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Kick Starting Recovery in Vaharai

by Patrick Fuller, International Federation of the Red Cross, June 12, 2007

Families from Uriyankaddu who returned to their homes in March found many of the new houses that had been rebuilt after the tsunami lying in ruins. Mahan's former temporary shelter had taken a direct hit from a shell. All that remains is a scorched cement foundation...

"Most people returned to find that their homes and livelihoods had been looted or destroyed," explains Ben Mountfield, country coordinator with the British Red Cross. "There is no local market to speak of so there is an urgent need to bridge the food gap for a few months until people can re-establish their livelihoods"

As he rocks his baby's cradle and fans away the ever persistent flies, 26 year old Mathan talks calmly about the fears he has for his family's future. "We lost everything to the tsunami and when the fighting started we lost everything all over again. My home is gone, my fishing boat and nets have been stolen and now I have another mouth to feed"

The temperature in Mahan's makeshift hut is stifling. The sun beats down relentlessly on the corrugated iron roof. A ragged tarpaulin serving as a wall flaps idly in the wind. Barely two months old, his daughter sleeps peacefully in her wicker bed which hangs suspended by rope from the rafters of the hut. Apart from the cradle there is little evidence that the hut is inhabited by a family of four. A sleeping mat lies rolled up in a corner and some clothes hang on a nylon line strung across the hut.

Map courtesy TamilNet, January 1, 2007

Mathan's village, Uriyankuddu, lies in the Vaharai region of Sri Lanka's north eastern district of Batticaloa. Vaharai - a 15 km peninsula sandwiched between the sea and an inland lagoon - is a former frontline area captured by government forces in January after months of heavy fighting with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Like most of Vaharai - Uriyankuddu has suffered considerable hardship. Most of the houses in the village were destroyed in the 2004 tsunami. In September 2005 an escalation in the conflict coupled with growing economic hardship led the German and Hong Kong Red Cross Societies to support World Food Programme distributions in the area. Volunteers of the Sri Lanka Red Cross organized many of the distributions but access soon became difficult and by January the area's entire population had left. Families from Uriyankaddu who returned to their homes in March found many of the new houses that had been rebuilt after the tsunami lying in ruins. Mahan's former temporary shelter had taken a direct hit from a shell. All that remains is a scorched cement foundation.

It was only recently that the Red Cross has been able to get regular access to the area. Across the road from Mathan's hut the foundations and half built walls of 58 houses built by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are visible in the encroaching jungle. One of the houses is intended for Mahan's family but work on the site stopped last September when it became too dangerous for the building contractors to reach the site. Plans are now in place to resume work and complete the project by the end of the year.

"The needs here are particularly acute", explains Paul Emes, deputy head of the International Federation in Sri Lanka. "This community has not known stability since before the tsunami and providing them with a permanent home is one of our main priorities"

Mathan's neighbour – 48 year old Sothi Malar faces difficulties of her own. She returned to find that her five goats and all her chickens had been looted. Having lost her husband to the war in 1997 she is largely supported by her son and also receives a government 'poor allowance' which amounts to 120 Rupees (1.5 Swiss francs or US$1.20) each month. Survival for Sothi Malar is a day to day affair. She has borrowed money from neighbours and pawned her remaining jewelry to get some cash. The exodus from Uriyankuddu was particularly traumatic for her. "We spent three days trekking through the jungle," she said. "Sometimes we had to wade up to our chests through lagoons and rivers to avoid the fighting – four people from our village drowned."

The returnees are slowly rebuilding their lives. Some are living in tents provided by the government while others have managed to reconstruct the remains of their original tsunami shelters. All are dependent on outside support. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) together with the British Red Cross and volunteers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross recently conducted an assessment of household economies in 16 villages in the Vaharai area. "Most people returned to find that their homes and livelihoods had been looted or destroyed," explains Ben Mountfield, country coordinator with the British Red Cross. "There is no local market to speak of so there is an urgent need to bridge the food gap for a few months until people can re-establish their livelihoods"

The assessment has led to a three month relief operation that is targeting the entire returnee population of Vaharai – about 14,500 people. Items such as cooking pots, hurricane lamps and hygiene kits are already being distributed and in place of direct food distributions, the British Red Cross is setting up bank accounts for each household into which a monthly sum will be paid that covers their food needs. At the same time productive assets will be replaced so that livelihoods linked to fishing, masonry, tailoring and livestock rearing can resume.

"The idea is to kick-start the local economy in a way that doesn't depress the local market," explains Mountfield. "After a few months we will start a more substantial programme that strengthens and diversifies local livelihoods. We will also be looking at rebuilding the divisional structures of the Sri Lanka Red Cross"

Since the fighting ceased, the Red Cross has also been able to return to run the health post at Vaharai Hospital, the only functioning health facility in the area. Five days a week Dr D.A. Matthews of the Sri Lanka Red Cross travels up from Batticaloa with his small team to conduct outpatient clinics at the hospital. "We serve a catchment of about 10,000 people and on average I see about 80 patients a day. We have plenty to keep us busy here," he explains.

Dr. Matthews has been with the Mobile Health Unit since January 2005 when the Italian Red Cross first established an emergency health post at the hospital to treat casualties of the tsunami. As well as supporting the hospital, the Italian Red Cross also funds two mobile health teams which provide outreach medical services to camps in Vaharai and Batticaloa that house internally displaced people (IDPs) who have fled the conflict.

At the Savukadi IDP camp the mobile team from Batticaloa has been hard at work for four hours and still the queue of patients snakes outside the tent where the clinic has been set up. There are 2,000 people living here and the weekly visit of the medical team provides the only regular opportunity to receive medical care. Despite the long queue the clinic is well organized. Once each patient is registered they wait in line to see the doctor. Those who need a prescription go to the pharmacist at the next table while others might be referred to one of the volunteer nurses for First Aid treatment.

According to Jeya, project coordinator with the Italian Red Cross, conditions in the camps give rise to a number of common health problems. "We treat a lot of cases of gastro-enteritis, and communicable diseases associated with poor hygiene such as skin disease and eye infections. The dust also causes respiratory problems"

For the Red Cross, the prevailing security situation in Batticaloa has meant that some post tsunami recovery programmes have been put on hold while the focus has shifted to meeting emergency humanitarian needs. Even though the population of Vaharai has returned, continued fighting in western areas of Batticaloa district has meant that over 100,000 people still remain displaced from their homes, either living with host families or in camps such as Savukadi.

"In some areas of Vaharai we're on track to resume tsunami projects again," explains Paul Emes, "in other places the situation is more complicated particularly where there are uncleared minefields and unexploded ordinance which prevent us from working and which make life difficult for returnees whose livelihoods depend on farming."