The Indian Naval ship "Kutch", one of the Indian Military ressels involued in the relief effort at the Ashraff Jetty in Trincomalee. Picture by A.T.M. Gunaananda

Govt. slow boat for tsunami
A joke now doing the rounds in Colombo's social circuit speaks of how the Tsunami Monitoring Centre in Hawaii was trying to make contact with local officials in the early hours of Boxing Day, December 26. They first called the Meteorological Department in Colombo. There was no response. Then they rang the Monitoring Centre in Pallekele near Kandy. There was no response there too.

Exasperated officials later telephoned the office of a leading Government politician. He was out on his morning walk. An aide picked up the message from a Honolulu official. There was a tsunami coming from Indonesia.

On the politician's return, the aide told him about the phone call. He said he had been informed by the US that Tsunami from Indonesia was arriving in two hours. The politician acted promptly. He ordered a delegation to be sent to the Bandaranaike International Airport with a paging board that said "Welcome to Sri Lanka - Mr. Tsunami of Indonesia."

The joke did not end there. After the tsunami had unleashed its fury leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, there was more. The story did the rounds that the same politician was told that Powell was coming to Sri Lanka. The reference, of course, was to US Secretary of State Colin Powell. But the politician got it wrong. He issued orders to promptly alert the Navy and the Police to evacuate people from the coastal areas.

Jokes apart, these tales clearly underscore the confusion and chaos that reigned in the Government after the deadly tsunami struck. The immediate responses to the tragedy came not from any state agency or the armed forces but from civilians. They retrieved the bodies, rushed the injured to hospitals and even cleared debris. Many of them were also offering medication.

It took the Government exactly eight days to post policemen and troops to guard centres housing displaced persons. That came almost by chance. At a top-level conference in Colombo, the story of how a young girl was saved by a group of people was being talked of. Later, one of them had pulled the girl out from an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Centre and raped her. The distraught girl had to go out of that area to make a complaint at the Kalutara Police Station. It was immediately decided that security presence was essential at IDP centres.

Nine days after the catastrophe Military Co-ordinating Officers were appointed to the 12 districts affected. They are: Ampara- Colonel Jagath Dias, Batticaloa - Vajira Wijegoonawardana, Colombo - Brigadier P. Chandrawansa, Galle - Rear Admiral K.B. Tennekoon, Gampaha - Captain G.E. C. Jayawardena, Hambantota - Commodore S.R. Samaratunga, Jaffna - Major General S.D. Tennekoon, Kalutara - Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Matara - Major General Sharman Kulatunga, Puttalam - Colonel H.K. Gunarathne, Trincomalee -Major General Sumith Balasuriya and Vavuniya - Major General Parami Kulatunga.

The two measures - posting armed troops and policemen to IDP centres and the appointment of Military Co-ordinating Officers - no doubt has had a salutary effect. But the question remains why it came so late. It highlights the absence of any contingency mechanisms in place.

If President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was on a private visit to Britain, the Brahmins in the Ministry of Defence, who are quick to criticise the media from the comfort of their air-conditioned rooms, did little or nothing to take control of the situation. Hardly anything moved. Not until President Kumaratunga returned to the country and chaired a few conferences. Instead of a natural disaster, if it were to be a guerrilla attack, one would hate to imagine the consequences.

Last Tuesday I accompanied CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour on a tour of the affected areas in the Batticaloa district. Soon after Squadron Leader Waruna Senaratne touched down on a Chinese built Harbin Y 12 at the SLAF base, we drove out to be greeted by the swathe of destruction. Hundreds of houses have been razed to the ground forcing occupants to flee to hurriedly set up IDP centres.

I visited one of them at St Michael's College in the town. Nine days after the catastrophe, more than 2,200 men, women and children were crowded there. More were coming in. Seven to eight families were being huddled together in every classroom. The overflow occupied the corridors. Adults and children were sleeping only on sheets of newspaper spread on the floor. Children in particular were wailing for food. Private individuals had cooked food and served only one meal a day. The quantities, many complained to me, were only a handful and was inadequate.They were starving. There were only four toilets in the complex. Twelve temporary ones had just been put up.

With the deployment of a team of soldiers and police, the Government machinery had got into full gear at this school. This was only on the ninth day after the catastrophe. Local officials were busy compiling a register of all those displaced. They queued up to take their turn to give personal details and relate their tales of woe. Each one of them had a sad tale to relate. Some had lost their parents, others their children or loved ones. Almost all had lost their belongings and had come to the centre only with the clothes they were wearing.

As the registration process went on, I saw a multi-religious delegation arrive at the IDP centre. It comprised representatives of Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu clergy. They began an assessment of the needs of the displaced. It turned out that Government help had not yet arrived. That is nine days after the catastrophe. But the good news was that the machinery was now moving and help was not far off.

Unlike some of the other affected areas in the East, still inaccessible, Batticaloa was not. But the Government machinery had not moved. This was the case in most of the other affected areas including the South. This is underscored by the experience of the top most military officer responsible for Sri Lanka's security forces - Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri.

On Sunday (December 26), he turned up at his office in the Navy Headquarters to clear some urgent work. Minutes later, he received a telephone call from Deputy Eastern Naval Area Commander, Commodore Jayantha Colombage. He said there was an unnatural tide level. For a moment he pondered whether this was related to the full moon day (December 26) and was an astronomical tide. But Vice Admiral Sandagiri was told the water level had reached the floor of the office of the Commander, Eastern Naval Area - an approximate sea level rise of more than ten feet.

By then other reports about rising tidal waves were reaching Navy Headquarters from the South coast. Soon Defence Ministry and other Government officials were informed. Vice Admiral Sandagiri said on the first day itself the Army despatched 5,000 packets of food to the South. The Navy joined in by providing a further 3,000 packs. He said he inducted 500 sailors who had been awaiting their passing out on December 29 having completed their training. They had cleared the road from Boosa to Galle.

Vice Admiral Sandagiri said he visited Galle, Matara, Hambantota and Kirinda three days after the catastrophe. In Galle, he saw people stopping lorries loaded with relief supplies. They took away the items. He felt there was an immediate need to co-ordinate the supplies, he pointed out. In Hambantota, students from the Moratuwa University had already arrived and were engaged in relief operations. They were helping to move out to various areas supplies sent by private parties and NGOs. A weekly Pola held on Sundays drew large crowds. This time the vendors and those who came there were all gone.

In Kirinda, Vice Admiral Sandagiri said, the Naval Sub Unit was no more. The only structure that remained was a small building. The Officers' Mess was no more and the billets that accommodated soldiers had virtually disappeared. He said arrangements were being made to re-build the camp.

It is in this backdrop that President Kumaratunga last Tuesday named three different task forces - one for rescue and relief (TAFRER), one for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN) and the other for Logistics, Law and Order (TAFLOL). The first is chaired by Dr Tara de Mel, the second by Mano Tittawella and the third by Tilak Ranaviraja.

If these task forces are vested with responsibilities relating to state and private agencies locally, co-ordination of all foreign relief teams has been placed in the hands of the Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES), Tilak Ranaviraja. He is also Secretary to the Ministry of Public Security, Law and Order. Mr Ranaviraja also chairs the Task Force on Logistics, Law and Order.

In his capacity as Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES), the responsibility of co-ordinating all assistance provided by military teams from several countries has fallen on him. Conspicuously the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, former North-East Governor, retired Major General Asoka Jayawardena, has not been named for any of these committees.

Among the foreign military teams with which Mr. Ranaviraja is now co-ordinating activity are those from the United States, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, France, Israel, Italy, Britain and Canada. In addition CDS Vice Admiral Sandagiri is also holding daily meetings with some of the Defence Attaches who represent countries that have sent military teams.

Besides military teams, several other countries have also despatched relief/medical teams. They include those from Austria, Australia, Abu Dhabi, Belgium, Thailand, Brazil, Bahrain, Dubai, Egypt, Germany, Holland, Japan, Korea, Kenya, Malaysia, Oman, Spain, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Slovakia, Turkey and Tanzania.

Now, slowly but surely relief is pouring into the affected areas. But the biggest question for the Government still remains. It has to ensure they reach the needy and does not end up in unscrupulous hands.

Navy to rebuild fisheries industry
The Government has called upon the Sri Lanka Navy to undertake an urgent multi million rupee fibre glass boat (FGB) building project. This is to help fishermen who have lost their boats and thus their livelihood in the North, East and the South due to the tsunami catastrophe.

"These boats, 17 foot and 27 foot long, will be manufactured in Colombo, Trincomalee and Galle," Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri told The Sunday Times. He said in terms of a Cabinet decision, the Navy would undertake the boat-building project on a priority basis.

Besides building new boats, Vice Admiral Sandagiri said Naval teams are also being assigned to visit coastal areas to repair damaged boats. For this purpose, statistics of repairable boats are now being collected by Navy Headquarters.

In an interview with The Sunday Times Vice Admiral Sandagiri answered questions relating to the tsunami and the relief efforts now being carried out by the security forces. Here are excerpts:

On reports that the Navy had received a tsunami warning from a monitoring centre in Hawaii:

This is utter rubbish. There was no such thing. In fact some were trying to extend this rumour further by saying I had told a foreign TV net-work that I was aware of a warning. Thereafter even a local newspaper reported on this. There is absolutely no truth in this.

Appointment of Military Co-ordinating Officers for affected districts:

Usually Military Co-ordinating Officers are appointed when the Government machinery at district level fails. But this one is different. These MCOs have been tasked to work closely with the Divisional Secretaries (Government Agents) who have been appointed as Competent Authorities. The primary task is to ensure the proper co-ordination of relief supplies. MCOs have assigned armed forces officers to be in charge of a cluster of camps housing internally displaced persons. It is the latter's responsibility to report on the shortcomings to their respective MCOs. They in turn will keep the Divisional Secretaries briefed.

The MCOs are vested with full powers to deal with any situation. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga already directed that the Divisional Secretaries should meet every day with the MCOs to discuss the prevailing situation and take whatever action necessary to overcome problems.

On restoration of normalcy:
Armed forces and Police functioning under the MCOs have been told to provide whatever assistance required in this regard. One task before the Navy is the commencement of a priority project to build fibreglass boats for use by fisherman. In addition we are also sending out teams to coastal fishing villages to carry out on-the-spot repairs on boats damaged. We want to make sure the fishing industry returns to normal without much delay.

I must make clear that the deployment of armed forces personnel is by no means a military takeover. Their role is to assist the civilian authorities. We are also helping the Police in the maintenance of law and order.
This is why troops have been deployed in camps housing displaced persons. We want to ensure they are protected.

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