This article appears in the May 2006 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
Sri Lanka After the Tsunami
Peter and Barbara Doherty
One's concept of the Tsunami was of a gigantic wave, thirty feet high, pounding the coast and devastating everything in its path. All the survivors we spoke to confirmed this impression, but we were struck by the randomness of the devastation. Areas protected by a high sequence of rocks, sand dunes and trees were relatively undamaged: neighbouring sites, open to the sea, were demolished. Our visit took us largely to the south of the island, to the Yala National Park area, where among general devastation 15 German and Japanese tourists, together with their trackers and guides, were killed at 9.30am on Boxing day in an open clearing commonly used as a breakfast break on their early morning safari. Further down the coast we visited Kirindi, a fishing village which had been completely destroyed, while areas one or two kilometres up or down the coast escaped unscathed. Eight boats, their main source of income, were irretrievably destroyed, and only three are now back in operation, due to the direct generosity of the Yala Charitable Trust. The survivors are now grouped in a camp inland which may well become their new village. Although a certain amount of aid from the major charities has reached them 18 months after the disaster, there is at present little chance of a full restoration of their former way of life; The general air of bereavement will persist for ever. We were fortunate in being able to be associated with this Trust as general aid, provided by remote charities, provides long boats without outbound engines and are unsuitable for inshore fishing. The Trust has been established by Jon Ashworth and his wife. A former financial journalist for The Times, he was so appalled by what he witnessed that he gave up his job to engage in this relief work. Negotiations are under way to restore the other five boats, with their engines.
On a more domestic level, with an emphasis on rebuilding the village community, the Trust has given money to the wife of one of the chauffeur drivers killed in the national park, who is pictured below in her new shop. She was left without any means of support for her family. The Trust enabled her to establish a village shop in the makeshift camp, thus providing her with an income and the community with a new focus.
Jon Ashworth told us some depressing stories about how much of the Tsunami money is being frittered away. He said that boats had been handed out to people who did not own a boat before the Tsunami, their only connection with the sea being that they ate fish. The charities simply don't check properly. He came across one boat yard quoting prices for boats that were supposed to have been handed out for free. No wonder the locals refer to the Tsunami as "The Golden Wave".
Other projects are centred on repairing damaged Jeeps or Land Rovers. Ownership of a vehicle in this area is a means of livelihood. These are but a few of what can be done by direct aid to the area.
It is extremely depressing to see other sites down the coast where the construction of new houses has begun but left without roofs or fittings, and further progress abandoned as the allocated money has disappeared, probably to Geneva: foundations and pillars without roofs or walls.
Sri Lanka is largely a Buddhist country, practised by over 69% of the population. Christianity musters around 2%. We were introduced to another remarkable charity established to combat the disturbing fact that 2% of the total child population falls into the category of the severely handicapped. Its director, Sarata Lanka Perera founded in 1999 the Sith Savana Handicapped Children's Development Society, a grandiose title perhaps, but reflecting the fanatical enthusiasm embodied in Mr. Perera. A devout Catholic, having spent four years in a Carmelite monastery in southern India, he decided that his vocation was to develop the hidden potential of handicapped children. Living as they do in a world of their own, his aim is to draw them closer into the community, no longer social liabilities but invaluable assets. He has had considerable success with the orphanage he has established. Now with the aid of six local workers he looks after 25 children ranging from 10-30 years of age. They are admitted regardless of caste, creed or race, and being in Sri Lanka they are all from Buddhist families. There is even an area devoted to a Buddhist shrine to which monks come periodically for services. It is also noticeable that on most of the walls there is usually a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Sarath Perera himself adopts a supplicant monk's way of life, for his house and all possessions have been incorporated into the orphanage. He lives with the children and even depends for his clothes on those donated by parents. Children come from all over the island, `with the help of the Almighty’ he says that further extensions are planned.
Impressions gained from a remarkable country.