Sri Lanka: Tsunami report back from WLUML networkers

Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum
On 28th December, 5 members of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum and one observer accompanied a truck full of relief goods to Kalmunai area, located in the district of Amparai on the East Coast, to aid the relief effort for Tsunami victims.
Leaving at daybreak and with a few vehicular mishaps on the way the trip took around twelve hours. We broke for the night at the MWRAF east based office and early the next morning while the truck was being repaired, the team together with two members from the Kalmunai MWRAF office visited the disaster struck areas.
The town of Kalmunai is located away from the sea and appears to be unharmed, however as you walk through narrow alleys with residential houses on either side of them you soon come to the areas of devastation. There is total destruction. It is immediately clear that many people have died in this village. Subsequently we are told that in Maruthamunai ( a village adjoining) alone there were 2,300 bodies discovered in the first two days. They are still recovering bodies.

We were unprepared for the sight that received us. There were houses that were barely standing, some of them had the foundations ripped out from under them, others were reduced to a concrete slab and then there were still others – the miraculous ones – who stood side by side with those that had been reduced to nothingness. Trees were ripped out and lying inside or on top of houses. Motorcycles were twisted out of shape; ceiling fans were in permanent rotation.

Cupboards lay on top of walls, chairs were smashed into firewood and survivors of the tsunami were walking around in shock. Women moved around what was once their house attempting to move heavy windows and fallen down brick walls. But how does a 50 kilo women lift a 1000 kilo wall? The men were digging mass graves next to a destroyed mosque. Long trenches were being dug out while on another side other men tore strips of white cloth to make kaffans or shrouds. A team of men from Puttlam, which is located on the West coast of the island, marched towards the mass grave to prepare them for the burial that was about to begin. Hundreds and hundreds of incense sticks were lit to mask the smell of rotting corpses. Here and there various locations of corpses were pointed out. All located and detected from the foul smell that emanated from them. It appeared that some people were still living in the area, which could bring about a situation that poses a grave health risk in the future if the clean up efforts were not done properly and completely.

Many of the people wanted to talk about the encounter and it almost seemed as if it was a cathartic experience for them. There were stories of horror, tragedy and miracle. Every family had lost at least one person. Some families were wiped out. Tales of babies being ripped from their mothers arms, of daughters seeing their aged parents float away battered by the debris, of women beating all odds and rescuing their children and clinging on to barbed wire just to survive were recounted over and over again. Told to us in Tamil in beautifully descriptive language, mothers told us that it was as if the sea was determined to have their children and once they were taken the sea abated. Another woman described the coming of the wave as if it were a forty-foot serpent that towered over coconut trees and came with silent menace and black with anger. Still others narrated how they sat in fishing boats far out at sea and could only watch the destruction that the Tsunami caused to their village and families. It was poignant for us to hear the stories and yet we recognized that their spirit was unbroken.

As of our visit, which was two days after the event there was no government aid visible that had reached these areas, there were no international aid agencies present as well, further their frustration and anger were compounded by the lack of visibility of their plight in the media. They pointed out that all focus was on the south of the country while the north and the east were being ignored. All aid that had been received in this area was sent by the civil society. While it was a reaffirmation of the faith the civil society had in themselves, it was a damning statement on the role of the state.

The town of Kalmunai being a primarily Muslim town had appointed the mosques as distribution centers. Some mosques were remarkably organised having medical points within them and had stores located close by for the deposit of goods. We were unable to visit a Muslim refugee camp although we did visit a Tamil refugee camp. There too there was some semblance of order and organisation though perhaps not as high as at the level of the mosque. There was a concern expressed on the efficacy of the distribution of goods. Some of the residents in the devastated areas pointed out that they had received no aid. They were unable to even clean up the area because there were no bulldozers or sufficient tractors to aid them. Most of them had taken shelter with other relatives who now had the burden of feeding, clothing and sheltering more people than the household could manage. These victims who were outside the refugee camps were not even counted among those to receive aid.

On our return we encountered a steady stream of relief vehicles going towards the Amparai district. Again they were all civil society efforts. A valid concern is will these goods reach their destination and then again how well will it be distributed and how soon. We heard stories of people attempting to loot the relief vehicles because they were not receiving the aid soon enough.

In addition to the staple relief items of dry rations, clothes and medical supplies the relief effort should be forward looking and work towards rebuilding these societies as a whole. This would involve in assisting them to obtain materials for their livelihood, like fishing nets, boats, farming tools, equipment for skills etc.

There are also concerns that the relief effort is not well co-ordinated. This is a natural consequence of a wholly civil society effort, which in turn has resulted because of a total lack of trust in the government. Thus we have relief vehicles loaded with goods destined for perhaps the Amparai district that arrive with no particular town or village in mind, with no knowledge of how to access the local focal point and with no idea of the needs and requirements of the community.

The situation is further complicated by the realization that despite our field visit even we have little idea of what is needed, how much and where. A concerted co ordinated effort needs to be made to assess the requirements of the communities.

On a more positive note it is heartening to see the colossal and immediate response that the civil society had towards the relief effort. It is now important that the drive and energy is maintained in a cohesive way. It is also imperative that the state steps in and takes a principal role in the relief efforts ensuring that all parts of Sri Lanka benefit in equal measures. This disaster could be finally result in the turning point in governance in Sri Lanka.

Ameena Hussain
MWRAF working committee

If you wish to make contributions - - please send them to:

Bank name - Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, [HSBC], No 24, Sir Baron Jayatileke Mawatha, Colombo 1 [Colombo branch]
Account name - Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) - 'Tsunami disaster relief fund'
Account number - 001- 231026 -001. [Current account]
Swift code - HSBCLKLX