HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka As the sun sets on another sultry Sri Lankan day, a small crowd gathers outside tent No. 68, home of Thuwan Rashid Kaseer and his three children. The 45-year-old carpenter is well known in the southern town of Hambantota for his fine, emotion-filled voice, and this evening his song has struck a chord with many at the Dharma Kabeer Mosque refugee camp.
“Hope rests with our children,” he croons, tears welling up in his eyes. “They are our future.” In Sri Lanka, these are words that resonate deeply.
A 22-year-long civil war has claimed around 65,000 lives and displaced a million more people. Now, after history’s most devastating tsunami flattened almost two-thirds of the country’s coastal areas on Dec. 26 last year, the destruction — both physical and mental — has given many like Kaseer a new sense of perspective.
Kaseer lost his wife and three of his six children to the tsunami, which claimed more than 31,000 lives and left over 500,000 more homeless in the tiny island nation, which hangs like a teardrop from the southern tip of India. The bodies of Kaseer’s wife and youngest son have yet to be recovered. Yet he believes the disaster was a blessing in disguise.
“I think it has brought our people closer,” he says, as a neighbor brings cups of sweet milky tea. “This is not a time to talk of Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese separately. We all suffered and we should all think of how to rebuild a better Sri Lanka,” Kaseer declares with a quiet force.
But whether this sentiment reflects popular opinion is open to debate.
Immediately after the tsunami, the largely Sinhalese government and leaders of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam agreed to put aside their differences and cooperate in distributing relief supplies. This raised hopes among United Nations and other officials that peace talks, deadlocked since April 2003, might be resumed. Some observers even suggested that an end to the civil war — which has pitted the LTTE against the government — might not be far away.
Within days, however, that rare display of unity was already beginning to come undone at its loosely stitched seams.
First, LTTE officials claimed that the government was directing the majority of the nation’s emergency supplies to Sinhalese-dominated areas. The government countered that it had provided several times more food to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, both LTTE strongholds in the north, than to Galle and Hambantota in the largely Sinhalese south. What’s more, it claimed that the LTTE had turned down aid in order to win sympathy overseas for its separatist agenda.
Misuse of aid funds has also been widely reported.
In early March, a senior civil servant was arrested for allegedly siphoning off tsunami aid meant for survivors in Trincomalee, another LTTE stronghold in the northeast, while the pro-government English-language Daily News also reported on a secret account to which it alleged a top opposition minister was the sole signatory.
One journalist, who requested anonymity, suggested that, rather than being a catalyst for peace, the tsunami had merely exacerbated tensions between the two factions.
At grassroots level, too, a similar picture has been unfolding.
Tales of Tamils coming to the aid of Sinhalese, and vice-versa, abound. Yet, distrust and discontent still exist. Antigovernment elements happily recount a story of how, some 90 minutes before the tsunami hit, a fax was sent from the United States to the Foreign Ministry in Colombo. “Tsunami is coming,” it is said to have plainly read. Ministry officials, the story continues, promptly dashed off to Bandaranaike International Airport armed with a large white sign sporting equally plain language: “Welcome Mr. Tsunami.”
“Some say this is because we were unfamiliar with the word ‘tsunami,’ others say that it shows government incompetence,” said one official in Trincomolee who wished his name to be withheld. “I suppose it depends on which side [of the political fence] you stand.”
More serious claims, perhaps, relate to the reported slow and lopsided distribution of aid.
In the northern province of Jaffna — thought of by Tamils as their historic heartland, but now under government control — an elderly man left homeless by the tsunami complained that replacement fishing boats promised by local officials still had not materialized months after the disaster.
“I cannot believe anything the government says,” said 68-year-old Perumal. “Of course, we appreciate [the international aid], but I don’t want to live off other people’s goodwill forever.”
It is not just in LTTE areas where supplies have fallen short, however. Fishermen in Sinhalese-dominated Galle and Kalutara on the southwest coast, and in Hambantota in the south, have similar stories to tell.
Mohammad Naseemdeen, 36, said government officials had visited his camp in central Hambantota to find out who needed replacement boats, but had left with a new headache. “There are 300 registered vessels in this town,” said Naseemdeen, a Muslim who lost his year-old son, Naseem, during the tsunami. “But more than 1,000 people have requested replacement boats. None of us can prove we are legitimate fishermen, as our documents were washed away with our children.”
There also has been criticism of the speed with which supplies and housing have been provided. In mid-March, a strike gripped Trincomalee as thousands of residents protested the slow distribution of tsunami relief aid. Government officials claim that they have received only a fraction of the international aid pledged, but a visit to a supply store on the outskirts of Hambantota at that time revealed the startling logistical nightmare confronting officials around the country. Almost one-fifth of the vast warehouse floor was strewn with goods whose sell-by dates had already passed. Local health officials were unable to confirm just how long these goods had been stored there, however.
What’s more, health officials were forced to step up their inspections of the supplies after 15 schoolchildren were admitted to hospital with food poisoning from cookies sent from overseas donor states, they said. “Before transportation, the cookies had apparently been loaded into containers that had previously contained some kind of industrial chemical,” a public health official said. “Of course, people are anxious, and critical. But we must be very careful.”
With thousands still located in tents and temporary accommodation, of equal concern is the rebuilding of houses, especially with the monsoon season fast-approaching.
Yet, while some $2 billion has been pledged to assist in Sri Lanka’s reconstruction costs, government ministers as late as this month were claiming they have seen less than 10 percent of that amount. While some donors had already withdrawn their pledges, it seems others have put them on hold until some form of cooperation in the disbursement of relief funds is reached between the two parties.
Speaking at a press briefing in Colombo earlier this month, Japan’s peace envoy to Sri Lanka, Yasushi Akashi, said that a failure to establish a joint mechanism between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government could jeopardize aid prospects from overseas. Yet, some have expressed concern over such an “aid for peace” ultimatum.
In a recent paper, Kethesh Loganathan, director of the Peace and Conflict Analysis Unit at the Center for Policy Alternatives, an independent think-tank in Colombo, wrote that it is clear from statements made by leaders of both parties that neither is particularly keen on linking post-tsunami reconstruction to the peace process.
“What is particularly worrying,” he continued, “is that while the tsunami did bring people together, the sluggish and uneven manner in which humanitarian assistance was reaching different regions and peoples poses a serious challenge to the task of reconciliation. Perceived discrimination and relative deprivation can sow the seeds of fresh conflicts.”
However, although President Chandrika Kumaratunga stirred emotions in the north when she claimed the LTTE had lost too many of its cadres during the tsunami for it to consider a return to war, there is another very practical reason for both sides to think twice before going down that bloody road again.
Due to the tsunami, land mines from the country’s war with Tamil Tiger rebels were moved around, hampering rescue efforts and causing numerous accidents. Meanwhile, one official in Kilinochchi, where the Tamil rebels have their headquarters, believes the people in his area are simply no longer concerned with conflict.
“The people in this area can’t even begin to think about war,” said Thangamuthu Sathiyamoorthy, deputy provincial director of health services in Kilinochchi. “They only want peace — permanent peace.”
Anatomy of a killer quake
Time of main quake: 07:58 (local time) on Dec. 26, 2004
Magnitude: 9.3 (The fourth largest since 1900 and the world’s biggest since 1964)
Epicenter: Approx. 240 km southeast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, 5,800 km southwest from Tokyo.
Estimated energy released: Roughly equivalent to 23,000 atomic bombs of the size that devastated Hiroshima. The energy released was so great that it altered the tilt of the Earth.
Height, speed and size of tsunamis: As the waves approached coastal areas the waves grew and on shores directly facing the epicenter, they reached heights of 20 meters. Two hours after the main quake, a total of six waves hit Sri Lanka, each up to 4 meters high and weighing over 100 billion tons.
Number of countries affected: 13, including Burma, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Thailand. More than two-thirds of Sri Lankas coastline was devastated.
Number of casualties: Estimates vary from 217,000 (AFP) to 280,000 (WHO) dead, and over half a million injured. After Indonesia, Sri Lanka was the second-worst affected country, losing 31,000 people with several thousand more still unaccounted for. A further 850,000 were displaced. Around one-third of overall casualties were children. In Sri Lanka, over 1,000 children are known to have lost both parents.
Estimated cost of reconstruction of affected areas: $7.5 billion. The Asian Development Bank estimates Sri Lanka’s reconstruction costs at $1.5 billion.