THREE years ago on December 26, tsunami struck Sri Lanka. Not many people knew the word, tsunami, then. A joke that was doing the rounds even before the country could come to terms with the worst catastrophe in its annals said it all.
It went like this: An aide to our then prime minister told him, “Sir, tsunami has come to Sri Lanka.” The premier, who thought it was an unannounced visit by a dignitary from Japan, Sri Lanka’s biggest donor, responded by saying, “rush a welcome party to the airport”.
Black humour apart, today every Sri Lankan is familiar with the word. Every school-going child knows what tsunami is and how it happens. Since December 26, 2004, Sri Lankans have become ultra-sensitive to earthquakes, especially when they take place near Indonesia. It was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia that devastated Sri Lanka on that fateful day, killing some 35,000 people and rendering more than half a million people homeless.
Television channels and round-the-clock FM radio stations report news of even small tremors taking place in the seas off Indonesia with comments from state geologists. In September this year, the Meteorology Department issued a tsunami warning in the wake of a massive earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale in the seas off Indonesia around 6.30 pm (Sri Lanka time). We all relived the horror as the authorities warned us that tsunami waves could hit us around 8 pm (local time). Police and armed forces were rushed to the coastal areas to warn people and urge them to find shelter in buildings on high grounds. Within minutes, the coastal belt across Sri Lanka was deserted. The people carrying transistor radios and flocking near television sets awaited the all-clear signal. It came two hours later. The people were relieved and felt their prayers had been answered. The incident underscored not only Sri Lanka’s status as a tsunami-threatened country but our eternal vigilance and our preparedness. It is true when nature roars with anger, we are helpless. If another tsunami comes, there can be material damage, but lives will be saved.
Yet some people in Sri Lanka live with the fear of another tsunami. They still show reluctance to spend long holidays at resorts along the golden beaches of the scenic south. But a visit to the coastal belt that was affected by the Boxing Day tsunami will make us conclude that the area looks more prosperous than it was before December 2004. Instead of clay or wooden huts with thatched roofs, there are houses with walls made of bricks and roofs made of asbestos sheets. The roads, the hospitals and the schools are certainly better than before. Tsunami is a blessing in disguise to many.
In Hambantota, the southern home base of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the tsunami was a double-blessing. The terror waves destroyed or damaged only about 3,000 houses there, but records show that some 6,000 houses have been built with tsunami aid. In other areas in the south, due to lack of proper coordination, some families have got two houses while in some areas, especially the worst-hit areas in the eastern province, many people are still living in camps. In a Muslim town in the eastern Ampara district, the damaged hospital has not been rebuilt. People use a makeshift hospital operating from a dilapidated government building. The security situation and the lack of political power have made the worst-hit people the least beneficiaries of the tsunami aid.
Not much is known about tsunami-reconstruction work in areas under rebel control in Sri Lanka’s north and northeast. The Tamil Tigers, who were then observing a ceasefire with the government forces, wanted a share of the tsunami aid. The then government, though reluctant at the beginning, agreed to a mechanism proposed by donor nations to share the tsunami aid. But subsequent to a petition to the Supreme Court, the mechanism was ruled unconstitutional. The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, a pro-LTTE charity which was engaged in tsunami rehabilitation projects, was banned by the United States and Sri Lanka recently and its assets were frozen, on charges that the group was raising funds for the LTTE.
According to statistics, of the US $ 3.1 billion the international community had pledged Sri Lanka, only US$ 1.7 billion had come. A senior state official in charge of tsunami funds told a private television channel on Sunday that of the US$ 1.7 billion only US$ 1.1 billion had been accounted for, raising questions over missing millions. The government says that 80 per cent of all tsunami reconstruction work has been completed and boasts its record as a major success. Its claim, however, does not offer a fig leaf to cover its shame — the failure to make use of the opportunity the tsunami offered to unite the people of Sri Lanka.
As the tsunami wreaked havoc on December 26, 2004, soldiers and Tamil Tigers helped one another. In the sombre mood that prevailed for months after the tsunami, we realised that the pangs of human suffering knew no racial, ethnic or religious boundaries. That was perhaps the only time in the post-independence Sri Lanka, we felt we were united. But we squandered the opportunity. Once again bigotry and communalism dominate politics of Sri Lanka. Should we wait for another catastrophe to happen to strike unity?Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo