25 December 2014

Tsunami: Field notes from the East Coast

Pic courtesy www.alisonwright.com
It is ten years since the coastal areas of Sri Lanka were hit by the tsunami.  In the ten years that have passed, there has been much re-building and much coming-to-terms.  There was mourning, there was acceptance or closure (if you will), resilience and moving-on.  This was written for the Sunday Island of January 2, 2005, a little more than a week after the waves hit the island and after a visit to some of ravaged territories and broken communities.  It is re-posted by way of remembering the victims, celebrating the recovery and looking to a better future.

Tragedy always brings out the best in us. And the worst. This, however, is unprecedented in kind and in terms of impact. The people of Sri Lanka had never heard the word "tsunami" before December 26 and are still struggling to understand the what, how and why of the disaster.

Over the past few years we have had more than our share of natural disasters, flood following drought and drought followed by flood. Almost every year. And the people have always responded. Magnificently. True, there have been racketeers and there has been inefficiency in distribution, but the sheer volume of assistance has seen to it that people did not starve.

People may not have heard of the natural phenomenon called tsunami, but they do understand tragedy. They understand disaster and displacement, and they know what people in refugee camps go through, what their priority needs are.

Sri Lanka is not a rich country. In fact right now our economy is in shambles, with galloping inflation and little or nothing by way of a comprehensive and pragmatic strategy of recovery. And yet the people were quick to respond and to respond in proportions and ways that demonstrate rich national character.

Many Buddha statues remained untouched or rather 'unmoved' by the tsunami
All one has to do is to stand on any road that leads to any of the disaster-hit areas to get a sense of how deeply our people have felt this tragedy and how magnanimous the response has been. Just the name boards of the various organizations and their points of origin would suffice to show that communities all over the island have done their bit and more. A sense of solidarity that is hardly ever seen has emerged and this shows that this nation can afford to be hopeful, not just about recovering from this tragedy but overcoming its many fractures.

This is not like a flood, it is not like a drought, and it is not like a protracted war which produces refugees in what is comparatively a trickle. This is enormous. Thirty thousand dead, several hundred thousand homeless and the looming threat of disease surely make a stiff challenge. As many have pointed out, the trauma is personal for each of us have known someone who perished, someone who lost his/her family, home and livelihood. Far too many people from all parts of the country and all walks of life have died for the tragedy and the attendant trauma to be contained in the personal or for it to be responded to individually. This is a national tragedy. We can all chip in but the nation has to step forward, do the best it can for the survivors to pick up what’s left of their lives and move forward. Can we and if so how, are the crucial questions we have been too shocked to engage until now.

It has been a week and that’s a short time for anyone to fully recover from a disaster of this magnitude. Indeed it might take many weeks or even months before we can even begin to understand what we lost outside of countables such as number of lives, value of property etc. What we can do as of now is to identify the problem areas in the relief and recovery efforts. Travelling through parts of the South-Eastern coast over three days, certain issues came up that I believe warrant serious consideration.

The magnitude of the disaster which indicates something of the magnitude of the response required makes one thing clear; only the state has the infrastructure that is even remotely capable of streamlining the relief effort. Whether the state agencies can be coordinated effectively to meet the challenge is another question. Over the past twenty years, under the guise of restructuring, authority has been devolved in ways that make coordination a nightmare. We saw during the floods that hit Ratnapura and other areas in Sabaragamuwa, Southern Province and parts of the Western Province that it was more state employees than state agencies that rose to the occasion. This tragedy is too big for the state to manage by itself. Everyone has to chip in and many have, but the effort so far has shown that there is very little coordination in the process.

Dr. Sumudu Kumarage, the Resident Surgeon of the Ampara Hospital put it best and his observations are so perceptive and pertinent that they bear full quotation.

"We have had so many patients that I have hardly had any time to see what’s happening outside. Still, I managed to take two hours off to visit some of the refugee camps. I am well aware that this is hardly adequate to make sweeping statements, but I believe I saw enough to realize that it is essential that a needs assessment be done as quickly as possible, whatever the costs.

"There are patients I have treated who would ordinarily have been discharged from hospital and in these circumstances we need to clear the wards as quickly as is prudent to accommodate new patients. The problem is, although they are strong enough to leave hospital, they are too weak to survive in refugee camps. They can’t fight for the dry rations and food packets that are being brought to these camps and they can’t fight to go to the toilets.

"In these camps something like the law of the jungle is emerging. It is the strong, who are often the relatively better off, who get the lion share. Two distinct groups are visible. There are those whose lives were not really that much worse before the tidal wave hit them and there are those who have lived decent enough lives and therefore who find it hard to swallow their pride and ask for assistance.

"Friends call me and ask what I need. I really don’t know because I have no clue what is out there. So I asked for 50 crutches because mobility can make a difference in the refugee camps.

"We need to know what exactly is needed and in what quantities. We need to know who needs what. If these cannot be ascertained, then the whole operation is going to be extremely inefficient and resources are bound to go waste."

Wasantha Wijewardena, who works for Seva Lanka, said that racketeers come in many forms. "There are some who pose as refugees and grab whatever they can. Even some refugees take more than what they need. Whatever relief they can get is seen as capital which can be employed later on. There is also a village of really poor people which is nowhere near the coast. They have ‘hired’ a few refugee families and put up a board saying ‘Refugee Camp’. When people come in lorries and trucks they really don’t know who is deserving and who is not and that’s a question that the officials themselves are not able to answer accurately. There is a lot of waste."

Some of the refugees themselves agree. M. M. Jaleel, a resident of Sainthumaruthu, close to Kalmunai, who lost his daughter and his house, insisted that I report that no more aid is necessary. 

"We have more than enough food and we are unable to store excess dry rations. The relief has to be spaced out. In two weeks the lorries will stop coming to these areas. What then? People must understand that it will take many months or even years before we can rebuild our houses, obtain boats and begin our lives again. We will need help until then. If people all over the country give us all that the people can afford in one go, we will have too much. Much of it will be scooped off by thieves and racketeers wanting to make a quick buck. And later, there will be nothing for people would have given all they can."

What these random but probably representative stories indicate is the urgent need to do a comprehensive assessment of the damage, the victims, their general and specific problems and to streamline the relief effort based on the information thus obtained.

On the other hand, there were complaints from some that relief had not reached certain areas. Adamlebbe, a 53-year-old man who had lost many relatives in Pottuvil said, "This is the worst effected area, and there has been very little media coverage. Media coverage is essential at this stage to alert people to send assistance to the area."

When tragedy comes in this form and size, one can argue that no amount of relief is "adequate". Adamlebbe’s complaint should persuade the relevant state agencies to quickly identify the disaster-hit areas, not just by district and division but by village as well. All this has to be part of the comprehensive needs assessment exercise that Dr. Kumarage calls for.

Mischief-makers meanwhile are having a field day. L. N. Ariyaratne, is from Tissamaharama. He and gone to Dikwella, where his mother-in-law lives and where he and his family were planning to take up residence. He had gone there with his family to renovate the place and build a perimeter wall when the tsunami struck. He had managed to save himself and his wife and 4 little children had miraculously escaped as well. They had returned to Tissamaharama and two days later had gone in a truck to recover whatever was left in the house. This is his story.

"We saw other people who were, like us, taking away pieces of furniture that still remained. All of a sudden a rumour began to spread saying that a second tsunami was going to hit. People just ran. This is clearly the work of petty thieves preying on people’s fears. They wanted us to flee so they can do the picking."

In Kalmunai, thieves had nothing to pick, for entire villages had disappeared. Still, confusion always works to the advantage of the mischief-maker. How do people respond, and why do they run?
Pregnant woman

Jezeema, a 32-year-old pregnant woman who had lost some of her family said, "Are we supposed to believe or disbelieve? We saw the entire thing happen, we only just managed to escape with our lives. How are we to respond? Do you know that our children are so traumatized that they get scared even when they hear water falling from a tap?"

Clearly the damage is not merely of a material kind. There are obvious psychological issues that need to be addressed. While doctors and medicine have moved to these areas in large numbers, and I am sure they are being employed to treat the more visible of the damage on the human body, at some point the psychological wounds would also have to be treated.

A team of medical students from the University of Peradeniya were in Ampara for a couple of days, volunteering to help in whatever way they could. There are probably other teams such as this visiting other parts of the country. While their voluntarism should be appreciated, if the maximum benefit is to be derived from their expertise, their work should be coordinated by some central medical authority.

Meanwhile a Japanese Disaster Relief Team has set up camp in Sainthumaruthu to treat people in the area. This team which has a lot of experience working in disaster-hit areas the world over is obviously well aware of what to expect and are more than adequately equipped to deal with a variety of situations. The team had apparently gone to this area on the request of the government. Perhaps we could take a cue and set up similar units that can respond quickly and adequately to the medical needs arising from disaster situations.

Food, clothing, shelter and medicine are the key needs in any disaster situation. They do not comprise the "all", though.

I am haunted by the eyes I saw in the places I visited, not just of those in refugee camps, but relief workers and people who knew of someone who suffered. They choke me and they often forbid attempts at commiseration. What these lost eyes represent, to me, is the deep wound carved on the face of the nation. These eyes speak of a desolation that is no less ominous as what can be seen today where the Yala Safari Game Lodge used to be. There the sea acts like a small child who has been mischievous and pretends not to know anything about the matter. But all around one can see the magnitude of the tragedy as well as the pathos it has produced, be it in twisted motor vehicles, pieces of clothes and furniture caught in the branches of tall trees, broken walls or the indefinable muck oozing from ripped open cesspits.

Then again, in Yala, just outside the national park, in the brine-drenched grass, I also saw new born plants bold enough to put out a few flowers. I saw on the many roads we travelled on between Colombo and the South-East coastline hundreds of vehicles carrying the generosity of a people mourning with their fellow-citizens. I saw in the refugee camps little children playing children’s games. I saw the indefatigable energy of relief workers, official and unofficial, local and foreign, determined that people will recover their lives and their dignity.

Many things have to come together, obviously. Hearts, more than all, I believe. That perhaps is our comparative advantage. Let us hope that this is complemented adequately by reason. Together, these entities can and will rebuild the nation. Yes, maybe we can regain all that we lost, and a bit more as well. Hopefully, then, we can build a national monument to this thing called tsunami, which we could then say had to dismember us so we could come together again.


h. said...

Was good to read.