the tsunami: Seenigama children have something to smile about
By Palitha Kohona
I had, with millions around the world, watched with helpless horror
as TV screens were flooded with the images of those ferocious waves
crashing in to sea walls, gushing past swimming pools, smashing
buildings and dragging buses and cars like children's toys while
hapless men, women and children were engulfed in furious torrents
of water and debris. Later the same media showed a benumbed world,
piles of bodies rotting in the tropical sun or bobbing in rivers,
lakes and harbours amidst garbage. I desperately wanted to do something
but the opportunity was slow in coming.
Piyatissa of the New York Buddhist Vihara (temple) who had been
quietly organising relief supplies for the tsunami victims in Sri
Lanka requested me to visit the proposed "Lama Pura" -
a project being undertaken by the International Vihara (IV) Foundation
of New York to assist a group of children orphaned by the tsunami.
The project had the blessings of the Sri Lankan authorities. Having
arrived in Sri Lanka on a private visit, I grabbed this opportunity
and joined a group of local volunteers of the IV Foundation, led
by the formidable Ven Dhammasoka, whose enthusiasm and commitment
was overwhelmingly infectious. These volunteers were spending their
time and money in developing the Lama Pura project and I was immediately
absorbed in to the group. They needed the assistance of every one.
set off towards Galle on a day that was perhaps very much like that
fateful Boxing Day. A blue sky seamlessly merged with a warm sea.
The beach glistened in the sun soothed by a gentle breeze. The waves,
a little rough, were breaking up in arches of spluttering foam,
as is normal in the pre monsoonal period. The road to Galle was
bustling with activity. The markets were full and the traffic annoyingly
slow and noisy. It was difficult to imagine that on a Sunday morning
not too long ago this was a massive watery grave. (Over 34,000 perished
and in excess of 4000 are still unaccounted for). At first, only
a few ruins adjoining the beach seemed to tell a different story.
Many buildings were actually being repaired. And business was proceeding
briskly in the midst of the reconstruction, creating the impression
of a community rapidly returning to normality.
all changed as the miles sped by.
A sense of incomprehensible devastation began to unfold overcoming
earlier thoughts of complacency. For mile after mile, only cemented
foundations remained where once people's homes stood and families
lived. There was one house where only the marble topped kitchen
bench remained. The odd house that suffered only superficial damage
was being repaired. Of these, there were only a few. Some houses
were boarded up suggesting that some one with a claim was still
alive. Sadly, many a damaged house appeared to be totally abandoned
- perhaps, no one survived even to board them up. The doors flapped
sadly in the wind for someone to return to their home. Some had
erected tents on top of the remaining foundations. But five months
after the tsunami, hundreds, perhaps thousands still lived in small
tents supplied by the relief agencies. In the pre monsoonal heat
and humidity, life in these tents must be hell. Life would be impossible
once the torrential monsoon arrived in a few weeks. Their toilette
facilities were minimal and water was obtained from black plastic
tanks located at regular intervals along the main road by aid agencies.
Many of the occupants of these tents had lived in decent homes previously.
had been on this road before and there was one noticeable change.
The usual crowds of children splashing in the surf were nowhere
to be seen. The beaches were strangely devoid of people. The larger
tourist hotels were beginning to reopen for business but many of
the smaller establishments that lined the shore remained closed
or abandoned. The tourist industry had collapsed completely. Wrecks
of large fishing boats were strewn everywhere. In Galle itself,
only the concrete shell of the fish market remained. Galle's picturesque
cricket ground, where Warne captured his five hundredth wicket,
was overgrown and the stands were wrecked. The central bus station
where television images showed large buses being dragged away by
the waves was almost back to normal. Large banners along the road
to Galle expressed the gratitude of the populace for the immediate
response of certain countries in the face of Sri Lanka's tsunami
crisis. Italy's Protectione Civile was still assisting at the Galle
Hospital. Belgian military medical specialists and Australia's AUSAID
personnel were remembered fondly.
government has just identified six companies, which will be assigned
the task of constructing 60,000 houses. (97,000 are estimated to
have been damaged). President Clinton's appointment as Special Coordinator
for the rebuilding effort will certainly expedite the process.
and international civil servants attached to aid agencies were very
much in evidence along the road to Galle and were the main customers
of the fancy hotels in the South. One couldn't but notice their
SUVs on the congested roads, giving rise to rumblings of resentment
that the millions donated by well meaning individuals around the
world were being spent on keeping these international civil servants
and NGO staff comfortable.
Seenigama village, where many of the children being supported by
the IV Foundation were from, had suffered enormously. This was a
village, though not very poor had not been very rich either. But
the villagers had led a relatively comfortable life. The tsunami
had changed all that. Many of the bread winners did not survive
and a large number of the women who carried a heavy burden in their
families were also gone. There were so many children without parents.
One little girl could hardly raise a smile - she had lost both parents.
There was a curtain of pain on her innocent face. Another twelve
year old boy was now nick-named hero, "weeraya". He had
dragged his little sister to safety and then struggled to save his
mother. The little girl hardly left his side now. This twelve year
old constantly regretted that he could not help his grandmother
and aunt as they were swept away. The kids in the village appeared
to be genuinely happy to see the visitors from the IV Foundation.
(They had been visiting regularly). The Buddhist nuns working with
the foundation had played a seminal role in restoring the confidence
of these children. Perhaps the visitors were a welcome diversion
from the torment of their memories.
day after the visit of the volunteers, 120 of these children with
their carerers were taken to the Colombo Zoo by the IV Foundation.
The children genuinely enjoyed this outing. It was interesting how
two kids who were not orphaned by the tsunami but with whose families
some tsunami orphans had been placed, also asked to come on the
trip to the Zoo. This seemed to highlight another emerging problem.
They were not rich kids and their families could not have afforded
to take them to the Zoo. It is possible that these children might
begin to resent the excessive attention that the tsunami orphans
were receiving. In trying to solve an immediate problem, the IV
Foundation may be confronted by another.
IV Foundation group also visited the land allocated to them for
building the "Lama Pura" - a village focused on these
children. Lama Pura will be on this 50 acre block, originally part
of a run down plantation owned by the government. Considerable resources
will be required to build this multi purpose complex which will
consist of accommodation for the children and the carerers, a health
facility and an education complex. These facilities will cater to
community needs as well. Subsequently, more resources by way of
funding and skilled personnel, including full time staff, will be
necessary to run these facilities effectively. Teachers, doctors
and nursing staff will be required and volunteers will help to keep
costs down. Already a sponsorship scheme for the children has been
established. With the abundant enthusiasm and goodwill of the volunteers,
the goals of the Foundation would seem to be achievable. As to whether
its efforts will suffice to return the smile to that little girl's
face, it is too early to predict. But their efforts will certainly
make her life's struggles a little easier.
writer, originally from Matale and formerly with the Department
of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, is now attached to the
United Nations in New York. (Further details from email@example.com)