Monday, January 03, 2005

Feminism and Personal Empowerment, Sri Lankan Tsunami Relief Style

Courtesy and Crossposted at Morquendi via Chiens Sans Frontieres:

Subha's Story

I’m 16. Besides, I’m a girl, I’m just a girl. And in the wake of the Tsunami tragedy that has swept across Asia recently, killing thousands, displacing millions, and ruining many, I have been wishing, for the first time since I was about 10 running around in shorts with short hair, that I wasn’t a girl. That instead, I was a boy. Many times I’ve argued with my brothers, or my male friends, many times I have felt distressed and useless. Many, many times I’ve defended myself when people have said things like ‘If your going to volunteer in any of the affected areas machang, don’t take the girls. They’ll only become a pain’. Many times have I wondered in frustration what on earth they are talking about. Yet, after long hours of endless arguing and fighting, I am learning to keep quiet. Let them talk. They’ll see.

Since the 26th, the day on which the Tsunami occurred in all it’s hideous glory, the tiny country has been wrapped in chaos and utter pandemonium. The death toll rises daily, having started considerably small from about 2000, and is currently tipping the scale of credibility at about 30,000. The enormity of the disaster is simply that : unbelievable. Of course, I haven’t been directly affected. All week long, I’ve been hearing horror stories about those who survived, and those who didn’t survive. About those who survived, and those who didn’t. And in the middle of the gargantuan loss of lives, property, homes and land, millions are displaced, homeless, suffering from diseases, injuries and mental trauma that can’t be treated soon enough. Numbers that only make one’s mouth hang open in shock are mourning the loss of loved ones, the loss of home, a place to live, of everything they own, of a dignified lifestyle. They suffer in camps; women have their periods, children are dying from disease, thousands of corpses decompose in local morgues, and authorities struggle to feed and clothe everyone while trying to provide them with the needed medical facilities. Sri Lanka has changed geographically, the land having caved in from the South and the East. We’re no longer a pearl, or a pear, or a tear drop. We’re a drowning blob in the Indian Ocean, gasping for our share of air, and fighting to rise from the ashes. While all hell has broken lose in the Southern and Eastern coastal areas, I continue to live my pathetic, sheltered life in Colombo, with all my party clothes and my mobile phone. Or so one would think. I however would like to think, things have changed for me.

The only way to fight the depression was to dive into some work. Since I’m on school holidays, it means I’m at home, doing next to nothing, or out with my friends, doing next to nothing important. This happened, and threw me out to sea. Not literally, thankfully, but the feeling was quite the same. My whole life, my entire 16 years of existence started to feel superficial, shallow and insignificant. I wallowed in misery, watching the morbid footage on news, and reading ghastly stories on the papers. It’s all anyone could talk about. It’s all I could think about. The magnitude of the disaster was truly overwhelming. Maybe it’s in my blood, maybe it’s the Interactor in me, whatever it was, was screaming at me to do something. To get in there, get involved, and help. This was when I was told I couldn’t visit Galle with my brother and mother the very next day. That I couldn’t volunteer in Batticaloa, or go down to the South to help those stationed in camps. Although I understood the dire situation, and the barbaric living conditions that one would have to deal with were they to visit any of the areas affected right away, I was stunned that the lamest of all excuses seemed the most used. I am a girl.

Since last Sunday, I have been trying to make myself feel better. I have been on a mission to sacrifice whatever time I spend doing nothing, at the various places and organizations collecting donations in Colombo. I have packed, carried, lifted, sealed, sorted and loaded dry rations, clothes, books, shoes, medicine, soap and linen by the amazing tons. Their collected in ceiling scraping mountains. And that feeling is somewhat relieving. The feeling that there are thousands of people in the city alone that are willing to give so generously, but most of all, that somewhere, somehow, I am being useful. It has been my only source of consolation. I have bumped into, and worked with many people that I’ve never met, but also with many of my friends and other youngsters from in and around the city. Everyone is friendly, efficient, and enthusiastic. They never tire. It’s really refreshing.

Two days ago however, I took a larger step. One might say a small leap, after having hopped around for 5 days. Together with some of my friends, I got involved in a damage assessment project being carried out by the Ministry of Defense. The ministry’s claim was that the main issue was the lack of system and organization. Unknown to us Colombo people, a lot was going on in the wake of the disaster. Women were being gang raped, trucks carrying donations were being hijacked, conmen and thieves were stealing food stuff and clothes from the camps by the truck loads, and the donations were being misdirected heavily. Things would go from bad to worse, if nothing was done. What they need, they said, is a system that works around the entire country. We were to carry out the experiment. If successful, it would be the prototype for a planning system everywhere. The three key words were: order, organization, and control. 10 of us were sent with Special Task Force officials escorting us, making us feel rather important, into the Mattakkuliya and Modera areas in northern Colombo which were ruined by the tsunami. We were to assess the damage.

Five days after the calamity, the situation was slowly calming down. Three large churches, St. Mary’s, St. James and De Mazenod were the main providers of shelter and aid to these people in need. The local schools, community centers and church halls were housing the displaced people who had no homes to return to, providing a temporary refuge to those who needed time and resources to return to their ruined homes and start cleaning up. Because these people live mainly in poor slum communities between the sea and the Kelani river, they were caught by surprise when both bodies of water began rising to surround the pockets of habitation and crash in on their homes. The waters swept away many of the wooden structures and whatever was inside them; those fortunate enough to own cement structures suffered the loss of money and property. Everyone lost everything. Cupboards, beds, mattresses, cooking utensils, electrical appliances, and even livelihoods due to the loss of boats and implements. ‘Nothing is left’, they cried to us. They survived with only their clothes on their backs. Even in this small area, six bodies were found, and one remains missing.

We visited over seven camps, and saw over 3000 displaced people. The small St. Mary’s Community Center was the worst off. It had 76 people living in it. Many had rashes on their feet due to standing in contaminated water; conjunctivitis had spread like wild fire amongst everyone, both young and old alike. There had been no doctor to visit them since they were brought there, last Sunday. A small 4 year old boy, who had slipped and fallen during one of his 4 year old antics, had very neatly split his forehead open. The mother, young Dilani Priyangika is the randomly appointed ‘in–charge’ of the refugees there. Unable to give the wound the stitches it needed, she had dressed it with whatever medical aid they were given on the first day. When we visited, the wound had obviously been infected, and forced his left eye almost completely shut with swelling. Dilani, however, has bigger worries. As the person in charge, she sees it as her duty to make sure everyone is fed and kept alive. She says no aid comes their way, and whenever it does, conmen and robbers come and steal it for themselves, sometimes donning the guise of a refugee, when really, they are not. Although they have clean water for drinking, and have toilet facilities in the building, she says they are not attended to, due to there being much larger damage in other areas. Most importantly, they have no access to a doctor, nor do they have organized, educated personnel to run this place the way it should be run.

On the contrary, the church run camps are equipped and efficient. They have credible records of all their residents, and are fully prepared to feed and clothe anyone who does not have a home.

What was heartbreaking though, were the affected areas itself. Small patches of slums have been entirely damaged if not washed away. RFK Watta had witnessed the only deaths in the area. Kadirana, Pichchamal Watta, Summitpura, and Gemunupura had been underwater till as recently as Friday. I looked around at the angry yet sad people who returned to the sites of their homes during the daytime, and at what remained of their homes. Occasionally one could see a plank or two, or a ceiling sheet, all that was left toshow us that a home had once stood there. I thought to myself ‘how unbelievable the damage must be on the coast… in Galle, in Batticaloa. How simply colossal.’

The people complained of their loss, but also of neglect. They told us that we were the first people to visit their destroyed homes. There had been no government officials, not even from the Grama Sevaka’s office, or from the Municipality, looking into the damage and the disaster caused last Sunday. They felt they had been left to fend for themselves. Although the churches have been making sure that the communities get the required food and clothing, the municipality has broached only one of the above mentioned areas to help clean up the dense mud and filth that lay in places that were once homes to families. The unhygienic situation caused by the mud that has come in with the water from the river, as well as all the garbage that came in with the river water has made it impossible for most to bring their children back to their homes. One father says all he wants is for his family to be under the same roof again. One mother says all she wants is someone to help rebuild her humble home. Many children said all they want is a clean home to go back to. These areas have gotten no media coverage, nor have they gotten the attention of the local government authorities in whose hands their fates lie.

And now, right now, I feel I have helped. Those people needed someone to listen patiently to their lamenting, someone to yell at and take their anger out on, someone to visit their homes and tell them that they had every right to feel the way they did, to carry those children, and play their first game with them since the water engulfed their homes and dragged away their school books, someone to gather the information and hand it over to the Ministry with the promise that action will be taken soon, someone to instill some hope, hope that was thought lost a long time ago. At our briefing at the Ministry, when a STF officer handed out some gruesome and graphic photos of the bodies and the damage in Galle, he took them away the moment they touched my hands. He thought me too sensitive and unfit to see those pictures. ‘You’re a girl’ he told me, like I didn’t already know that all too well. Well this girl is helping. She is doing what she can.