Church’s Relief Effort in Sri Lanka Moves Slowly
BY Anto Akkara
July 17-23, 2005 Issue | Posted 7/17/05 at 1:00 PM
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Churches across Sri Lanka lit 40,000 candles June 26 to remember the 40,000 lives that were snatched away six months earlier when tsunami waves pounded the island nation.
The following day, during an interreligious prayer meeting at the office of Caritas Sri Lanka in Colombo, 40 tsunami orphans were given bank accounts of $50 each in the presence of several senior government officials and leaders of political parties.
However, Father Damian Fernando, executive director of Caritas Sri Lanka, the Catholic aid agency, said the inability to coordinate the relief effort has resulted in prolonged delays of aid to the Sri Lankan people.
“There is nothing to rejoice. We are far from happy in getting help to the tsunami victims,” Father Fernando said.
$40 Million in Aid
Despite undertaking several measures involving emergency food and medical supplies and temporary shelters, Father Fernando said, “Things are moving very slow. We have not been able to achieve even one quarter of what we wanted to do by now.”
In fact, Caritas Sri Lanka had set an ambitious target of erecting temporary shelters for 26,000 families and livelihood programs for the tsunami victims in the island nation where nearly 1 million people were displaced.
That was after the international Caritas network extended assistance of $40 million to Sri Lanka from the $350 million it had mobilized for tsunami relief work in more than a dozen countries in Asia and Africa. That included $5 million from Catholic Relief Services’ $35-million tsunami fund.
“In many places, we are still waiting for the government to allot lands for us to construct even transitional houses, let alone permanent houses,” Father Fernando said. “This is not certainly what we had expected when we started the relief work.”
The Register accompanied a team of Church workers to the village of Chinnathottam near Kinniya — 16 miles from the port city of Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka. In the lagoon region where the tsunami had claimed more than 200 lives, a local Caritas field worker took Father Francis Dias, Caritas coordinator in Trincomalee, to a land the government officials had allocated for Church workers to build temporary houses for the tsunami victims.
When the Caritas team reached the spot, they found that the land had been occupied by a dozen families many months before the tsunami. Father Dias, who heads the Trincomalee unit of Eastern Human and Economic Development Center — the social action department of the Batticaloa-Trincomalee Diocese, said they'll have to go “another round with government officials” to secure another parcel of land.
As the Caritas team walked back to the van along muddy road, Father Dias said, “This is turning out to be real test of patience. They should have really checked whether the land is free before allotting it to us. The buffer zone is at the root of all this chaos.”
Under the strict tsunami rehabilitation norms, the Sri Lankan government has ordered a buffer zone of 125 miles from the sea on the eastern side and 62 miles on the western side of the island, banning repair or reconstruction within this area as a precaution against future killer waves.
This has forced non-government organizations and charity groups to build shelters only on sites approved and earmarked by the government agencies.
“We are feeling a bit helpless,” Bishop Kingsely Swampillai of Trincomalee-Batticaloa said in a June 22 interview. “If the government had allowed the people to repair or rebuild their houses, half the problem would have been over now.
“The buffer zone has only added to the misery of the people living on the shore,” Bishop Swampillai said. “We have seen their suffering, and want to make shelters for them at the earliest. But, we do not know yet where we can build these. The government has to allot the land for this.
“We have no dearth of funds but getting the land is a real bottleneck. It is time for the government to speed up the system. Otherwise, everyone will run out of patience,” the bishop said. His diocese suffered the worst devastation and casualties, accounting nearly half of the 40,000 deaths in the island.
Meanwhile, the buffer zone imposed by the government has caused much distress and dissent among the people along the coastline — most of them poor fishermen using traditional catamarans and nets.
“How can we live far from the sea and go fishing?” Shiv Prasan, a fisherman who follows traditional fishing methods without mechanized boats, said. “Earlier, we used to keep our nets in our houses [along the beach], and even our women would help us mend the nets. Now, we have been forced to leave our lands and live in no man's land.”
He added, “It seems the officials are more concerned about preventing future tsunami destruction than helping the fishermen restart their lives.”
Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi, India.
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