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• Three years after tsunami


Thushara Devaka and his sister R.P. Magaleen pray at teh mass grave site at Pereliya

No more tears

By Amantha Perera

A ghostly mist, unseen in recent history, had descended on the southern coast this December 26 morning. The road was not clear 50 metres ahead and the chill brought back memories of a similar morning, not so long ago.

Then too, nature was first freaky and then turned devilish. Last Wednesday it was as if nature was once again toying with the lowly humans. The ruins still remaining of the 2004 tsunami rose spectre like out of the mist.

There was hardly any activity on the beach near Pereliya, the scene of the worst carnage during the tsunami when over 1500 died in the Ruhunu Kumari train bound for Matara. The mist was lifting but the memorial unveiled near the site of the train wreck by government ministers in 2006 was deserted. Only a black dog lay curled on the side.

Reliving the sorrow

The first to arrive there were two journalists from Colombo. Minutes later Thushan Devaka arrived at Pereliya with his sister, R. P. Magaleen, who lost both her daughters there. They did not however stop at the memorial with its elaborate mural. Instead they moved towards the sandy area next to it and started clearing it.

They quickly stood up a banner that had been erected earlier by family members of the victims. "This is where the dead were buried," Devaka said as he set up the makeshift memorial and lit candles. As all things Sri Lankan, the Pereliya memorial itself has its own controversy. The government for some reason set up the memorial on the plot next to the mass grave. Now there are in effect, two memorials, possibly three.

The brother and sister waited for others to arrive, and the minutes ticked by. Hardly anyone arrived. There were the journalists, curious foreigners, one in a pair of shorts, bare-chested going around talking with a heavy accent, totally out of place.

W. M. Priyanthi came there with her husband and two children — her sister and two nieces perished on the train as they were coming over to visit them.

She strolled over to the beach and looked at it grimly. "The pain never goes away, it just stays there, and comes back when it wants, like the waves," she said.

Not many made it to Pereliya on December 26, 2007, for the third anniversary. As 9.25, the time when the waves swept in approached, not more than three dozen had gathered at the memorial. There were no government representatives. They were instead in Matara where President Mahinda Rajapakse was presiding over the main event. Nor were there any non-governmental or INGO representatives.

Ven. Pallane Dharmarathana Thero came to the memorial with another monk to light lamps. When he saw the poor attendance, he shook his head. "Well, we are like that, we forget easily and quickly," he said.

The family members chanted gathas with the two monks at the memorial and that was it. Curious others in sun shades and three quarter jeans stayed well away from the memorial and took pictures with their mobile phones. One woman wanted her son to pose in front of the mural.

Forgotten

The time the waves hit had come and gone and Pereliya was back to anonymity, out of which it was dragged out three years ago when the locomotive and its eight ill-fated carriages were tossed up by monster waves. The site soon became a ready made set for all parachute journalists reporting on the tsunami.

"May be its better this way, why live with the pain, there is no point," explained P. Manoj who said he lost 17 members of his extended family. Maybe, only someone who lost 17 relatives in two minutes could argue with him.

Others disagreed that nothingness was bliss. Kusuma Samaranayake spent over three hours getting to Pereliya and back home to Uragasmanhandiya, in the interior, last week. She came to the giant Bahmian Buddha constructed about half a kilometre from the memorial to share the grief of others. She did not lose anyone or anything in the tragedy.

"But how can we forget, it was so bad, it was horrible, the bodies…the stench, we can’t forget," she said looking at the empty streets, wide eyed and shocked. Youth were busy laying lamps for a pahan pooja in the evening, the only big event at Pereliya for that day.

The country as a whole appeared to be getting over the tragedy. There were no television over-kills this time with pop stars dressed in white trying miserably to feign tears. "It is in the past, let it be there, life has to go on," R. K. Malith who works in a fetid coconut husk pit on the road to the statue said. The coir pit is housed in a house reconstructed after the tsunami with funds from a well-wisher. No one lives there, no one has since it was completed. "The toilet pit is overflowing," Malith said. The workers use the toilet in the adjoining house that was also built after the tsunami.

As the much vaunted US$ 3 billion reconstruction effort wound down, concerns still remained over its lopsided delivery. The southern districts have motored along with more houses than the required number being constructed in certain areas.

RADA downgraded

According to the latest figures by the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA) twice the number of houses required has been built in Hambantota. The requirement was 3100 houses but 6300 have been constructed. In Galle, 1000 more than the 24,000 needed are complete.

But in the north and east of the country, the situation is the opposite. In Ampara there is still a shortage of 4000 houses from the 27,000 needed. The renewed fighting between government troops and the Tigers has seriously hampered the reconstruction in the north and east, which according to government records accounted for over 60% of the deaths and displacements.

RADA says that housing projects will be completed by mid next year, and in any event RADA too would have closed by June 2008. "We can complete the housing projects," RADA, Director of Housing, Ramesh Selliah said.

From being the prime government unit that oversaw tsunami reconstruction, RADA has now being reduced to a department within the Ministry of Nation Building. Its website has been taken off and there is no readily available information on disbursements.

Claim and disclaim

The government two weeks back claimed that it has built 99,400 houses over and above the requirement of 98,500. On the eve of the third anniversary of the tsunami the government revised the required figure to 117,37 and still insisted that the recovery process had fared above expectations. However other agencies have a different take.

The World Bank says that there are still 15,000 families waiting for houses. The government has said that the figure is around 8000 and most are reluctant to move out of the temporary shelters for various reasons.

The bank said that as allocations have been spent, new funding would have to be located to provide housing for the 15,000 outstanding cases.

Some of the new houses however exist only on paper. In reality, they are unlivable — the roofs have come off, the hinges have been swept aside and the shrub is moving closer. In Hambantota, it is just as well that there are more houses than the requirement.

One of the first major housing projects to have taken off the ground, the Hungama scheme funded by the Sri Lanka - Hungary Friendship Association, has ended in disaster and is an eye sore.

The plan was to build over 100 houses as part of the massive Siribopura scheme, the largest tsunami housing project in Sri Lanka, stretching over 240 hectares, just 5 km from Hambantota.

Sole occupier

Located at the eastern edge of the scheme only one house is occupied, by R. Jinton and his family of eight. He is not a tsunami survivor, and says that he got the house from a politician in the area because he has a problem with one of his eyes.

"No one wants to live here, the houses are coming down," he said looking dismissively at the 60 or so houses in the Hungama complex that are being left to the vagaries of nature.

Last year when The Sunday Leader reported on Hungama and its sad state, officials from the association said that it was due to a pay dispute with contractors, and that legal action was being pursued. More than a year later, the houses are in a far worse condition and there appears to be no effort by anyone responsible to get the project back on track.

"After the press reports there was a story that the project will be back on track, but this is where it is," Jinton said and moved away.

Lacking facilities

Overall, Siribopura is not as bad as Hungama. Most of the other houses are occupied and the lingering frustrations are mainly over unequal aid distribution — the Tsu-chi houses at Siribopura are considered the best by the occupants. Most want them although those who have them say the water is lousy and complain about transport and the small toilet pits. The women at Siribopura say that the rains and the filled pits cannot exist together. Something has to change.

The houses don’t come with kitchens that have vents to support cooking with firewood. Most of the new owners have built kitchens outside. A recent Asian Development Bank Discussion Paper found that over 60% of those surveyed in new houses said that transport, access to schools and health were far below in standard to what they had before the tsunami.

"The survey results also revealed that some people found they were worse-off in terms of quality of housing and access to services. There were claims that people’s lifestyles were not taken into consideration when designing the new houses.

"For instance, the percentage of households using expensive sources of fuel for cooking such as gas and electricity increased from 10 per cent to 18 per cent, primarily because many of the new houses did not include a kitchen with a chimney to allow use of firewood for cooking," the paper titled Economic Challenges Of Post-Tsunami Reconstruction In Sri Lanka released in August said.

The problems in the north east run deeper. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, all project work in the conflict ridden north east came to a standstill when violence erupted in earnest in August of 2006.

Funds are being held in recovery accounts so that work can commence when the ground situation allows. "This difficult operating environment will continue to severely restrict movement in the north and the east. The situation has been further aggravated by rising costs and a shortage of building materials and skilled labour, particularly for construction and civil engineering projects.

"In the north of the country, the vast majority of International Federation operations have already been suspended and it is difficult to prepare future operations in the current political and military climate. In the east, fighting disrupted activities and diverted efforts from the tsunami recovery operation to internally displaced people (IDP) relief programmes between July 2006 and July 2007," it said in its semi annual assessment.

At least in the east some projects have commenced with the return of relative calm, but still the World Bank said that more time was needed to complete the work.

Conflict hampers progress

"As of March 2007, about 97 percent of the partly damaged houses and 62 percent of the fully damaged houses in seven districts have been completed. The remaining houses are under various stages of completion. The reconstruction programme in the north and east is likely to take some more time due to ongoing conflict-related issues," the bank said.

It is not only in housing that the effects of skewed reconstruction effort are seen.

Though a mid year survey by the International Labour Organisation found that there was a 90% recovery rate in regaining employment after the tsunami, once again the north east fared worse than the south.

US $ 416 million was pledged for the recovery effort of an estimated 200,000 jobs lost in the tsunami. "There is an overall recovery rate of 90 percent which means that 90 per cent of families who were earning an income before the tsunami are earning an income now. Ten percent of households rely on income from non-work sources," Needs Assessment Survey for Income Recovery carried out jointly by RADA and ILO said this March.

Disparities

But as things have turned out, the poor keep getting poorer in the east. "Incomes in the south are now higher than pre-tsunami levels whereas in the east incomes have dropped 25% lower than pre-tsunami levels," World Vision said in its Final Report: December 2004 - December 2007.

Transparency International said that the government was duty bound to explain in detail how the monies were spent and redress teething problems related to the reconstruction effort.

"It is common to find a general level of dissatisfaction among the residents of newly built houses, particularly in the south. This dissatisfaction is well supported in most cases where poor quality houses or culturally and environmentally insensitive construction challenge the healthy occupancy of the houses. However, it is critical to provide a redress mechanism wherein solutions should be found to rectify such defects, as and when pointed out."

"The entire reconstruction process was lacking an inherent system for the survivors and beneficiaries to access information. People living in new schemes were given no information about financial expenditure and at times even plans and legal documents of title of their new facilities were not given. It is a legitimate expectation on the part of the beneficiaries to seek information as to the process of building and financial cost of their house. However, few in the community were privy to such information."

"The detrimental effect of the politicisation of Sri Lankan society continues to taint the tsunami recovery process too. Certain tsunami districts which obtained political patronage through highly influential politicians, received a disproportionate influx of aid. Political interference in selecting beneficiaries was a common complaint. This caused acute delays in occupying certain housing schemes where prolonged disputes continued between affected communities and officials," it said, adding that there was no mechanism in operation to monitor and evaluate the long term recovery effort.

RADA’s lack of public information added to the prevalent dearth of information, Transparency International said. "TISL’s effort to obtain the most recent financial information from RADA was met with lackluster responses by the officials. TISL’s observation in this regard was that officials were either reluctant to divulge the proper information or that they did not have accurate figures about current expenditure status."

Callous disregard

As the third anniversary came and went, almost unnoticed, those with new houses said that they wanted the deeds. RADA says that there is a procedure in place where divisional secretariats are tasked with handing over the documents of ownership. Of the 99,000 houses constructed, only 1000 have been handed deeds, RADA officials said.

Those who gathered at Pereliya had come to terms with the pain as theirs alone to live through. Some like Priyanthi stared at the sea, clutched at the flowers she brought, cried and finally fainted on the mass grave site.

Three years after the tragedy, there appears to be no more tears in the country for the victims or the survivors.


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