Crossposted at SEA EAT. The story below was generously shared by Harini, who was in Sri Lanka during and after. You can see her associated pictures here. Her comments on the pictures: "It's just a sample of the devastation caused...the pix of the boys in the orphanage are pre-tsunami on Christmas day we spent the day with them...everything else is aftermath of post-tsunami..."
The Tsunami disaster and the politics of international aid
Going back home, to the northeast of Sri Lanka, over the December holidays was an opportunity for me to learn about my homeland and discover my roots. I was born and raised in Canada, and the last time I had visited my homeland was as a small child in 1983.
When I stepped on the plane to begin my personal journey I never expected that it would end up being such a life-altering experience. I knew that this would be a profound experience for me, but never did I imagine the extent to which this trip would change my life. The tsunami that devastated 11 Asian countries hit the eastern coastline of Sri Lanka on the morning of December 26, 2004. The northeastern coastline of Sri Lanka was one of the hardest hit areas in the region. The group of almost 30 Canadian Tamil students that I was traveling with was only kilometers from the shorelines when the tsunami struck.
I remember hearing the sirens of numerous ambulances racing by the bus that was carrying us to our next location. I remember thinking, what in the world is going on? I looked over at the person sitting next to me and asked if the flooding was really that bad (recently there had been severe flooding in the area). We passed a small coastal town and saw the townspeople standing and sitting on the side of the road with somber expressions on their face. We asked what had happened, and they said that the waves from the ocean had claimed some lives. Neither they nor us knew the extent of this humanitarian tragedy. It would be one of the worst the world has ever seen.
We got off the bus to take some pictures of the landscape. After snapping some shots, I returned to the road to get back on the bus. To my unbelievable horror I saw a tractor carrying the bodies of several small children. At that point, I was standing, frozen, on the side of the road. Time stood still. I was in shock. I had never seen dead bodies in that state before. I felt as if I was in a dream. Someone helped me cross the road and get into the bus. I sat in the bus in silence. I kept seeing those tiny faces. To this day, when I close my eyes, I can still see those small faces.
As soon as we heard about the extent of the devastation we were dumbstruck. I could not believe this was happening. How could the ocean – such a beautiful and majestic force of nature – turn into a violent and destructive storm of death? I used to love the ocean. It was one of my favorite things in the world. The smell of the seawater, the feel of the wind, the sound of the crashing waves. Now, those sights, sounds, and smells terrify me.
I wondered what could we do to help the people who lost so much. We collected money and our own clothing to donate to people who were displaced and temporarily housed in schools. However, this didn’t seem like enough. That night a small group of students traveling with us went to the affected areas. They reported back with horrific stories. We saw video footage of grieving families, still in their wet clothes, wailing in horror. The bodies of their loved ones laying in rows; some were stacked one on top of each other. There was so much death.
The next day we went to the communities on the northeast coast that were hardest hit. We visited a village called Mullattivu, which has been devastated. We were completely overwhelmed by what we saw. The entire village had been washed away. The stench of death hung in the air. The waves had ripped children from their mothers’ arms. Fishing boats had tossed and turned on top of the waves and were thrown miles inland. Belongings and precious family mementos were scattered on the ground. I saw a photo album left on the ground. I flipped through the pictures and saw smiling happy faces. At that moment I prayed that the family was safe and would soon return to retrieve their belongings.
We went to visit the schools that housed the hundreds of people left homeless and displaced. There were no toilet facilities and supplies were limited. A few medical students cared for the injured, who formed long lines to get medical attention. Hundreds of children roamed around, some crying uncontrollably, others oblivious to the devastation and distress. In the background was the constant wailing of grief-stricken survivors. We had to choke back our own tears when we spoke with the survivors and heard their stories.
The relief efforts were coordinated by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, an NGO that operates in the north and east of Sri Lanka. They were the only organization present in the Tamil Tiger-controlled areas. Other NGO’s such as Oxfam and UNICEF had only briefly drove by in their air-conditioned jeeps to drop of a few dozen mats (UNICEF had their mats embedded with their logo). We were saddened to see that there was no international aid coming into the Tiger-controlled areas. The Tamil areas in the north and east were some of the worst-affected areas, yet none of the international aid pledged was getting to these hardest hit areas. We were there continuously for three days, but we failed to see any international aid in these areas. It was truly unfortunate that politics had come before humanitarian need. The Sri Lankan government was refusing to allow relief aid to enter Tiger-controlled areas. As a result, some people – those who had lost everything and everyone they loved – were left in shelters with limited supplies and no help from outside sources. They only had each other to count on.
We spoke with survivors and heard incredible stories of how they saw this giant black cloud of water over 40-feet high coming towards them. They told us how they had no time to think or gather any belongings. They just ran for their lives. They did not know where they were running to. They only knew what they were running from. They told us how they saw their neighbors and members of their own family be carried away by the giant waves and the receding sea. Most of the lives lost were those of women and children. So many children have been lost.
Senthalir Illam, an orphanage for children who lost their parents due to the civil war in Sri Lanka, lost hundreds of children – only 30 survived. We visited the site, and as we walked to the grounds we saw school desks and chairs scattered on the ground. There was a mangled crib in front of the damaged building where the children used to sleep and dream about their futures. I can’t describe how powerful a moment it was to stand on the ground upon which laughing children had played, knowing that most had been carried away by the raging waves. Only days earlier a friend of mine who had visited that orphanage had shown me video clips of those very children. I kept imagining those laughing children playing in the field. At that moment I broke down. I cried uncontrollably, along with my fellow students, at the loss of such innocent and young lives.
Children have also been left orphaned by this tragedy. Many villages and families have only a few survivors. One of the stories I heard from a survivor I will never forget as long as I live. It was the story of an 84-year-old grandmother. This story was very powerful to me because I recently lost my own grandmother. At one of the schools I visited there were two elderly women sitting on the ground alone. I walked up to them to hear their stories. One of the grandmothers told me how she had heard from neighbors about the waves coming. They told her to run and so she ran. While she was running she was thinking about her other family members. They lived in nearby houses. She tried desperately to find out about her family. She found out that none had survived. All of her children and all of her grandchildren had been taken by the waves. I wiped away her tears as she told me that she was alone in the world. She then said to me, “Why did I survive? I am an old lady. Why hadn’t my children or grandchildren survived? They had a future.” These words would haunt me for the rest of my trip. So many children were lost. In some villages no children survived. A whole generation has been lost.
The trip has changed my life forever. I am no longer the person I was a month ago. Being home in Toronto feels surreal. It is hard to reconcile the person that I am today with the life that I used to have. I have learned so much from this experience. I have seen devastation and destruction, but I have also see generosity and hope for the future. This tsunami has brought together people from all over the world in an unprecedented way.
I made a promise to those grandmothers that evening. I told them that I would go back to Canada and share their stories. I promised them that the international community would hear their stories and help alleviate the suffering of the survivors, that we would help them to rebuild their communities and their lives. Most of the people we spoke to had only one request for us: not to forget them.
There is so much work to be done. The long-term needs of these communities are enormous. Fishermen need boats to regain their livelihood. Schools need books, desks and chairs. Orphanages need to be repaired. Houses need to be reconstructed. People need to deal with the emotional scars of loosing their entire family. Let us not forget them!
For information about tsunami relief in the North and East of Sri Lanka please visit:
Tamil Rehabilitation Organization: http://www.troonline.org/
Tamil Children’s Endowment Fund: http://www.tcefund.org/