degree of suspicion and fear by the security forces and by the paramilitaries. Thus, they have to undergo screening and interrogation by two separate groups - paramilitary and army - as they reach government-controlled territory."

"While there should be no downplaying or undermining of the real security challenges confronted by the security forces in the east, especially in view of the on-going offensive in Vaharai, humanitarian principles call for IDPs to be registered and their basic needs attended to first before they are handed over for interrogation. If not, there is well-founded fear that IDPs may disappear during interrogation and not be accounted for due to there being no 'proof' - i.e. registration document - that testifies to the fact that the person/s concerned had reached the interrogation point."

Security concerns

"Security concerns from the perspective of the security forces may have been a criteria when selecting sites for temporary location of the IDPs from Vaharai. However, it is clear that the safety and security concerns of the IDPs has not been given priority in making the decisions regarding the temporary relocation sites." 

"As civil society organisations we feel we should lobby the government and the international community to ensure that IDPs from Vaharai are treated with dignity and rights and are located in sites where there can be no threats to their safety and security."

"Putting this process into action is all the more critical in view of the fact that the fighting in Vaharai may continue for a few more weeks at least and thus generate more IDPs. The observations made in this report should receive urgent priority."

There is no doubt that more IDPs will arrive from the Vaharai region in the days to come. Escalation of fighting could increase IDP traffic from other areas too. The GOSL has been cruel and callous in disregarding safety and security of Tamil civilians in the recent past. Its excuse has been that of security for all these acts of omission and commission.

Govt. should intervene

Now these poor people are taking refuge in GOSL areas. Deprivation of basic rights and facilities along with denial of security/safety have compelled these persons to relocate to GOSL areas. If the Rajapakse regime wants to make some amends for its atrocious conduct and redeem itself to some degree here is an opportunity. The government should address the needs of these IDPs immediately and adequately.

LTTE shelling has caused thousands of Sinhala IDPs in Seruwila and Serunuwara to flee to Kantale. The state machinery is working top gear to look after their needs. Such concern and care is missing in the case of these Tamil IDPs. These people, many of whom have been displaced over and over again are treated like children of a lesser God. This should not be the case.

If the Rajapakse regime wants to redeem itself and restore some respect to its tarnished image, urgent and proper attention has to be paid to the ever increasing number of Tamil IDPs. The international community that failed to prevent Tamil civilian suffering should at least pressure Colombo to reach out to these poor civilians whose only 'fault' is being born as Tamils in strategic areas of the east.

 


More questions over Rehan's mysterious death

Global Towers Hotel -- circled is the fanlight in question

By Nirmala Kannangara

The investigation into the mysterious death of Rehan de Silva at Global Towers Hotel, Wellawatte in the wee hours of December 4 is still underway, and the eight suspects were re-remanded till January 2, 2007 by the Permanent Additional District Judge, Mt. Lavinia, on Thursday, December 20.

The DNA report, finger print report and the JMO's detailed report are yet to be produced before court, and on Thursday (December 20) the attorneys appearing for the victim wanted to know what happened to the blood soaked towel and the clothes the suspects were wearing at the time of the arrest, as they have now gone missing.

Missing evidence

The lawyers argued that such evidence - material articles that were found at the scene at the time of the judicial inspection at Global Towers - was important

"Certain garments that the eight suspects were wearing at the time of the arrest and the blood soaked towel and Rehan's camera are evidence in this case. At the judicial inspection all these items were at the scene of the crime but by now they have gone missing," claimed Attorney Jeewantha Jayathilake.

Meanwhile President's Counsel Denzil J. Gunaratne who appears for the suspects in a letter addressed to The Sunday Leader  (see box for the letter) states that the reporters of the article titled "Rehan's death shrouded in mystery" in last week's issue of The Sunday Leader had 'tried to imagine that there were cocaine and ecstasy at the stag party.'

He says it is a figment of the reporters' imagination of and solely done to keep the readers' interest 'on the boil.' He however does not deny the presence of Russian women at the stag party.

However, The Sunday Leader stands by the report published on December 17. It was the OIC, Wellawatte Police, Mangala Dehideniya who told The Sunday Leader when contacted soon after the incident that the party was not only overflowing with hard liquor, cocaine and ecstasy but also with four women - two airline girlfriends from SriLankan Airlines and Etihad Airways and two Russian women.

Meanwhile, Merchandising Manager, Next Sourcing Limited, Wilhelm Elias - Rehan's boss - told The Sunday Leader that his comments on Rehan had been misinterpreted in last week's story as 'Rehan was the best employee he (Elias) has come across with such dedication and also he had worked three years with Rehan.'

However, The Sunday Leader stands by the comments made by Elias over the phone in the first flush of the crime.

Questions

Questions have now been raised as to how Rehan's two wallets and mobile phone went missing from the scene and were later handed over to Indrajith de Silva, father of the deceased, by a distant friend of Rehan.

"How can that happen? This leads to speculation that some suspicious thing had occurred. Nobody is allowed to remove any article from a crime scene unless the police give permission. When the police cordoned off the area, how did anyone manage to remove these three articles?  Rehan's Nokia phone, a latest model, has a good camera capacity and a lengthy video recording capacity. This may have been removed from the scene to erase the recordings. This clearly indicates that something fishy had taken place at Global Towers," charged Attorney Jayathilake.

According to De Silva, he had got the wallet and the phone from a third party that knew Rehan distantly. "I got these articles from a distant friend of Rehan after having gone through several hands," Rehan's father added.

De Silva claims that a wristwatch belonging to some one else has been produced before court as that of Rehan's. "I know what my child's wristwatch was. How come a different watch came to the scene? It should either be of one of the suspects who has not claimed it so far or any other unknown person's who had been at the Global Towers at the time of the crime," De Silva added.

The investigation has now been handed over to the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) and The Sunday Leader learns that the CCD had visited the Global Towers Hotel with the OIC Crimes, Wellawatte Police, Deepthi Wijewickrema on December 20 for preliminary investigations.

It is also learnt that the CCD had obtained evidence from the hotel management. At the preliminary investigations, OIC Wijewickrema had told the CCD that a broken, unscrewed liquor bottle was found at Suite No. 902 on the day of the incident.

"If that is the case, then who broke the bottle? For what reason did they break it? Was the abdominal cut on Rehan a result of this broken bottle?" asked De Silva.

Suspicious scrapes

If assumed that his son jumped to his death from the ninth floor of the hotel as alleged by those who were in the suite, De Silva queries as to why there were scrapes on his back (Rehan was found dead lying face down).

"If my son jumped from the ninth floor then there could not have been any scrapes on his back. While falling, if he hit against a wall or a concrete slab, then there should be severe wounds, not scrape marks. Surprisingly, there were no visible external wounds on his head. There would have been severe injuries to his head internally but all these give rise to many doubts," claimed Rehan's father.

Furthermore, it is learnt, a fingerprint has been found on the fanlight which has been sent for a match to the Government Analyst.

A top source at the Attorney General's Department told The Sunday Leader if the fingerprint were that of any person other than the deceased, it would give rise to many possibilities. It was also pointed out that there was a gadget at a 45-degree angle on the fanlight, necessitating someone to pull it out.

Another aspect that is under investigation is how Rehan's intestines were exposed if he had died of a fall. One line that is being probed is the possibility he may have hit a ledge during the fall resulting in his intestines getting ripped out.

With many questions arising given the circumstances of Rehan's fate, only a full-scale, impartial investigation will reveal whether Rehan was murdered or whether it was simply a case of suicide.

Spin given to entire incident - Lawyer

Sir,

I write on behalf of my clients, the parents/guardians of some of the suspects remanded in Magistrate's Court, Mt. Lavinia, case No. "B" 4162/06, in connection with the death of Mr. Rehan de Silva, at the premises of the Global Towers Hotel situated at Wellawatte.

Your article on pages 10 and 11 of The Sunday Leader of December 17 carries an extensive report on the death of the above named. I wish to clarify and correct some of the matters stated therein.

Firstly, contrary to the statement in your article, there were no "cut injuries" found on the body of the deceased and the cause of death has been conclusively ascertained as being due to a fall. There is also no evidence either "now surfacing" or otherwise, from any of the other "revelers" that the deceased "jumped" to his death.

The "trail" of blood that you have described has been adequately explained by the fact that broken glass had been found at the scene and that not only the deceased, but one of the "suspects" too had sustained a small cut injury and that they had staunched the flow with towels and toilet paper found at the scene.

The party was not hosted by Suresh Perera but was in his honour and thrown by his friends to celebrate his forthcoming marriage. The deceased Rehan was to be his best man at the wedding. As far as the venue is concerned, the deceased seems to have informed his parents that the party was being held in Hikkaduwa, and it is speculated that he did so in order to enable him to be out till morning, as otherwise he would be expected to return home after the party, had it been held in Colombo.

Your article also states that "according to his partying friends, the deceased squeezed himself out of the fanlight of the bathroom and jumped to his death." This is completely incorrect as none of them venture to state that they saw how the deceased got through the fanlight.

Your very unfair comment regarding the parents wanting to find out how the "murder" had taken place has caused immense pain of mind to his friends who are extremely distressed by his death.

My clients do not wish to comment on the statements said to have been made by the traumatised parents, nor do they wish to state anything regarding his private life or his usual conduct after liquor, in a reply to a newspaper article; except that whether or not he had reason to commit suicide, or had slipped and fallen off in attempting to get on a ledge in order to enter the locked rooms of his sleeping friends or whether he even realised that he was on the ninth floor, are entirely matters of speculation.

Your boxed column wherein you state that the police wish to ascertain how the party "was supplied with the drugs cocaine and ecstasy" are a figment of your reporters' preposterous imagination. We do understand your reporters' desire to keep your readers interest "on the boil," but are saddened by the "spin" given to the entire incident, when the impression that you have tried to evoke by your article has caused so much damage and distress to so many young men and their families.

Please give sufficient publicity to this letter in your next issue.

Yours truly,

Denzil J. Gunaratne

Attorney-at-Law

 'Don't report' demand

A female family member of one of the suspects wanted The Sunday Leader not to report the case because once the suspects are bailed out, they have to face society without any embarrassment.

"They have to face society once they are released. Don't try to give any undue publicity to this," the reporter was thoroughly reprimanded by the said female family member on December 14 at the District Court Complex, Mt. Lavinia. Rest assured, we stand ready to give full coverage to their side of the story if they are so willing. 

"Attempts were made to influence me" - OIC Dehideniya

OIC, Wellawatte Police, Mangala Dehideniya confirmed to The Sunday Leader that pressure was mounted on him by outside parties.

"This is the truth, and this is what I told the judiciary before the inquest on December 14. A lot of influence was mounted on me by certain interested parties to sweep this under the carpet, which made me inform the judiciary. There is nothing to hide. I want justice to prevail and such influences would definitely give me strength to carry out an impartial job. I could not attend the December 14 inquest as I was down with chikungunya and not due to any other reasons," claimed Dehideniya.

"The B report of the JMO has been produced before court and the fingerprint and DNA reports are to be produced before court, no sooner they are ready."

However, the accused party claims that the suspects should have being bailed out under Section 298 on December 4 as there was no exact evidence to ascertain as to what really happened at the stag party, OIC Dehideniya told The Sunday Leader.

He said although they were to be charged under Clause 298 earlier, it was the magistrate who wanted to charge them under Section 296. "I had to act under the direction of the judiciary. The law of the land is above everything," added Dehideniya. 

Magistrate also approached

The Additional Magistrate, Mt. Lavinia, in open court wanted the lawyers appearing for the eight suspects to reprimand their clients - the parents and guardians of the suspects - not to influence her through 'uneducated' people.

"In open court I am saying that certain uneducated people known to me approached me to obtain a favour. Please reprimand the parents and the family members not to attempt to influence me through anyone," the Additional Magistrate told the lawyers on December 20. 

Death due to fall - lawyer for suspects

"Although the eight suspects are accused of a crime, all of them may have acted in different ways. But we cannot say that each and every suspect is involved in this.  According to the B report, the death was due to a fall from a high elevation. I thoroughly disagree with dragging this on," Attorney Suneetha Nanayakkara, who is appearing for the suspects, said.

 


Two years on, promises still only  promises

By Amantha Perera

IT is two years since the day when Sri Lankans woke up on the day after Christmas to a horror never imagined. Within hours bodies piled up on the pulverised beaches and a shocked nation took stock.

Two years later, the media bandwagon has left the shores longtime ago. There are no CNN crews setting gear up in Galle or others heli-dropping in Trincomalee. Two years later, the sheer stupidity of the Abilash (Baby 89) coverage is a mere memory in the media. The war has begun yet again and gunfire dominates the attention. Two years later the victims of the waves, live in disappointment and anger.

K.M. Vasantha hand crafts wooden wall hangings and jigsaw puzzles for early childhood development in a small shed where he lives with his wife and two children in Garandwa. Identified as one of the poorest of the poor by the community-based local organisation supported by People’s Rural Development Association, Vasantha has received Rs. 22,500 to buy raw materials, two machines and a telephone to improve his marketing. "I am producing more, saving time and contacting more people to increase my business. Work is easier now," says Vasantha

The songs of unity and fortitude that dominated the airwaves have gone off to a distant sunset, instead there is the rush to be the next Superstar.

Worst affected worst off

Promises made have remained promises, more often than not. Only 39% and 52% of the required houses have been completed in the two worst hit districts Ampara and Batticaloa. Shift to Hambantota and the figure is a rosy 173%. But the people in Hambantota are not satisfied with what they have got. They say that  the houses at the country's largest tsunami housing scheme at Siribopura are falling down and that wild elephants are jostling for space with them.

Limited research carried out on the effect of the tsunami on national poverty levels indicate that more and more are  scraping the bottom of the barrel. Researcher Muttukrishna Sarvananathan estimates that poverty levels in tsunami hit regions jumped to 80% from 64% after the disaster.

At a standstill

Aid agencies are complaining that reconstruction work has come to a standstill in the north east due to renewed fighting. UN Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland worries about civilian protection in the north east of the country two years after the tsunami. Special UN Envoy former US President Bill Clinton simply skipped a stopover here.

Two years ago there was hope, the absolute optimists even predicted a quick fix to the war given the magnitude of the tragedy. In more than two decades of strife the country had lost 65,000. But in a matter of half an hour 38,000 perished on December 26, 2004.

Those hopes of a quickie have evaporated fast and now the optimists talk of a limited war.

The bands of JVP supporters who formed chain gangs clearing debris are more likely to march down Lipton Circus now. No such marching for similar volunteers with the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation but they fear the reintroduction of the PTA. INGOs, NGOs that were welcomed with open arms two years ago are mollified in the media and have to seek Defence Ministry clearance for movement.

Ground zero

What better way to embody the aftermath of the tsunami than the evolution of the train wreck at Peraliya. It was once ground zero of the local disaster, two years down the line, the wreck is nowhere to be seen, and no one is even speaking of building that memorial with the carriages, there is not even any major events planned out. 

"Although nearly 5,000 children were reported to be orphaned (lost at least one parent) by the tsunami in Sri Lanka no welfare programme has been launched for them by the government or the donors," Sarvananthan said in his survey.

So much for promises and the two year anniversary of the tragedy. 

Poor left poorer

The tsunami has left the poor poorer, that is the conclusion coming out of studies two years after the waves struck.

Poverty levels have significantly increased in the tsunami hit areas, a study headed by economist Muttukrishna Sarvananthan found recently.

In the three regions the study covered, north, east and south poverty levels increased from 64% to 80% after the tsunami.

"Poverty, in terms of both headcount and severity, had increased after the tsunami in comparison to before in all three regions under consideration. Overall, while 64% of the households were deemed poor before the tsunami (severity-35%), it increased to 80% after the tsunami (severity-57%). The headcount and severity of poverty was greatest in the north both pre- and post-tsunami. Thus, while 82.5% of the households were deemed poor in the north before the tsunami (severity-68%), it increased to 94% after the tsunami (severity-81%). However, while the east had the second highest poverty level (headcount-64% as well as severity-24%) prior to the tsunami, the south had the second highest poverty level (headcount-76% as well as severity-47%) after the tsunami," the research titled People's Verdict On Tsunami Recovery In Sri Lanka said.

The study also found that unemployment levels went up following the tsunami from about 37% to about 54%.

"The household income data from the survey reveal that the majority of the tsunami affected households live in absolute poverty," Sarvananthan said.

The study found that more than half the tsunami affected families (57%)  were earning less Rs. 3000 per month. The figure was 35.2% before the disaster. Even the  relatively richer were finding it hard to cope, those who earned between Rs 5000 to Rs 10,000 per month dropped from a pre-tsunami  23% to 13%. A mere 0.5% of the 3,000 households surveyed boasted an income above Rs. 20,000 per month after the tsunami.

It was very well known that the tsunami would hit the  weakest, in fact the government acknowledged the threat. "The tsunami disaster has increased the vulnerability of a large proportion of the very people whose income was to be uplifted," it said in the Millennium Development Goals Report 2005.

According to the UN, over 200,000 jobs were lost, the government places the figure at 150,000. The direct impact on the economy has been not significant, nevertheless. The UN said that the job loss was a mere 3% of the formal economy, but warned in a draft report on the reconstruction strategy - " the knock on affect in the largely informal economy has been, and will continue to be significant."      - AP

Peraliya then and now 

By Jamila Najmuddin

Two years ago, Peraliya was world famous. The footage of the mangled train carriages tossed around like match boxes was aired all over the world. Today, Peraliya has gone back to what it was before December 26, 2004 - just another village on the southern highway, albeit with a postscript. The place where more than 1,500 died inside eight train carriages tossed around by the deadly waves.

However today, Peraliya has been forgotten as people continue to pass the area without a second look. As many search for the location  where the mangled train once stood, nothing can be found except the zig zagg  railway track.

Two years ago the three from the eight original carriages of the ill-fated Ruhunu Kumari which were left at Peraliya turned into a major attraction overnight. The story of the train was narrated to many in all parts of the world and as it gained international recognition as one of the worst train disasters in history - the area made it to the top of every travel list in the country.

Today Peraliya is surrounded only by the memories of that dreadful day. The three carriages have been towed to the Hikkaduwa station and left on the side.

While no moves have been made to transport the carriages to Colombo or put it back on the tracks of Peraliya, the carriages today lie in a sorry state. Even the government's original proposal of transporting it to the Colombo National Museum has been forgotten as it remains dumped in a corner in Hikkaduwa.

Abandoned

"Today, the carriages of the Ruhunu Kumari lie in an abandoned corner. It is not spoken of anymore and passers by just cast a pitiful glance in that direction. More than 1,500 lives were lost in these carriages and the authorities seem to have forgotten that," R. Piyasiri, a victim affected by the tsunami in Peraliya said.

Piyasiri narrates his tale of that dreadful morning when he witnessed the carriages disappearing amongst the waves. "I was thrown away and got caught to a tree. I saw women and children being gulped by the waves. It was a dreadful sight. I also saw many people jumping into the train to avoid the water. However within seconds the train which was approaching got washed away. It is a sight I can never explain. I passed out after that and awoke on a hospital bed, two days later. The screams of the children still ring in my ears," Piyasiri said.

Piyasiri who has lived near the railway tracks in Peraliya for over 20 years says that this tiny village was once filled with the laughter of children, playing on the shores. Piyasiri's tiny shack was also filled with the laughter of his 11 year old son. However today, Piyasiri lives in a dark, wooden house which he rebuilt. There is no laughter anymore as he remains surrounded by the memories of his wife and son. "They were all I had. I now sit outside my house, staring at the tracks. When the carriages of the Ruhunu Kumari were replaced in Peraliya, people arrived here in large groups. Today no one is here and I am alone and abandoned," Piyasiri said.

Soon after the December disaster, Peraliya had indeed turned into a tourist location as locals and tourists flocked the area. 

The village itself saw its worst fears come alive with the carriages, when bone-pickers started milking the curios at the carriages. The money making increased to such a level that in mid 2005, a group even set up a shack to sell tickets.

Memorial site

But another lot wanted the carriages moved. Then the tsunami first year anniversary arrived, and newly sworn in President Mahinda Rajapakse was to address the nation from Peraliya. The twisted hulks were towed and now they remain at Hikkaduwa.

Two years later, for the families who lost their loved ones, Peraliya is a memorial site. Hundreds of bodies were never recovered and people now come to the railway track to pay their respects for all those who were washed away. However moving the carriages to Hikkaduwa to lie in an abandoned corner has earned much criticism from the victims as they say Peraliya is now a graveyard without the tombstones.

"When the train was here, the carriages were a tombstone as many victims came and lit a candle on the side. The bodies of the dead were never found and these carriages were the last memory of all those who vanished in Peraliya. How could they have been moved and left abandoned when more than 1,500 families remember those carriages every day. Peraliya would have gone down in history if the carriages had remained here," Piyasiri said.

As the screams of little children and women continue to haunt the people of Peraliya, for all those who were never present to witness the train destruction, Peraliya is now just another village.

Peraliya's story is the story of the tsunami in this country, unimaginable horror, followed by unimaginable attention, thereafter negligence and finally loneliness. On December 26, 2004 when the waves receded from Peraliya, they left unimaginable destruction and pain amongst all those who were present to witness the ill fated carriages that were washed away. While death was everywhere, the survivors tried to make sense of the worst few minutes of their lives.

If the carriages were left in its original position, maybe Peraliya would have gone down in history afterall. If only the carriages could speak. 

Get on with it in Galle

Finally Galle is letting it go. Two years after the tsunami, victims in this district have gathered courage in letting go of the memories of their loved ones and the destruction the waves left behind. Although many continue to live in tents, the district no longer depends on the authorities for help and have accepted life as it is.

While most of the victims in Galle are yet to receive houses as the majority affected are fishermen, victims maintain that they would build their own homes once the money is collected. "How long can we wait to receive houses? How long can we depend on the authorities. It is time we moved on," M. Zuhair, a tsunami victim in Galle said.

Happy

Although Zuhair lives in a tent along with his 10 year old twin sons, all those living around Zuhair have constructed wooden homes in order to resettle their lives. "They are happy in their wooden homes and they deserve to be happy," he said.

Although very few commemoration ceremonies have been organised in the country to mark the second anniversary of the destruction, Galle which was one of the districts worst affected by the tsunami, has planned out its own commemoration ceremony. Although they cannot afford much, victims living in tents and camps will start the day by lighting a candle and maintaining  two minutes of  silence. "The authorities have failed to organise anything but we cannot forget this day. The memories will not fade and we need to remember the dead," Zuhair said.

Children in Galle who have lost their parents to the destruction will also receive a candle to remember their families. While their grief can never be explained, an alms giving has also been organised for the children in the tents. "We do not need houses to hold an almsgiving. Although these children have settled well, they cannot forget their parents and weep silently in the nights," Zuhair said.

Nothing to say

The fishermen in Galle who had also lost their livelihoods after the tsunami do not have any story to narrate. "What is there to tell? Just because no one has helped us that does not mean we stop living. We have accepted the fact that we are an abandoned community," a fisherman in Galle, Kamil Hassan said.

Hassan now lives alone in a wooden tent along the coast, unable to explain the grief of having lost his wife and two month old baby to the destruction. With no electricity or water, he spends his nights in darkness with only a lamp lighting above his head. He is surrounded by darkness but he does not complain. "The more I complain the more I am going to be ignored. I cannot waste each day by standing outside government offices begging for houses. I am happy in my tent and will someday have a house of my own again," he said.

While he continues to hope silently, all he can now do is wait. Wait and hope that someday things will change. 

 

Life goes on

Fifty one year old Zeena Saleh lost 15 members of her family in the devastation, including her two children

Still grieving the loss of her husband, who died four months prior to the tsunami in December 2004, Zeena cannot describe her grief. Also having lost her two nieces in the Boxing Day disaster, her home was destroyed beyond repair, her worldly possessions lost, her loved ones dead and her world completely shattered.

Today Zeena cannot imagine the destruction. As the memories of her children keep twirling in her mind, she has accepted life as it is. "What can I do now? I have lost everything and have no one remaining. Many a times I choose not to think about it but how can a mother forget her children?" Zeena questioned.

On that dreadful tsunami morning, Zeena had prepared a festive meal for her children. As the three of them, along with her two nieces sat at the table, panic and screams emerged from outside her door. "My children and I were startled and we opened the door to see people running. I told the children to run out of the house but my daughter waited for me. I did not follow my son as the television was on and I went back to switch it off," Zeena said.

Washed away

However, seconds later Zeena was washed away by the giant waves. She never made it to her television and she never saw her daughter who was standing behind her again. She was caught to a tree and could see people being dragged away by the waves. She was hurt and awoke four days later in a hospital bed, bandaged and in pain.

"The only other survivor from my family - my brother, came to see me at the hospital. I could not speak for days as I could not recover from the shock. I could not accept my children gone. I was suffering from depression and the doctors could not do anything to help me," she said. 

Getting back

Consumed with pain and grief, Zeena was discharged from the hospital a week later and then attended a three-day psychosocial training programme conducted by ActionAid in February 2005 where she narrated her story to others.

Since that  first training Zeena says that she has  recovered from the trauma and pain. Although in tears most of the time during training, recollecting the last moments with her children, Zeena started to move on in life, deciding that she wanted to help other tsunami survivors to  rebuild their lives.

She started campaigning for other tsunami survivors in her camp. In March 2005 the National Anti War Front (NAWF) asked her to become a community volunteer and now, involved with her community and NAWF, Zeena is a community worker. "I use my personal experience and the skills I gained in the training programmes I have attended to support others like me," Zeena said.

Although her life has improved, the scars of her past have not disappeared. But despite her ordeal, she has become a role model within her community as a woman who is dealing with her grief through helping others.

Helping hand

"I am satisfied because I am giving a hand to some people to stand up. I try to visit them continuously and monitor their progress," Zeena said. She adds, "But two years after the tsunami I see that there are many problems which still remain," she said.

Zeena is now called 'Mama' because she has become such a mother figure for all the children in her neighbourhood. Although she has now received a house, she cannot be left alone as the memories of her children haunt her mind. "The children in my office take turns to come stay with me. I try to spend most of my time at office so that I am surrounded by people. But for how long I can keep battling the memories of my children is something I can never answer," she said.

Zeena's life goes on, but for many other's like Zeena who lost their children to the tsunami, life is a living nightmare. The screams of their children can never be erased and it will continue to haunt them for the rest of their lives. Afterall a mother's grief can never be explained.        - JN

A canopy is still a roof

By Jamila Najmuddin in Matara

People are still living in tents just five hours drive from Colombo, two years after they were evicted  from their houses by  crashing walls of water.

For some victims of the tsunami a canopy is still considered a roof above their heads.

While the daily struggles of recovering from the tsunami even two years later is still continuing in many districts, for those in Matara the aftermath of the tsunami is still witnessed.  As victims continue to live in tents and temporary shelters in temples and schools, the struggle to recover from the destruction is a  long way.

Today, more than 500 families in Matara still wait for houses, hoping each day that their sufferings would end. Sleeping on dirty, wet grounds, these victims feel betrayed as the authorities themselves have failed to listen to their voices.

No change

Children continue to travel to school in dirty uniforms and bare feet and the sight of those living in warm houses only brings back fond memories of their earlier lives. "It's been two years and we are yet to receive houses. Funds have been collected but houses have not been given. Are we going to live in these wooden houses and schools for the rest of our lives?" L.H. Norton, a victim affected by the tsunami in Matara said.

Norton along with 30 other families continues to seek shelter at the Jayamahavihara Temple in Matara and wonder if they would ever be fortunate to receive a house. The authorities who had promised them houses a year ago now remain silent as victims are forced to go and beg at their doorsteps. "Every morning we go to the district secretariat, asking for houses. But they only tend to ignore us saying that houses would be ready soon. The few houses which have been constructed are badly built. We cannot live there," Norton said.

The victims of Matara have been facing continuous betrayal ever since the giant waves leapt  from the shores. Help had arrived thrice - once in the form of Buddhist monks, then in the form of government authorities and yet again in the form of Cricket Board officials. "We have been betrayed so many times that we have no hope left. Betrayal is now our shadow, following us everywhere we go," Norton said.

Played out

Six months ago, Bhuddist monks had vowed to construct 60 houses for the victims living in temporary houses and tents in Matara. According to the victims funds were collected internationally and a land, adjoining the Valukaramaya Temple in Matara was allocated for the construction of these houses. Although these houses were small to occupy even by three people, victims were satisfied that they could live a life once again. "The monks came and told us that within a year we would be able to shift into these houses. First preference was given to those victims who were still living in schools. However six months later, the monks have disappeared and we are abandoned once again," H. Roshan said.

According to the monks, the land which was allocated to construct these houses has now been locked up due to a legal wrangle. Twelve houses have been partly constructed and the land has been padlocked for over four months. "Where do we go now? The land has been shut and we have no houses," Roshan said.

Help also arrived in the form of government officials three months ago, when a survey was conducted to identify how many victims were still in need of houses. "Three officials came to the schools and temples and made us sign a form, pledging to give us new houses soon. We had hope once again but little did we realise that we were never to see those men again," Kema Jayasuriya, a victim of the tsunami in Matara said.

She added that the monks at the Jayamahavihara temple were also helpful in filling  the forms provided by  the three men who had claimed to be from the Housing Ministry.

Third time unlucky

While their hopes faded again, help arrived for the third time in the form of a Cricket Board official. "He said he was a member of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board and was in Matara to help the victims. He had set up a desk outside the Jayamahavihara temple. He said the Cricket Board was constructing houses for the tsunami victims and we would get these houses by the second anniversary," Jayasuriya said.

Jayasuriya complained that relatives of the victims were not allowed to visit them as the Cricket Board official did not like visitors inside the temple premises. Even food brought by the relatives for the victims were taken away by the official, Jayasuriya said.

"Recently a foreigner had visited the temple and had given Rs.10,000 to each family. The Cricket Board official had asked for the sum saying he would distribute it equally amongst all the families. However as soon as the foreigner left, each family was given only Rs.4000 and the next day the official disappeared forever. A complaint was lodged at the Matara Police but to date we have not heard any news of him. We are poor, how will we fight the high and mighty in this country?" Jayasuriya said.

 Marching orders

To add to their plight, the authorities in Matara have now issued a warning to all victims to vacate the schools, tents and temporary houses by December 30. While these victims have no place to go to, their future remains bleak.

"The authorities barged in here a few weeks ago and asked us to vacate by December 30. Where are we to go?" the victims questioned.

Since the authorities do not have answers to any questions, they have  asked victims to go back to the buffer zone and resettle in their original damaged houses. "They should have let us resettle in our houses soon after the tsunami rather than chasing us away. Now many of us fear to go back dreading that we would face another tsunami again. What have the authorities done to protect us from future tsunamis?" N. Kalpani asked.

While for these victims the memories of the tsunami would never fade, it is time the authorities wake up to realise that the only way the destruction can be overcome is by providing what has been pledged. As long as pledges remain pledges, there would be disgruntled souls.

Horror after Christmas

For 17 year old S.H. Namal, the tsunami can never be forgotten. It was a day he awoke to find his parents and sister disappear from his life forever.

    While Namal had the previous day celebrated Christmas with his family and exchanged gifts, little did he know that his life was about to change a few hours later. Although Namal and his family are Bhuddists, Christmas was celebrated as it was his parents' anniversary as well as his sister's birthday. "Christmas was truly a well celebrated day in our house. My father would even bring a Christmas tree for the house," Namal said.

Today, two years later Namal stares at his washed away house, picturing the images of those earlier days. His father's fishing boat which was found a little away from his house is all he has.

Namal cannot console his 14 year old sister as she continues to cry every night for her parents. His sister is the only other survivor from Namal's family and these children have now no place to go.

"Nobody pays any attention to us as we are children. We have not been given a house and it is because of this that we are still living in a school. I left my studies to earn some money to feed my sister. Some people tried to take her away from me after the tsunami but I wouldn't let them. I have fought to keep her with me," Namal cries.

His sister, Sandamani is unable to bear her grief. She does not speak and is weak. She wakes up in the middle of the night, crying for her parents. She shies away from strangers and is unable to accept that her parents are truly gone. "They will come back. I know they will. They are our parents. They cannot leave us just like that," she cries.

Sandamani poses for photographs hoping that her smiling face would bring back her parents. She tells her brother to go out every morning and search for her parents. However all Namal can do is weep.

Narrating the events of that dreadful morning, Namal says that his mother had woken him in a panic only to find people screaming outside his house. "When my father and I opened the door all we saw was water coming towards us. My mother pushed me and I ran with my sister. My other sister aged 12 was taken by my parents. My sister and I were soon washed away but were caught in the trees. That is how we survived," he weeps.

Namal can never forget the sight of his 12 year old sister screaming for help. Seconds before Namal passed out, all he could see was his mother's arms and his sister's frock disappearing with the waves. 

The housing fiasc o persists

Tsunami victims still in makeshift shelters

By Amantha Perera

The biggest loss in the tsunami was the loss of houses. Naturally the number of new houses was transformed into the main yard stick through which the reconstruction effort would be judged. And the results do not look good, that too after billions of pledges.

According to government agencies, 63,469 houses have been completed. Of that figure 43,932 are under the donor driven programme where the owners undertake the construction process. Under the donor driven programme only 10,000 houses have been completed and an additional 2000 has been completed by private donors.

Close to 50,000 houses are under construction, but the figures indicate that in the worst hit areas, the northeast, the reconstruction effort is barely limping along. In Ampara, of a need of 27,000 only 10,800 have been constructed and in Batticaloa of a requirement of 22,523, only 11, 787 have been completed.

 In Hambantota and Galle, the situation is the reverse. Despite respective requirements of 3,193 and 14,713, 5,536 and 12,280 have been completed. In Hamban-tota going by figures maintained by RADA, the number of houses completed and under construction is 192% of the requirement.

 Buffer zone

Varied reasons have been put forward for the slow reconstruction effort, the ill advised buffer zone ruling, proposed by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga soon after the December 26, 2004 tragedy. "It was a decision taken by the then President Her Excellency Chandrika Kumaratunga and her government soon after the tsunami devastation to rescue people from another disaster. An emotional response the head of state took," Shanti Fernando, head of RADA said. She admitted that the ruling was revised due to practical reasons.

"Reconstruction of houses in the tsunami affected coastal areas, which was delayed due to the imposition of the buffer zone, has begun as the government has decided to relax the 100 meter and 200 meter buffer zones (no build zone) for the western, southern, northern and eastern coast, respectively, on the advice given by the Committee on Coast Conservation," RADA said in its mid-year review this year.

When it first came into effect, it was a blanket zoning regulation of between 100 to 200 meters. Along the coast, communities saw the homes they had lived in for years barred while authorities looked for alternative locations. One such that was under consideration for a while, was the Kalmunai marshes.

In Galle, one such location was found at Walhanduwa, around 5km from the coast to relocate fisher communities who had lived right on the coast. In Kalmunai, Muslim beneficiaries flatly refused to move anywhere out of the coastal belt. And the buffer zone soon appeared to be an impediment than a comfort zone that the Kumaratunga administration believed it would be.

It also figured prominently in last year's presidential election with the UNP pledging to abolish the zone and the PA-JVP alliance soon following suit once the repercussions of remaining loyal to the Kumaratunga decision became clear.

Zoning policy relaxed

The zoning policy was relaxed last December, the move created its own problems. "New beneficiary lists have to be established for both assistance programmes for the exempted DS/GN divisions, funding has to be sourced/reallocated for the new addition of beneficiaries, identifying scope, time, as well as resources required for these tasks is a challenge," the government and its development partners said on the first anniversary of the tsunami.

The housing reconstruction plan was revamped once again in May this year, 17 months after the waves hit. Then the top down decision making process that had hampered the reconstruction effort was done away with and respective government agents were given the authority to take decisions.

"Prior to the buffer zone changes, the caseload for owner driven scheme and donor built programme was equal. However, the revised buffer zone has shifted the breakdown to approximately 70% owner driven and 30% donor driven.

Operation framework

The responsibility to drive the process has been delegated to the District Secretaries, by providing an operating framework and the discretion to make decisions in implementing the revised housing policy of May 2006. RADA will support the efforts of the District Secretaries. In addition to this the Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit (THRU), which used to operate under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, was amalgamated under the RADA structure. The Owner Driven Housing institutional set up of RADA remains the same," RADA said earlier in the year.

The buffer zone impact has been multiplied in the northeast where the escalation of the conflict has brought construction work to a standstill.

On December 27, 2004, the outpouring of goodwill, local as well as interntional was such that no one would have dreamt that thousands would still be looking for permanent housing, two years later. Sadly, that is the ground reality. 

In Hambantota the struggle continues

The muddy road to Siripura

By Jamila Najmuddin in Hambantota

If wild jumbos and tsunami victims were the perfect combination then Siribopura in Hambantota is the perfect location.

Residents who had been relocated in this massive housing complex after the tsunami disaster are now battling wild elephants who have staked a claim to the neighbourhood.

Living in damaged houses, these victims, who have already suffered the brunt of the tsunami, are now struggling to keep themselves alive day after day by living in the middle of shrub areas surrounded by wild elephants, snakes and wild boars. While battling such creatures, these victims in Siribopura are also battling the authorities who had pledged to provide them decent shelter a year ago. "The houses we have received are damaged and during the rainy seasons we cannot live here as the area gets flooded. The roof is leaking, the walls are always wet and we live amongst millions of mosquitoes who make our children sick," L. Wilbert, a resident of Siribopura, said.

Wilbert, who received his house only two months ago, is already weeping as his 12-year-old daughter, who was the only other survivor from his family, is now admitted to the Hambantota Hospital. Wilbert's daughter was trapped underneath the rubble when a part of his roof collapsed two weeks ago due to heavy rains. "She is all I have as I lost her mother and our six month old son to the tsunami. The doctors tell me I can bring her home this week, but how can I bring her back to this house, which is bound to collapse any day. Where am I to go? Back to the tents, which we lived in for over a year?" Wilbert cried.

Sorry state

In addition to the sorry state the houses have been built in, the residents of Siribopura have also been forced into begging as each morning they queue up outside the District Secretariat to receive their ration cards - something which they have not received in months. "We queue up each morning in the hope that at least today we will receive decent food. Most of us living in Siribopura are fishermen and since we do not earn much, we have to depend on the authorities to feed our children," M. Rilwan said.

The queue for food which has only been lengthening since the day the tsunami destroyed the lives of thousands of victims, has now forced many to turn violent due to the callous attitude of the authorities when they are approached for ration cards. Security has also been tightened in and around the Hambantota District Secretariat, as angry mobs often threaten to storm the office if food is not provided soon. "With the high cost of living how are we to survive? The price of food has skyrocketed and many of us cannot afford to feed the little ones. We have no decent houses and no food. What next?" Rilwan said. 

The plight of these victims however does not end here. As they continue to battle the authorities and wild animals, they also have to battle thieves who have posed a threat to their lives.

Victims complain that more than 200 families affected by the tsunami have been robbed of even the little valuables they own leaving them with nothing. "These houses are not ours. The electrical items which were donated to us by foreign donors have all been stolen. We own no jewellery or furniture. All we  do now is fear for our lives," L. Madushani cried.

Police inaction

Although several complaints have been lodged about the robberies with the Hambantota Police, the police had failed to take action on the complaints to date which has now raised serious questions amongst the victims as to whether the authorities are truly concerned about their plight.  "Do they truly care? If so why are they not doing anything about it?" Madushani questioned.

While there are 500 families currently housed in Siribopura, the stories continue as each family has a tale to tell of a plight so severe that authorities should shy away in shame. While Hambantota was one of the districts worst affected by the tsunami, the tragedy is far worse for those in Siripura where almost every household is still mourning the loss of a loved one in the December 2004 disaster.

The Siribopura housing complex is now better known as the 'tsunami weeping village' as those living within cannot forget the memories of their loved ones being swept away. This mini village is also surrounded by an eerie silence - a silence so deep that those who enter are unable to forget that dreadful morning when  over 30,000 people perished within minutes.

What the survivors now ask the authorities is for decent shelter and some help to sort out their piled up problems.  However all their pleas have long been ignored by the authorities resulting in their problems  remaining unresolved  for a long time.

Hambantota which will always be haunted by the screams of the dead has now thrown out new challenges to the victims - a struggle to survive and a struggle to move on. Despite the elapse of two years since the destruction, Hambantota along with many other districts affected by the tsunami is yet to recover from the initial shock as the authorities have to date failed to fulfil the pleas of a suffering community.

The forgotten anniversary

No major events are planned in Hambantota to mark the second anniversary of the tsunami, residents in Siribopura said.

They however feel nothing exceptional in the attitude as the feeling of being abandoned is everywhere.

While last year the district along with the rest of the country marked  two minutes silence for those who were washed away in the waves, this year only a deafening silence will greet them as the authorities have failed to organise any event to mark the second anniversary. "The country seems to have forgotten the tsunami as nothing has been organised. Only white flags will be hung outside each home to remember our loved ones who were washed away. The memories of the tsunami have faded in the minds of many who did not suffer the destruction; but for us, the tsunami will remain alive in our minds forever as we have lost our families and our livelihoods," K. Madushani said.

However for some families in Hambantota who are unable to forget the death and destruction caused by the tsunami, an alms giving has been organised in order to remember their loved ones. More than 20 families from Siribopura will attend the alms giving, Madushani said. 

Zoning headaches

The government proposal for a buffer zone of 55 meters has received much criticism from the tsunami victims in Hambantota as many have now begun to rebuild their houses within the banned areas.

     While the ban received much attention in the months following the tsunami, it is now altogether forgotten, as the authorities remain mum about it. "Soon after the tsunami, the government did not allow us to rebuild our houses which were within the banned areas. However two years later, they have changed their attitude, which has encouraged us to build our houses within the buffer zone. Why did they create such a big hype about the ban in the first place? If the ban was not implemented soon after the tsunami, many of us would have rebuilt our houses and settled down. Now, many of us do not have the money to do so and are left in broken, damaged houses in the middle of a shrub surrounded by wild beasts and thieves," Tahereen Sharfraz, a resident housed in a tent in Hambantota said.

Although Tahereen has been offered a house in Siribopura, he has refused to shift as the houses offered are damaged and cause much hindrance to his work. "I am a fisherman so I need to live near the sea. I cannot do anything else for a living. Sometimes I need to go out to the sea in the middle of the night and if I live in Siribopura, I cannot travel in the night, as it is dangerous. The buffer zone should never have been implemented because it has made me and my family  live in a tent for two years. I do not have money to build a new house," Tahereen said.

Rajapakse connection

Hambantota and President Mahinda Rajapakse are more or less connected by the umbilical cord, as the district is his home base. The personal connection makes the frustration of the tsunami victims more acute. "Hambantota is the President's district. Therefore he should have done more. What is the point of building airports when we do not have houses to live in?" M. Shanker, a tsunami victim in Hambantota asked.

While these victims are left to suffer due to the negligence of the authorities, they stare at the several boards, which have been put up around Hambantota stating 'Mahinda Rajapakse land' and wonder if the land truly belongs to the President of the country, who once pledged to ease their plight. "Before the elections, he promised to transform Hambantota into a brand new district. However a year later, we have been left in the same state we were in after the tsunami as we have been altogether ignored by the very man who claimed he would rebuild this district," Shanker said.

Tsunami victims have also expressed disappointment that repeated letters to President Rajapakse have gone unanswered. "The residents of Siribopura have written several letters to the President, requesting safe shelters so that our children could be safe. However none of the letters have been replied to- date," Kareem Hassan, a tsunami victim said.

He added that those who had tried to approach the President during his visits to Hambantota had been shoved away due to intense security. Women and children had only been able to catch a passing glimpse of this national leader who has emerged from Hambantota and is now leading the nation. "He is leading the nation, but what has he done for us. We cannot go to the authorities and question them about the President as we are always threatened. Why are we pushed away like this? Isn't it the responsibility of the President to listen to our pleas?" Hassan questioned.

For many others in Hambantota who have been affected by the tsunami, the name Mahinda Rajapakse does not have a meaning anymore. While the district was once proud of this hero who emerged as the leader of the country, they now dismiss his name in anger. "He was a part of this land. It was his district which was one of the worst affected by the tsunami. It is most unfortunate that he has not paid any attention to us while he has granted permission to construct an airport. Who needs airports when we do not have decent homes?" H. Nazreen said.

When President Rajapakse ran for presidency, there was hope for the residents of Siribopura. They thought their plight would be eased if their man won the election. Those hopes have remained just that - hope, and now they do not want to hope anymore. 

The best there is

Residents of Siribopura have many complaints to make about their houses. But in the overall scheme of things, the complex is the best that the country has achieved in the massive tsunami reconstruction effort.

Located about 5km south of the Hambantota town, it is a massive township that was originally planned to cover more than 200 hectares with over 1500 houses, a school, community centres and other facilities. Houses are being built by various organisations and it was here that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse ceremoniously unveiled a plaque in January 2005, initiating the complex. The plaques still remain, and so are the pleas and cries of the tsunami-affected people.

More than half of the houses constructed in the  Hungama sector the first to be started, are already crumbling. When it rains, there are floods, when the sun shines, dust clouds swirl through the new town ship. This is the constant complaint of the tsunami affected people. 

Survey results on housing

Construction of houses for the affected households (whose houses have been completely damaged/destroyed by the tsunami) has been the most difficult and slowest in the entire reconstruction/recovery phase. Almost half the tsunami-affected households were still languishing in transitory/temporary shelters by the time of the survey, which was highest in the east (62%) and south (42%).

There seems to be inequity in the distribution of permanent houses thus far. The highest number of recipients of permanent houses among the surveyed households was in the north (36.5%) followed by in the south (21%) despite majority of the houses damaged by the tsunami in the east being (67%).

Those who are not provided with newly constructed houses were to receive a housing reconstruction grant (paid in two installments) from the government sponsored by the World Bank. Vast majority of the affected households (73%) had not received this grant at the time of the survey. The highest share of households who have not received the housing reconstruction grant was in the north (82%) followed by the east (72%). Further, overwhelming majority (93%) of the affected households felt that the housing reconstruction and repair grants were inadequate for their needs.

Surprisingly, majority of the households (61%) were in agreement with the buffer zone stipulation for reconstruction of houses along the coast, which was highest in the east (65%) followed by the south (60%). Nevertheless, significant proportion of households was against the buffer zone stipulation, which was highest in the north (42.5%) followed by the south (40%). Moreover, majority of the households (53%) have experienced displacement due to the civil war (in the north and east) prior to the tsunami, which was overwhelming in the north (87%) and a small share in the east (19%). 

Overwhelming majority of the temporary shelters (82%) was built by international, national and local NGOs (60%), and individual philanthropists (22%). However, significant majority of the households (68%) were not satisfied with the temporary shelters. Dissatisfaction with temporary shelters was highest in the east (84%) followed by the south (63%).

Further, significant majority of the households (71%) have not been consulted or their preferences taken into account in the construction of their temporary shelters. Moreover, majority of the permanent houses were also built by the I/NGOs (60%). In contrast to temporary shelters, significant majority of the households (70%) were satisfied with their permanent homes, highest shares being in the north (93%) and south (60%). Nevertheless, only a simple majority of the households (57%) have been consulted and their preferences taken into account prior to building their permanent houses, again highest shares being in the north (83%) and south (44%).  

- Muttukrishna Sarvananthan

New war,  new struggle

For the thousands who were hit by waves in the north east, the tragedy afforded a ray of hope - that years of bloodshed would be forgotten and communities would come together.

In the first few days after the tsunami, there was room for hope. The Muslim community in Valachchenai had opened up the mosque to cook food and look after Tamils who fled their villages in the Vaharai area. Relief was racing down the roads towards those in need and for once the nation had united in its hour of need.

"These (Tamils) are just people who ran away when the sea came into their village," S. H. Rafique, who is the thalaiwar (head) of a mosque at Vakaneri, just south of Valachchenai said a day after the waves struck. He was organising rations and relief for the refugees.

 Today thousands more are streaming into the same area, but they are not running from the waves, they are running from renewed battles between government forces and the Tigers.

In areas like Panichchankerni that have come to the forefront of late due to the fighting, families that have struggled for years with the war had witnessed the gains of two years of peace washed away on December 26, 2004.

Double tragedy

Kasumathi Thangamani, a widow had just built a house after years of being hit by shellfire when the waves stuck. Her new house was washed away and a month after the disaster, she squatted on the foundation and stared blankly. Her house lay along the fault line that divided Tiger held areas from those under government control. Today her plight is far worse.

Despite the initial goodwill, things began to go downhill pretty soon. Politics crept in. Two years after the disaster, the slide is complete; the tsunami has been more or less forgotten.  The guns have replaced the cement trucks and hope has dimmed to less than a flicker.

"In eastern Sri Lanka, where the civil conflict has increased, thousands of people who have been affected by the tsunami are also contending with the upsurge in violence. The war has directly affected some of Christian Children's Fund tsunami relief activities. Thousands of people have temporarily fled their homes," the CCF said assessing its work in the island.

CARE International said that its target assessments indicated that only 10% of the reconstruction work has been completed in the northeast.  CARE said that in the south the completion rate had been as high as 90%. RADA sources said that the progress in the northeast  could not be as low as 10%, but in the region of 60%. "Not only are we desperately keen to fulfill the commitments we have made to the communities who were affected by the tsunami but we are also witnessing the dire humanitarian consequences of the on going hostilities. Safety and reliable access to all parts of the island is critical for us to move ahead with reconstruction and humanitarian relief," Sally Austin of CARE said.

Even the UN Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland has said that the tsunami reconstruction work in the northeast was at a standstill due to the fighting escalating.

Civil strife

During those early days of compassion too, there were signs that the wounds of two decades of civil strife were not going away. While those like Rafique were helping the victims, LTTE political head for Batticaloa, Annupmaran said that all monies should be directed towards relief agencies and not channeled through government institutions.

Less than two months after the tsunami the LTTE eastern political head Kausalyan was shot and killed, fracturing an uneasy peace permanently.

When violence started increasing in December and reached a peak in August, the northeast suffered. In Manalkadu, in Jaffna, tsunami victims were living in temporary shelters adjoining the beach, next to an army camp in May. Soldiers stationed at the camp were nervous that the Tigers would use the beachhead to land cadres. The tsunami victims had by that time got used to the gunfire and also to the fact that they would not be moving into new houses any time soon. The construction workers had run away in fear.

In Kinniya, in the Trincomalee District, the beach was dotted with colourfully painted new huts in March.  These had been built by a relief agency to be used as storage houses for fishermen. However before they could be handed over to beneficiaries, violence escalated, and with it construction work came to a halt.  Since August, agencies have pulled out their staff from the area.

-  Amantha Perera

We are doing our best - RADA

The main government institution overseeing the reconstruction,  Reconstruction and Development Agency has come under criticism for the slow reconstruction effort, especially by the beneficiaries. The grouse has been that the action on the ground has not matched the pledges.  Chief Operating Officer  at RADA, Shanti Fernando defended the organisation's  role and said that it was doing the best it could.

"It is not about a lethargic attitude but delays in the process due to unavoidable circumstances. Although RADA is facilitating, monitoring and coordinating the reconstruction process the local administration has to look into the other aspects. With regard to upgrades and the re-construction work the ground machinery has to be strengthened. The cultural aspects and the lifestyle of the people are foremost and have to be recognised,"  she told The Sunday Leader in an interview.

Of the 114, 069 houses that are to be built, 63,469 have been completed. However percentage wise the best success rates have been recorded in Hambantota (173%), Galle (83%), and Matara (95%). In the two districts worst hit by the waves Ampara and Batticaloa the completion rate is a dismal  51% and 50% respectively.

Excerpts of the interview -  

By Nirmala Kannangara

Q. How many houses have been completed after the tsunami?

A. Since the tsunami 63,469 houses have been completed as at December 1, 2006. We have almost achieved the Southern Province target  and similarly we would do so in the other provinces as well in the next few months.

Q. What is the realistic time frame to complete the remaining houses?

A. We would need a further six months to complete the remaining houses. But considering the unavailability of lands in Colombo in the Western Province we are unable to give a time frame since the government is looking out for suitable lands. Although the total number of houses required is 4,953 so far we have  only been able to build 166 houses. In the Ampara District in the Eastern Province too as a result of land scarcity we could not proceed with the programme as planned. Hence we wanted to go for high-rise housing complexes that do not exceed four floors with the basement.

But the majority Muslims do not want to live with the minority Tamils and also they want individual houses instead of flats. If we don't have lands what else can we do rather than going for high-rise buildings? Apart from these the community leaders too convince their community not to accept flats solely to gain political mileage. In regard to the conflict affected areas although  RADA is coordinating the work construction work is going on at snail's pace.

Q. Who is to be blamed for the lethargic re-construction effort?

A. It's not the lethargic attitude but delays in the process due to unavoidable circumstances. Although RADA is facilitating, monitoring and coordinating the reconstruction process the local administration has to look in to the other aspects. With regard to upgrading the re-construction work the ground machinery has to be strengthened. Firstly, the cultural aspects and the lifestyle of the people have to be recognised. Even the prices of construction materials vary from time to time.

For  example take the prices of sand and cement.  Lack of manpower too could be taken into consideration. With all these we cannot expect a quick job. We have had to cope up these situations.

In other cases some donors installed fabricated houses without a proper standard. Some of the houses that were built by the NGOs and INGOs are collapsing. Building unsuitable houses is not the answer.  RADA however managed to surpass all the work of NGOs and INGOs. Anyhow even the INGOs have now understood the social and cultural aspects of the people and also the lifestyle of the people in providing houses to various categories. I am happy to say that the INGOs have shown their willingness to work with  RADA.

Q. There is criticism that the 100 metre buffer zone was ill conceived. What is your opinion?

A. It was a decision taken by the then President  Chandrika Kumaratunga and her government soon after the tsunami devastation to rescue people from another disaster. As an emotional response the head of state took the 100 metre buffer zone decision. Even the people did not want to go close to the sea. For instance the fisher folk did not want to go to the sea or to have a glimpse of the ocean that took the lives of their loved ones. Almost all the affected were afraid of the sea. So it's natural as a responsible government to take such an initiative, and later revise the decision depending on the practicality.

Q. There is also a lot of disappointment among the beneficiaries that they were not consulted in the reconstruction process. Is this true?

A. At the time reconstruction was initiated the people were in shock and trauma. They were in camps. The Human Rights Commission found out what the requirements were and  in April 2005  TAFFREN, World Bank, UNHCR, UNDP and other acclaimed organisations worked together to assist the affected. We spoke to all the stakeholders and got their ideas and comments and our Income Recovery Technical Assistance Programme assisted and provided technical expertise for a good job to RADA.

By the enormous offers of help from the NGOs and INGOs from all over the world the Sri Lankan government decided to hand over the responsibility of constructing new houses for those who were located within the 35 metre restricted zone declared by the Sri Lanka Coast Conservation Department to them. Although hopes ran high this was not to be. Of the 65,782 houses pledged by them Memoranda of Understanding was signed by these NGOs only for 34,686 and what is more shocking is that by October 15, 2006, only 13,279 houses were completed and another 8,004 were under construction.

Q. Did the shrinking of the buffer zone increase or decrease the number of houses within the zone?

A. Certainly it was a decrease. As the government did not assist the houses that were to be put up within the buffer zone it was the NGOs and the INGOs that assisted to get the houses built within the buffer zone. For the families that lived out of the buffer zone the World Bank, ADB, KWF/ Germany and SDC / Switzerland came forward with resources to enable families to repair their partly and fully damaged houses.

 Cash grants of Rs. 250,000 for fully damaged houses, and Rs. 100,000 for partly damaged houses were made. With regard to partly damaged houses the scheme has been most successful, but in the case of the severely damaged houses in the fully damaged category the grant was insufficient and progress had to be restricted.

Q. The UN has said that reconstruction in the north and east has come to a virtual standstill. Do you agree or not?

A. Not at all. Only in the conflict areas the work has been hampered up to some extent. But despite the fact that security is not so good in some areas we have still managed to reconstruct the houses e.g. Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi.

Q. If the security situation continues to deteriorate has RADA taken any action to continue with the reconstruction in the north and east?

A. As said before RADA facilitates, coordinates and monitors the donor driven programme all over the country but the reconstruction in the conflict areas is being carried out by the Ministry of Nation Building.

Q. Has RADA set any short-term goal for 2007 and what are they?

A. In regard to housing we are working with the line ministries as well as other statutory authorities such as the UDA, Water Board and Road Development Authority in order to achieve the planned short -term goal for 2007.

Q. How long would RADA be in existence?

A. It was His Excellency who formed   RADA and he would decide how long it should be in existence.

 


Northern Batticaloa region gets rapidly depopulated

Scorched earth policy in force

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Besieged Vaharai continues to starve. Children are forced to search for fruits and catch fish and crabs on their own to eat as parents continue to suffer from psychological trauma witnessing the plight of their children

The northern region of Batticaloa District is being rapidly depopulated. People living amid great hardship in areas controlled by the LTTE are moving out to the relatively safe areas controlled by the government.

There is a propaganda war on. The government says the people are fleeing from LTTE oppression and seeking liberty in government areas. The LTTE says the government is driving out these people in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, the people are on the move seeking refuge and safety. They are neither for nor against any entity. All they want is to be safe and exercise that fundamental freedom - the right to life.

Harrowing tale

Theirs is a harrowing tale of sorrow and misery. These suffering humans are mere hapless mortals caught up in a cruel game of war waged by the state and the Tigers. Both the government and LTTE have treated them as mere pawns in their calculations. The media is full of stories about territory gained and territory lost while these flesh and blood humans have gained nothing and lost everything.

The displaced people are being de-humanised and reduced to mere statistics. Their suffering is being highlighted in both the pro-government and pro-LTTE media. Their experiences and stories are being used for propaganda purposes. Both sides try to demonise the other. The people are human fodder for the propaganda guns. Both sides pointedly refrain from accepting any responsibility for the abject conditions of these people and seek to blame only the enemy.

Deliberately targetted

The Koralaipattru North region has been impoverished and backward even during the best of times. Its economy is mainly based on fisheries, agriculture, forestry and livestock and dairy. The outbreak of war has affected it drastically. With the LTTE gaining control of the region, it became systematically deprived and deliberately targetted.

This northern region of Batticaloa District is separated from the southern region of Trincomalee District by the Verugal river. The Koralaipattru North region had around 10,000 to 12,000 permanent residents in April this year. Then came the deliberate bombing and shelling of Tamil areas in the Muttur East region of Trincomalee District.

This campaign was undertaken with the ostensible purpose of driving the people out of the strategic Sampur area. The people fled southwards, moving from place to place in search of safety as aerial bombardment and artillery shelling intensified.

Aerial bombings

The bulk of these wretched of the north eastern earth - whose plight has been spotlighted in these columns earlier - reached the Koralaipattru North region and took up temporary residence as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The number of people in Koralaipattru North swelled to more than 50,000. Their troubles however were not over.

The government began deliberately curtailing the movement of people and transport of medicine, building materials, food, essential goods, etc., to and from the Koralaipattru North division generally known as Vaharai region. The government also conducted several aerial bombings of the area. Artillery was also used to fire into the area. The government of course justified these attacks and stringent measures on the grounds of security.

In fairness to the government, there was some basis for security related concerns. The LTTE had relocated its Trincomalee District headquarters from Sampur to Verugal on the Batticaloa border. Its main Sea Tiger base was now in Kathiraveli and Paalsenai. Moreover, the formidable artillery battery stationed in Sampur was also moved out to the Vaharai-Verugal region.

Larger objective

The security forces accused the LTTE of firing artillery from this region towards Trincomalee District army camps in Mawilaru, Mahindapura, Kallaru, Somapura, etc., and towards Batticaloa District army camps in Mankerny, Kadjuwatte, Valachennai, etc.

While the LTTE oriented hostilities provided the security forces with a convenient excuse to target the Vaharai-Verugal region, there was also a larger objective.

The Sinhala-supremacist regime of Mahinda Rajapakse has a major politico-military objective. It wants to de-link the north and east and then bring the Eastern Province under its full control. These motives have been described in detail in these columns earlier.

In the process the regime also wants to depopulate Trincomalee District of Tamils and drive Tamils living in LTTE controlled areas in Batticaloa and Ampara into government dominated regions. This is in effect a scorched earth policy where many Tamils will be deprived of dwellings and livelihood and reduced to a handout dependent life in refugee camps in their land of historic habitation.

Zones under LTTE domination

The Eastern Province at present has four zones under LTTE domination: the Eechilampattru-Verugal areas in Trincomalee District, the Kanchikudichaaru Rufuskulam region in Ampara District, large areas in the Paduvaankarai and Tharavai-Vadanunai region in Batticaloa West and the Vaharai region in Batticaloa North.

While the LTTE dominates most of the Batticaloa hinterland the government controls much of the littoral. The only coastal areas under LTTE control in Batticaloa District are in the Vaharai region. This makes that zone a coveted prize as far as the state is concerned.

The security forces game plan seems to be that of a southern push in Trincomalee and a north eastern push in Batticaloa to take the Vaharai region. The paramilitary force being raised under the name of Karuna will be utilised to take on the LTTE in Paduvaankarai and Tharavai-Vadamunai. The STF and Karuna faction will jointly target the Ampara Tigers. Already a force of 1,200-1,500 has been conscripted and recruited to fight as Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP).

Territorial control

The LTTE realises this fully. Hence its strenuous efforts to retain the eastern regions under its control. Their attacks and counterattacks in the east are aimed at retaining territorial control. The Vaharai coastal area is of crucial importance in this respect. But given the manpower and military assets possessed by the LTTE in the east, it seems a foregone conclusion that the Tigers will have to give way at some point to a military juggernaut superior in air, sea and land power.

The situation may change if there is a significant LTTE influx of men and materials from the north to the east but at present there seems no indication of that happening. The LTTE hierarchy in the Wanni is concerned more with defending the main rear base in the north with the idea perhaps of launching effective counteroffensives. Unless there is some strategic reappraisal, the LTTE leadership is not likely to provide increased input into the east. This means the eastern Tigers can only postpone the inevitable through their tenacity.

Against the backdrop of such an elaborate politico-military design, the people of Vaharai region - both permanent and temporary - are regarded as being of no consequence. The deaths, destruction and displacement undergone by them will only be 'collateral damage.'

Inhuman methods

The stakes however are high and both sides have been fighting fiercely to win, or more importantly, not to lose. Inhuman methods have been employed. The government has restricted food and essential items being taken to the Vaharai region. Quantities amounting to less than half of what is required have been taken irregularly. Movement to and from the area has been restricted for nearly 10 weeks. Access by the ICRC, UNHCR and SLMM are severely curtailed. Artillery attacks have been launched regularly.

In a display of callous disregard for civilised norms, refugees housed in schools have been victimised on many occasions. Nearly 100 civilians have been killed and more than 200 injured in these attacks. The LTTE request for a 'safe haven' in Vaharai was pointedly ignored.

A slow exodus in search of safety and relatively better conditions began. But the LTTE got worried about this exodus. Restrictions were imposed. People wanting to move out were threatened with dire consequences. Shots were fired in the air to disperse people on the move. Some were beaten. Roads were mined. Other routes were blocked or monitored.

Strict controls

It was the 'great helmsman' Mao Ze Dong who compared guerrillas to fish and the people to an ocean. If the ocean is drained, then fish will flounder. Likewise, a region bereft of people will render guerillas vulnerable. The LTTE did not want that to happen. So the LTTE enforced strict controls.

No people on earth can continue to suffer like the people of Vaharai. There had to come a breaking point. The first signs came when the LTTE began moving out some cadres, artillery and military assets out of the region into Verugal area in Trincomalee and the Paduwaankarai-Tharavai-Vadamunai region in Batticaloa District. The people realised the LTTE was not going to hold out much longer.

Yet the people, with long experience of war situations, knew a bitter, bloody battle was likely before the final withdrawal. This meant a no-holds-barred onslaught by the armed forces. It also meant an unrestrained defence by the LTTE that would not pay much heed to the welfare of civilians. There was also the danger of drastic conscription to fight a last ditch battle. Adding to their woes was the weather that would make existence a tremendous burden. This fear of bad weather provided further impetus to the refugee outflow.

Exodus

So the people began moving out. Initially it began as a trickle but soon became a flow. From hundreds a day, the outflow increased to thousands per day. After some attempt to prevent the exodus, the LTTE apparently gave up. The local Tigers from the area did not have the 'heart' to prevent the people from going out. There was some friction among the Tigers on this matter. Ultimately the LTTE either turned a blind eye or was simply lax in preventing the people from going out.

The IDP figure of people taking refuge in other areas of Batticaloa has reached 27,837 on December 21 evening. This amounts to more than half of the population in Koralaipattru North. Given the current rate of movement this figure is likely to exceed 35,000 in a few days unless of course the LTTE enforces firm restrictions. Already the Tigers have been accused of using civilians as human shields.

Whatever the propaganda on both sides the actuality on ground is that the people want 'out.' They do not want to be caught up in a war they neither desire nor support. After four years of 'peace,' it seems a heartless crime to make these people suffer the agony and destruction of war.

The people living in Koralaipattru North are moving out primarily to eke out a life of relative safety. They have been pushed to this position by the series of harsh, inhuman measures adopted by the government to drive them out.

The government has reached the height of hypocrisy when it says the people have escaped from Tiger tyranny to seek liberty in government areas. The people have no choice. What they want is safety. They would have come out sooner, but for LTTE prevention. Life is the most important thing to humanity. Humans are prepared to risk death in order to seek life.

With Vaharai region being rapidly depopulated, government security forces are likely to escalate military activity soon. Massive aerial bombardment and artillery attacks will be launched. The civilians remaining in Vaharai will be regarded as Tigers and treated as such. Such classification could be terribly wrong.

Ethnic cleansing

Crossing over from LTTE areas to government areas amidst Tiger hostility and adverse weather is not an easy task. There are many people in Koralaipattru who are old, sick and feeble. They cannot make the arduous journey so they stay where they are.

Besides some of the original inhabitants do not want to leave their homes, livestock or poultry. Some could be prevented from moving by the LTTE too. Under these circumstances, it would be a grave blunder to treat those remaining as Tigers and unleash violent havoc on them.

The on-going depopulation of Koralaipattru indicates what lies in store for eastern Tamils currently. Sampur was ethnically cleansed of Tamils. A High Security Zone (HSZ) bereft of Tamils is being established. A similar replay with slight modifications is likely in Vaharai too. This pattern is likely to emerge in other theatres of conflict in the east. Later the north too will be afflicted in the same manner.

The Tamil homelands are being systematically ravaged and depopulated. A scorched earth policy is being implemented ruthlessly. Only the Western nations and India can curb the Rajapakse triad.

 


Battle for the foreign secretary's post

The conflicts within the government keep increasing daily and another such conflict is the one that is now brewing between President Mahinda Rajapakse and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

Since the last presidential election, the cold war that has been brewing between Samaraweera and Rajapakse is now coming out in the open.

Although it was Samaraweera who was instrumental in bringing Rajapakse to power, the brainwashing by Presidential Advisors like Basil Rajapakse, Dulles Alahapperuma and Sajin Vass Gunawardena that Samaraweera would be the next SLFPer to stand up to the President has strained the relationship between the two.

Incident in India

The President then started to make subtle statements against Samaraweera, who took a while to comprehend the real motives behind the statements. The first time Samaraweera realised that all was not well was following an incident that took place in India.

Before the President's first official visit to India, Vass Gunawardena flew to India to look into several personal details. Vass Gunawardena is well known for his wheeler dealings and has faced several fraud charges in the past.

Once the President returned from India, Vass Gunawardena who met him said that Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to India, Romesh Jayasinghe should be transferred from New Delhi as he was not present to welcome him when he arrived in New Delhi. Rajapakse immediately asked the Foreign Minister to inquire into the matter.

Carrying tales

The response received by the President from the Foreign Ministry was that the High Commissioner would only visit the airport to welcome the president, prime minister or a cabinet minister.

Since Vass Gunawardena held no such office, the High Commissioner was not required to receive him. Rajapakse, although not satisfied with the response, had to keep silent, as he had to respect protocol.

However, the matter did not end there. Vass Gunawardena continued to carry tales against Jayasinghe, a career diplomat, to the President and now it has come to a decisive stage.

Foreign Ministry Secretary H. M.S.K. Palihakkara will be retiring from public service on December 31. A well-respected public official, Palihakkara has decided not to accept any extensions. It is also said that one reason for this decision was the undue interference by certain people with regard to the work at the Foreign Ministry.

With Palihakkara's retirement, questions have arisen as to the next appointment to be made to the post.

Since the next senior official in line is Sri Lanka's representative to the UN, Prasad Kariyawasam, the President made an inquiry from him when he visited New York to attend the UN General Assembly. Rajapakse asked if he was willing to accept the post after Palihakkara's retirement as the post had to be filled by someone with international recognition.

Kariyawasam observed that he had only 15 months left before retiring and preferred to remain in New York during that period.

Next best person

The question once again was on the next best person to be appointed to the post. It was Samaraweera who then proposed Jayasinghe's name for the post, as he was the next senior official who had good international relations.

Samaraweera had a reason in proposing Jayasinghe's name. Sri Lanka was now facing several issues internationally following the many cases of human rights violations and the Ministry was in need of a strong person to face such issues.

However, a special operation is now underway against the nomination of Jayasinghe to the foreign secretary's post.

Last week, the President, breaking all accepted protocol, summoned several officials from the Foreign Ministry to Temple Trees and inquired about the functions at the Ministry. Neither the Ministry Secretary nor the Minister were informed of these meetings.

However, Samaraweera received details of these meetings through former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Samaraweera who, whether one agrees with his politics or not, is known to be a man with a backbone, did not keep silent on the President's actions which were seen as an attempt to undermine him.

Samaraweera's choice

He decided that as the minister-in-charge of the portfolio, he needed to be involved in the process of appointing the next secretary to the Foreign Ministry and sent his nomination to the President in writing.

Samaraweera sent a letter to the President nominating Jayasinghe's name to the post of foreign secretary.

The President who was disturbed after receiving the letter called Palihakkara to Temple Trees. Rajapakse held a lengthy discussion with Palihakkara as to who the next foreign secretary should be.

"There is no point in appointing someone who knows the work and takes the position seriously. It is okay to appoint someone who doesn't know the work but would be there for the name," the President said, shocking Palihakkara.

Rajapakse's stance

"Please Mr. President, don't destroy the foreign service like that. It is not a position to be taken lightly. No matter who is appointed to the post, it should be someone well accepted. If not, it would be to the detriment of the government and the country. I have no problem, I will be retiring soon, but I say this for your own good. A foreign secretary should be efficient and well accepted," he said.

"No, no, I was just joking don't take it seriously," the President said unconvincingly.

The President's intention it appeared was to appoint a foreign secretary who could be manipulated by his henchmen bypassing Samaraweera.

However, the final decision lies in Rajapakse's hands. His decision on this issue would be a decisive one politically since it would determine Samaraweera's future course of action.

Kumaratunga strikes back as Rajapakse panics

For the past few months, all attention was focused on the crisis within the UNP and many believed it to be the end of the party.

However, dashing all such hopes, Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe managed to solve the crisis amicably.

S. B. Dissanayake who played a key role in the crisis now says, "The party crisis is now over. We are now looking at bringing into power a UNP government in three months."

Another key figure in the crisis, Rajitha Senaratne has also released a statement saying that the crisis in the party has now been solved and Wickremesinghe had agreed to the reforms that would in turn strengthen the party further.

For the past few months, most media institutions too were feeding on the news that came out of the crisis within the UNP. With all attention focused on the UNP, most media institutions failed to give details of the crisis brewing within the government.

The crisis, which began with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga's return to the island and the disgruntled cabinet of ministers, is now gradually coming out in the open.

Details of what transpired following Kumaratunga's meeting with the SLFP Attanagalla Central Organisation is now known by the public. Such was the impact created by the meeting, Kumaratunga soon became the target of attack.

False story

The story went that Kumaratunga was suspended from the post offered to her by UNESCO following the allegations leveled against her. It took Kumaratunga only a few hours after the story was published to find out its origins.

The high-ranking officials at Temple Trees who were disturbed by Kumaratunga's Attanagalla meeting decided to unleash an attack on her through the media. One plan was to publicise that Kumaratunga has been suspended from the post offered to her by UNESCO.

The second step was to carry false information of the proceedings at the Attanagalla meeting. This task was given to Presidential Advisor Dulles Alahapperuma. Alahapperuma made sure that the fabricated news items prepared by his media unit were distributed.

Kumaratunga who found out all the details decided to respond immediately. A felicitation programme was organised for Sunday morning at her official residence by her staff members who have been with her for the past 11 years. Kumaratunga chose the media attacks carried out against her as the topic for her speech.

Not stopping at that, Kumaratunga decided to release a media statement as well. The statement released by her office is as follows:

"We write with reference to your news item under the screaming head line 'UNESCO suspends Chandrika.'

"We wish to say that this news is incorrect. UNESCO has informed President Kumaratunga that a human rights organisation based in Hong Kong and Mr. V. Ivan have made allegations and that as a matter of normal practice UNESCO must inquire into these allegations.

"Subsequently this office has been made aware that the human rights organisation based in Hong Kong, which has made the said allegations, is a small organisation that is in the habit of making constant allegations against the government of Sri Lanka, on behalf of the LTTE.

"This NGO has recently made a large number of allegations against President Rajapakse and alleged human rights violations by him and his government. They made much effort to prevent Sri Lanka from being elected to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.

"As regards Mr. Ivan, President Kumaratunga wishes to state that she does not wish to give him the respectability that he does not possess by expending time and words on him.

"He is the gentleman who was written a book against President Kumaratunga making utterly false and even comic allegations against her, without one word of proof for any of the vituperations he levels at Madam Kumaratunga.

"The Director General of UNESCO, Mr. Koichiro Matsuura is in touch with President Kumaratunga and is fully aware of the nature of the persons and organisations who have made the allegations and the veracity of all such allegations.

"We once again refute the story you continue to carry, that President Kumaratunga lobbied strongly for the UNESCO assignment and that she sought the support of President Chirac for this. This information is completely false.

"President Kumaratunga wishes to state that she is not surprised at the willfully manipulated information, obviously issued from one place, to all the media, as she is aware from who and where it has emanated. But we regret that newspapers purporting to be national media have permitted themselves to be persuaded into publishing information that is blatantly fabricated with vicious intent."

SLFP Attanagalla statement

The SLFP Attanagalla Central Organisation also released a statement against the misleading information carried in the media (not The Sunday Leader) with regard to the meeting held at Horagolla.

The statement released by the SLFP Attanagalla Central Organisation is as follows:

"Most weekend newspapers have carried various versions of what they claim former President Chandrika Kumaratunga spoke at Horagolla on December 10.

"It is evident that the reports carried by all these media institutions were released from one place. We, the members of the SLFP Central Organisation of Attana-galla and activists of the SLFP in Attanagalla, vehemently deny these news reports, as they are false and misleading.

"We do not intend to speak of every misleading piece of information carried in these newspapers as they are beyond ridicule. However, we would like to speak of the false and misleading information carried in the newspapers.

"It has been mentioned that former President Kumaratunga at this discussion had claimed that she would become queen next April and assume power once again. She never mentioned any such thing or anything remotely connected to it.

"There has been a reference to predictions made by astrologers. There was no mention of astrology, leave alone astrologers.

"The newspapers have also mentioned that Minister Anura Bandaranaike had said that he was preparing the platform for Chandrika on her new journey. It is completely false. He did not utter a word at the meeting.

"It is even more misleading to say that Madam Chandrika was going to take revenge from those who agreed to oust her as the party leader.

"We, the SLFP leaders in Attanagalla are disturbed that some, with the malicious intention of insulting, distribute statements of this nature, hilarious on one side and harmful to Madam Chandrika and Anura on the other.

"However, the true facts are as follows:

"The highest seat of any SLFP electorate is the party's central organisation of each electorate. The organiser of the electorate holds the leadership/presidency of the organisation. Accordingly, former Prime Minister Bandaranaike, Madam Sirima, Madam Chandrika and Mr. Anura hold a world record by holding this office for the past 79 years.

"When Anura Bandaranaike was made the organiser of the Attanagalla electorate, Chandrika Kumaratunga resigned from the post of chairman. Anura was unanimously elected to the post and Madam Chandrika was appointed unanimously by the people as the secretary of the SLFP Central Organisation for Attanagalla.

"According to the party constitution, central organisation meetings should be held annually. The president and the secretary of the organisation preside at these meetings. Upon her arrival to the island, Madam Chandrika received many requests from SLFP leaders in Attanagalla to meet with her. Since she proposed to meet everyone at one gathering instead of meeting them separately, and since the general secretary of the SLFP had called on all central organisations to meet and discuss party reforms, Anura called this meeting.

"It is nothing new for the people of Attanagalla to see Madam Chandrika calling meetings with the party's Attanagalla Central Organisation, discuss official matters with them, attend a lunch with all of them and exchange pleasantries, as it has been happening for the past few decades.

"This is how the controversial Attanagalla meeting took place:

"Anura Bandaranaike did not speak a word at this meeting. After welcoming everyone to the meeting, he invited Madam Chandrika to address the gathering as she had attended such a meeting after a long time.

"Madam Chandrika addressed the gathering only for about 15 minutes and following are the details she touched on during her speech.

"Keeping to tradition, she began her speech by touching on issues related to the latest political developments and personal details during the time she was out of the island.

"She then spoke of organisation work of the Attanagalla electorate and the party and expressed her views and advised on them.

"The direct political statements made by her during the speech were that no matter what some political leaders said, she was not going to leave the party, that she would never forget the organisers of the SLFP Attanagalla electorate and its people who have formed the base of her political life, and that she was ready to serve the people at any time as a former leader of the SLFP and a member of the party.

"However, she also said that although the amount of work she could do was limited due to pressure exerted by various parties and the low manner in which she was ousted as party leader, on her birthday, she had the right and duty to serve the people of Attanagalla under Anura Bandaranaike.

"She never mentioned anything other than this. We strongly say that she never mentioned anything about returning to power or of predictions made by astrologers.

"We, who have been close to her for the past 34 years and have good knowledge of her work in Attanagalla and the whole island, know very well that she would never make such idiotic statements as highlighted in the newspapers.

"Even when she was elected as the head of state by a large majority, winning every election with a large margin due to her popularity and even when she was the leader of the party, she never tried to crown herself queen.

"Let us highlight at this point that it was due to her political prowess that she managed to unite and strengthen the party and take it towards victory, as the party has experienced many internal conflicts and coups against the party leadership, especially during the times of Party Leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Madam Sirima Bandaranaike.

"The people of Attanagalla are saddened by the treatment meted out to her today by our own party people, especially after she brought victory back to the party, which was defeated continuously for 17 years in the past and sustained the party's position at the helm for 12 more years amidst many challenges and steered it to win every election from then on.

"Not only us, but everyone with a clear conscience knows very well she has not done any wrong or misused her powers intentionally or unintentionally.

"What we see is that her attendance at the Attanagalla Central Organisation meeting as a party leader would have irked those working against our party. We expect a clear response from the Party Leader as to whether her attendance at such a meeting was wrong.

"She has also mentioned that the government was yet to take official action with regard to her security. She has said that amidst all the challenges faced by her and the death threats received by her, her security detail has been systematically reduced. The present cabinet has canceled the security approved by the previous government.

"She says that it is up to the Head of State, according to the constitution, to decide on VIP security at a time when terrorism was spreading around. Therefore, we kindly request the government to make a clear decision on her security even after 14 months."

Signed,

Provincial Council member,

All Ceylon committee member,

Upul Mahendra.

Chairman, Attanagalla Pradeshiya Sabha,

Member, Attanagalla Central Organisation,

Ashoka Weerakkody.

Vice Chairman, Attanagalla Pradeshiya Sabha,

Deputy Secretary, Attanagalla Central Organisation,

Hemachandra Pathirana.

Former Chairman, Attanagalla Pradeshiya Sabha,

Member and Ex-Co member, Attanagalla Central Organisation,

E. D. Dharmasena.

Chairman, Attanagalla Cooperative Society,

Vice Chairman, Attanagalla Central Organisation,

Justin Navaratne.

SLFP's All Island Committee member,

Ratnasena Ketawala.

President Rajapakse and his loyalists who are disturbed by Kumaratunga's presence in the island and her actions have now decided to pose an obstacle to what they believe is her political journey.

That the President was a worried man became all the more evident when he moved to appoint four coordinators to the Attanagalla electorate days later and posed for photographs and distributed them to the media.

Kumaratunga undeterred

Kumaratunga has told confidants she is undeterred by these actions and would continue with her work regardless for the benefit of the people of Attanagalla.

"No matter how anyone tries to put me down, it won't be easy to stop my journey. I did not have any intention of entering active politics. I wanted to do social service and stay aside. But if they try to harass me and sling mud at me, it is no big deal for me to re-enter politics," Kumaratunga had told her loyalists.

How UNP reforms put a lid on dissent

The controversies that surrounded the UNP in the past few months gave ample opportunities for rival parties to try to bring about the downfall of the country's main opposition.

But all this came to an end on December 18 after the party's Working Committee meeting.

The meeting was initially scheduled for 11 a.m., but was delayed as Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had to attend the funeral of former Colombo Deputy Mayor Azath Sally's father and it commenced at 11:35 a.m. at Sirikotha.

First on the agenda was the MoU signed between the UNP and the SLFP. Members expressed different views and opinions on the matter.

By this time, Wickremesinghe was already preparing himself for a meeting with the President either the following day (Tuesday) or Wednesday.

UNP meeting

Wickremesinghe therefore inquired from the members as to the course of action to be adopted with regard to the MoU. He asked the Working Committee about the issues to be discussed with regard to the MoU when he met with the President.

Most members said that the opportunity should be seized to find relief for party members who have been currently penalised. Others observed that Wickremesinghe should request an increase in the decentralised budget of all MPs.

Discussions on the matter lasted for about an hour. In the midst of the discussion, Gamini Lokuge stood up and leveled an allegation against the Party Leader.

"We gathered here today to discuss about party reforms, but what is being discussed is different. Please can we attend to the main reason we gathered here?" he asked.

Wickremesinghe responded by saying, "You are the very people who accuse me of doing things without consulting you first, but when I consult you on some matter, you say something else. What is the meaning of this?"

Lokuge was immediately silenced.

Before discussing the party reforms, a tea party was held for all the members. Reforms were discussed thereafter.

The first matter to be taken up where the reforms were concerned was the appointment of district leaders. The final decision was to appoint someone who was in active politics. His duties and functions were discussed for the next hour.

Then issues related to the preferential voting system were discussed. It was then proposed by the members that if the district leader was planning to visit another electorate in the district, the relevant MP of the electorate had to be informed of it.

Complaints

"The organiser of Kotte comes to my electorate in Maharagama and holds committee meetings. So when introducing reforms, please be mindful of these issues. I don't know if these are done on the district leader's request or any other," Irwin Weerackody, the Maharagama organiser, said.

Everyone started to laugh hearing at what Irwin had to say. He continued with his speech. "Politics has to be done properly," he said.  "I should say that this has been happening for some time. At one point G. L. Peiris also did the same thing," he said. Apart from Peiris, the whole gathering started to laugh.

Irwin then looked at Peiris with a smile and said, "but he informed and did all that."

Bandula Gunawardena also leveled the same allegation against the Kotte organiser with regard to the Homagama electorate.

Kotte Organiser Ravi Karunanayake could no longer remain silent and said the reason he had to do so was due to the need to strengthen the party organisation and the preferential voting system.

The report presented by Ravindra Samaraweera on appointing party chairmen was taken up next. It was passed unanimously with a few amendments.

The report presented by Gamini Jayawickrema Perera on the executive committee with a proposal to reduce the membership from 5,000 at present to 1,500 was also agreed to and a discussion ensued on how the appointments should be made.

Working Committee issues

The next to be discussed was the membership of the Working Committee. Various views were expressed on the matter for over half an hour. Some proposed that the number of members should be increased from 85 to 110 while some said that it should be increased to 100.

The Party Leader pointed out that there was no space for such a large number to gather in the boardroom where the meetings were held and proposed it to be increased to 90 members. However, it was finally agreed to increase the number to 93.

It was Mano Wijeratne who posed a question at that point. "Should the Working Committee be constituted according to the size of the room or should the room be built according to the Working Committee?" he asked.

Wickremesinghe responded by giving Wijeratne a lesson on the party's history and its traditions, which immediately silenced him. Rajitha Senaratne, Hemakumara Nanayakkara and Jayalath Jayawardena also expressed their views at the meeting.

How the appointments to the working committee should be made was also discussed. Many observed that the present members of the Working Committee should not be removed, but the committee should be given a face-lift. Everyone agreed that the likes of Lal Gamage and Ananda Kularatne should be looked at.

It was decided to appoint the new Working Committee next January.

Then the issue of the Political Affairs Committee was taken up for discussion. It was proposed that it should be limited to 25 members and it was agreed to unanimously.

Thereafter S. B. Dissanayake gave a long speech praising Wickremesinghe. He thanked the Party Leader for being flexible and accommodating the proposed reforms.

"Let's work together. In 2007, let's obtain power under Ranil Wickremesinghe. We came to this position because of small issues we had. Now all that is over," he said.

Media statements

Jayalath Jayawardena and Johnston Fernando made an important observation as well. "Now please don't make various statements to the media. No one won and no one lost. So don't make statements saying that we won and they lost. If making a statement please say that the party has won and that all problems have been solved," they said.

Wickremesinghe also said that there was no necessity for anyone to make statements to the media and said that Party Spokesperson Gayantha Karunatilleke would make a statement and a media briefing was called at 5 p.m. that evening.

Interestingly however, no one proposed at the Working Committee meeting for former Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya to be reappointed to the post. That for S.B. Dissanayake was a singular victory since there is now no automatic succession in the UNP, giving him too a shot at the top spot at a future date.

When the President saw stars

The Subasetha astrology paper published by Lake House carries the government's astrological messages to the public. However, the predictions are always made in favour of the government in power and also in praise of the Head of State at the time.

Be that as it may, an interesting story concerning the Subasetha newspaper unfolded in the last few weeks.

President worried

The President recently heard of two headlines published in the Subasetha newspaper, which got him all worried. One headline was that a female VIP would raise her head by next April. The following week, another headline appeared in the newspaper saying that disaster would strike a state leader.

Many who had read the articles claimed that the first headline referred to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga due to her recent actions.

The President paid a keen interest to find the story behind the story. What he learnt was that the stories were published by an advisor to the newspaper, an astrologer by the name of Niluka Ekanayake.

Ekanayake in the past few years has been closely associated with President Mahinda Rajapakse and Minister Mangala Samaraweera. The President was then keen to find out as to what really made her publish such articles.

On December 19, the President spoke to Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa on the matter and asked him to hold an inquiry into it. The President then tried to contact Ekanayake over the telephone, but was not successful.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday (20) something interesting happened. Around 11.30 p.m., several PSD officers surrounded Ekanayake's residence and informed the people at home that the President was trying to contact her. But the PSD officers were informed that she had gone to her mother's home.

Astrologer berated

The PSD officers then went to Ekanayake's mother's residence where they found her. Hearing the message, she immediately contacted the President. Rajapakse then berated her for close to an hour.

"I know who is behind this. I know that the female VIP who is going to raise her head is Chandrika and the disaster will happen to me. That is what is said in the paper. I know from where these plans originate. Please don't have these with me. Give me an explanation immediately and I will decide whether you will hold the post or not," the President shouted.

Astrology has been given prominence in political circles, but what transpired last week was an example of how important astrology is to hold on to power.


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