New Year Brings Little Cheer to Survivors
PERELIYA, Galle, Sri Lanka, Apr 15 (IPS) - The Sinhala and Hindu New Year that fell on Thursday is a season well known for good cheer and festivity. But T A Somawathi, a survivor of the Dec. 26 tsunami that left more than 31,000 Sri Lankans dead and an additional 200,000 still displaced, will have none of that.
''I am sorry this is all I can give you,'' she says with tears in her eyes, as she offers a glass of water and lays down on a reed mat inside a wooden shack.
Only she and her son survived the tsunami that killed her daughter-in-law and grandchild. Her temporary house sits right next to three carriages left from the train wreck that killed more than 1,500. The three have been left at the Pereliya site to build a memorial.
The Queen of the Sea was nearing its destination when the killer waves spawned by the Boxing Day tsunami knocked it sideways. Passengers were crammed inside the train as it travelled 110 kilometers along the Sri Lankan coastline from the capital Colombo to the southern city of Galle.
The force of the wave threw the train's eight cars into a bog and left the coastal railroad a twisted mess of metal.
At the wreck site, Somawathi and her son survive on hand outs.
She used to earn a few rupees by selling coconuts and weaving coir. Since the tsunami, her time was spent first at the welfare centre and then at the present temporary shelter near her washed away house.
Like so many at Pereliya, frustration is written all over her face. ''It (the tsunami) even took away the trees. When it rains the house is flooded; we can't even cook inside. This is our fate.''
A few yards from Somawathi's house, M A Seelawathi watches, from her wooden shack, workers build the foundation for a new house. The construction is made possible because of donations from well-wishers overseas. But the house is smaller than what was lost in the tsunami.
''We can't afford anything else. We have to take what we are given and we are thankful at least for this,'' she told IPS.
Seelawathi's son, a traditional woodcraftsman has restarted his workshop inside a tent donated by a relief agency.
''He registered with so many places, but nothing has happened, the politicians only come with the cameras and the foreigners and that is it. The next time they're back is when they're seeking votes,'' said Seelawathi.
The Pereliya refugees complain that relief supplies are still the same regardless of their changing circumstances. According to Seelawathi on the last occasion she received 22 kilogrammes of flour, and that hasn't changed despite the fact that now she has more mouths to feed. There are also murmurs about misappropriation of funds and supplies.
Dharmadasa, a village leader, complained that relief funds were siphoned by way of poor construction material.
''I broke a cement brick with my hands when a Canadian politician was visiting the refugee camps. But the same shoddy building material is still making its way here. People are making money from the contracts,'' he said.
The government's plans to build a memorial at the train crash site at Pereliya have also run into criticism from Somawathi and Dharmadasa who allege that there are efforts underway to a buy a one-and-a-half hectare land close by at above market price for the construction.
''The three carriages have been moved twice already. They (the government) are talking of memorials when we have our houses under water here,'' Dharmadasa said.
Under pressure for a lethargic reconstruction effort, the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga announced last week that the permanent housing plan was at last off the ground.
Finance minister Sarath Amunugama said that the government has commenced reconstruction and infrastructure development, the third phase of the relief effort.
According to the Finance Ministry, Sri Lanka had received pledges worth 1.5 billion U.S. dollars for the tsunami relief effort. Agreements for a further 500 million dollars are still under negotiations, said the ministry.
The reconstruction plans, yet to be finalised, envisage an electric train line and the development of 62 towns. However, till groundwork begins in places like Pereliya, words alone are unlikely to lessen the frustrations.
Minister Amunugama blamed lopsided media coverage for the bad publicity. The main government tsunami reconstruction arm the Taskforce for Rebuilding the Nation said the delay was due to slow moving donor funds.
Meanwhile economists in Colombo warned that politics and bureaucratic bungling could erode away any safety net mechanism created for the economy by donor pledges. This in turn, they said, would put further strains on the economy.
''The government has not come out with any proposal on how it would utilise this huge windfall (of funds) during this year,'' Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, a Colombo based economist told IPS.
Added Sarvananthan: ''The government may be tempted to spend this windfall for populist purposes in the run up to the elections.''
According to observers Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga could call a snap election before the end of 2005 because of friction with her Marxist allies over economic reforms and peace talks with Tamil rebels.
Kumaratunga may take the chance, they say, because she believes her handling of the Dec. 26 tsunami relief operations is widely appreciated in the country. (END/2005)