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A Sri Lanka Journal
Assessing Needs Where There Are So Many
 
According to some of the people we spoke with, some assistance was coming from a local church but recipients were asked to pray at the church in order to receive the care packages. Consequently, many were very uneasy about receiving further aid. Although Sri Lankans are tolerant of other religions, they have been wary of religious organizations in the post-tsunami era. This has been confirmed in the local papers as a major concern in the country and it was a theme brought up by people we spoke with.
 
 
Copyright 2005 oneworldnet
By Brad David

Wed., Mar. 2, 2005

Introduction

We have just concluded our travel and arrived in Colombo on the 11th to conclude some last minute coordinating efforts before departing to Washington DC. As we look back, we are happy to share that we traveled to about 75% of the tsunami affected areas of Sri Lanka. The following information is a brief wrap-up of our efforts in Sri Lanka.

Day 1: January 30
Around Colombo:

We visited and spoke with several affected fishing families around Dehiwala who had lost their boats, houses, and were concerned that the aid is going elsewhere.

Our Impressions:

Interesting note; According to some of the people we spoke with, some assistance was coming from a local church but recipients were asked to pray at the church in order to receive the care packages. Consequently, many were very uneasy about receiving further aid. Sri Lanka is a very religious country. Roughly 70% of the country is Buddhist, 7% Muslim, 8% Christian, and 15% Hindu. Although Sri Lankans are tolerant of other religions, they have been wary of religious organizations in the post-tsunami era. This has been confirmed in the local papers as a major concern in the country and it was a theme brought up by people we spoke with. A group that i have seen all over the country that enjoys phenomenal respect by locals is WorldVision. They are unabashedly Christian, but they are able to give assistance and relief without offending local communities. I saw them in Mauritania as well, a country that is (claims to be) 100% Muslim.

Day 2: February 1-2
On the Road South:

We interviewed several villages in Kahava. Three things that came out of our conversations with them were the following; (i) Need for housing, (ii) need for jobs (as they can deal with any other challenge that came their way), and (iii) the villages corroborated what we found in Dehiwala regarding some of the religious aid organization's intentions. In addition, the villages also was concerned that they might not receive government funding.

Perelya Camp and Train Destruction:

Further south of Kahava was a victim's camp called Perelya. This is where the massive train wreck took place, with nearly 2000 lives lost. We spent the afternoon playing games with children, singing with preschoolers, and interviewing staff at the camp.

Our Impressions:

International aid organizations are helping in a variety of ways, but the general concern is what might happen when they pull out. Will the hospitals (with limited medicines) be flooded? Will there be recreational programs for the children in the displaced camps? Also, we have witnessed somewhat of a disconnect between the Western version of "trauma healing" and local perceptions of this need. There are no easy answers, but we have been investigating this issue, and there are frequent articles about it in the local papers. It poses a very interesting issue for organizations that want to assist local communities.

Day 3-4: February 3-4
Matara

We stayed with the District Supervisor for the Road Development Authority, a former English student of Saji's father, who helped get us immediate access into 2 separate boys' schools. Each school had students and faculty members who were affected by the tsunami either by loss of family members or loss of property or both. Each school had lost students. One of the schools was a little ways from the ocean, and it served as a crisis center for the community.

At the Matara General Hospital there was a shortage of medicines, especially in the Children's ward and therefore, we bought a medical supply stock for 2 1/2 months including a badly needed Glucometer since the current one was being shared between 3 separate wards. We were limited in what more we could provide at the time.

Our Impressions:

Our initial goal of rebuilding a school became irrelevant since the government is making plans to rebuild schools that were destroyed. Similarly, there is a huge political issue with rebuilding houses. The government is still deciding what to do with beachfront property. It isn't clear what motivating factor will win out - the desire to develop the beaches commercially or let the displaced poor (many are fishing communities) back onto the beaches. In certain areas (see Hambantota later), the government has already begun clearing land 3-5 kilometers away from the beach to relocate displaced persons. The "fishing folk" we interviewed were not happy to say the least.

Day 5: February 4

On the Road to Hambantota (Kottegoda)

We stopped at the site of a destroyed primary school next to the beach. Fortunately, the tsunami happened on a holiday, so the school was not filled with children on the 26th, but the building is a poignant reminder of the devastation that was inflicted.

Nearby, we documented the local construction project of a house. The process was a great example of local initiative. A diverse group of citizens from a village 6 hours away came to this community looking for a way to help. Together with the local leaders, they identified a family to assist. We also identified a small sample project to support. A family lost a rope spinner/weaver during the tsunami. The spinner takes coconut shells (readily available) and weaves rope that is used in a variety of ways. The entire setup cost roughly $50. We took the family's contact information and plan to follow up with their rope making progress in the coming months.

Our Impressions:

We began realizing the extent to which local communities "relieved" themselves before any government or international organization arrived. Locals volunteered with immediate health needs, food distribution to the most needy, continuous cleanup, and search and rescue. Outside assistance was needed and necessary, but we realized how Western media coverage ignored the more important Sri Lankan efforts. Although the government here has been slow to respond on various occations, and continue to receive heavy criticism, there are clear examples of how government staff coordinated with volunteers in a positive way in the immediate aftermath. Some of the heaviest criticism in the local media has focused on the large amounts of aid and the lack of accountability.

Day 6: February 5

Hambantota

The fishing folk voiced their concerns on the beaches as their catch was coming in. Business has been bad because people have been afraid to eat fish that has been swimming with the bodies of tsunami victims (both a health and spiritual concern by many Sri Lankans). Although business is starting to pick up in the marketplace, the fisher folk are upset at the likelihood of being relocated 3-5 km's from the beach. The land is being cleared now. They claim that there is no set schedule for bringing in the fish. They all help each other when the boats come in. It's a community effort that we saw with our own eyes. It is a way of life that could be endangered.

Meanwhile, the refugee camps are full of families who have lost SO much. Tents have been provided by so many different countries. Temples, churches, and mosques and international organizations are feeding these communities.

Our Impressions:

On a positive note, religious and ethnic divisions are set aside during this reconstruction period. This is a constant theme echoed by the people we speak with. One thing we noticed at the camps in Hambantota is the inequality in treatment to victims based on socio-economic status. We were told that the residents of one camp were "well off" (everything's relative) before the tsunami. The camp had electricity and water readily available to the residents. The tents were spacious and there were gravel pathways that lined the tents, helping with sanitation. This was an exception to all the camps we saw in the rest of the country including other parts of Hambantota. Almost all other camps that we visited had none of these comforts. The tents were smaller and patched together with old material. We are not sure where they disposed of waste. We did not have time to investigate the reasons behind these inequalities. There was no shortage of need at either of the camps.

Day 7-8: February 6-7

Batticaloa, Ampara District

Large communities of Tamils and Muslims. We found a local NGO that was administering "psycho-social care" to the children in displaced and refugee camps. A university art professor uses theater to entertain both young people and adults, and young people in the NGO play games with the children.

We accompanied the UN's World Food Program into the LTTE controlled areas between Batticoloa and Trincomale. We would not have had this access without the WFP. No other organizations seemed to have been there in the LTTE controlled areas we visited except for the Red Cross. We were taken on motorcycles throughout the area and distributed the bulk of our clothes/school supplies to one of the refugee camps. The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) LTTE's NGO was in charge in this camp as well as all other rehabilitation/relief work in the entire region. They were very organized and thorough with their distribution methods. Because of the 20+ year conflict, these Tamil areas are much poorer than the rest of the country (no electricity, running water, or proper sanitation mechanism). It is unclear if this is due to the LTTE's own PR efforts to gain international support or simply because the government forces or agencies cannot have access to these areas. One can only speculate.

Our Impressions:

The tsunami has definitely provided an immediate opportunity for breakthrough with the conflict, if political leaders had the will to take advantage. The youth are certainly the best chance for a peaceful future.

Day 10-11: February 8-9

Kandy

This is the Buddist center of Sri Lanka. On the way back to Colombo, we spent the night at one of Saji's relatives and processed much of what we encountered during our trip.

Day 12-13: February 10-11

Colombo

We set up a scholarship program at D.S. Senanayake boys college where there were 22 students who were affected by the Tsunami. The scholarship will cover 4 months of boarding costs and meals for students so they can stay on campus while attending school. (The schooling is free.) These young people saw their houses destroyed, lost some of their close family members, and/or lack access in their small villages. We started this scholarship program with the intent of sponsoring children who cannot meet the costs of schooling and/or whose lives have been affected by the tsunami and want to continue their education without disruption. On Monday, Feb. 14, we have plans to visit a girls school and set up a similar scholarship program. There will be an immediate need to raise the funds to continue these valuable programs.

In a few days, we will return to our homes/jobs in Washington, D.C., and will begin raising awareness to the needs and concerns that we have observed in Sri Lanka. As a part of this, we will begin the arduous process of editing our video footage in order to display at upcoming events including fundraisers. The following is a short list of programs that we would like to propose coordinating in Sri Lanka. This is based on the needs assessment tour outlined above as well as our conversations with a multitude of men, women, and children in about 70% of the tsunami affected areas.

Phase 1:

1) Scholarship Program for Tsunami Victims and Special Needs Students and the facilitation Cross-Cultural Exchanges Between Sri Lankan and American Schools. This second program is just a by-product of the contacts we have made in the schools.

2) Support for Pediatric Ward. Find donors who will give specifically for this need. As international organizations begin to leave Sri Lanka in the near future, hospital needs will increase.

3) Local NGO Support. Identify and provide training and capacity building to local NGOs that are seeking to meet the long-term, sustainable peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts of communities in a responsible, participatory manner.

4) Micro-enterprise. Assistance to local, organic businesses with low start-up costs and special priority to businesses that lost everything due to the tsunami. (Methods will be used to corroborate information and ensure the validity of claims). Many of the people we spoke with commented that economic opportunities were needed to deter the youth from violence, which corroborates the academic research with which we are familiar.

5) Community Center, first in displaced camps, and later in relocated communities. The Community Center might serve as a base for job training, English training (the language primarily used in business centers), continued needs assessment and evaluation of programs, psycho-social programs (art, theater, sports, youth programs, etc.), and the employment of youth to run the Center. The Center will also serve as a foundation for Phase 2.

Phase 2:

Peace building Training Workshops

First of all, the Community Center will run in such a way that Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim staff are used to coordinate the Center's activities. We will seek responsible, dependable youths to serve as role models in the community. We will train these young leaders in conflict resolution and problem-solving approaches.

It is important to remember that there is a serious conflict in Sri Lanka, though it may be on hold for the moment. There are signs of hope for the future, and the youth present the best possibility to achieve this.

In Phase II, the Phase I efforts will be evaluated, and appropriate steps will be taken to improve upon these programs. Furthermore, these efforts will rely upon local community participation in planning, design, implementation, and evaluation. Successful Phase I initiatives may be duplicated in other communities.

Concluding Remarks:

After such a tour of the Sri Lankan tsunami-affected areas, it is difficult to express the emotions that we have felt by witnessing the devastating losses that these communities have suffered. We have also seen an awesome spirit of cooperation and resiliency from the Sri Lankan people. Our needs assessment and documentation is a small effort that will hopefully serve, in some capacity, to recognize, assist, and add to the ongoing grassroots efforts that are currently underway.


WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka