Give Me a Boat, I Will Rebuild my Life Says Shanmugam 

Part 2: Rehabilitation 

by T. Sabaratnam 

"Give me a boat, I will rebuild my life," said prawn fisherman Sritharan Shunmugan when a needs assessment team in Kilinochchi asked him about his requirements. 

"I donít want anyone to give me anything. I donít want to live in charity. Give me a boat, I will rebuild the shattered life of my family," he repeated to a thrilled group of doctors who conducted the assessment.  

Shanmugam was from Mulliyawalai and he was doing well before the killer tsunami reduced him to a state of penury. He lost two children. His lost his house. He lost his wealth. He also lost his boat. 

"My eldest son was not at home. He had gone to a neighbourís house. We still donít know what happened to him.

When the first wave surged I sensed the disaster," he said. "I caught my daughter with the right hand and the second son, the youngest, with the left and ran inland, shouting to my wife to follow me," he told the investigating team. "We managed the second wave too, but the third was a giant. It threw us up with tremendous force. My youngest child slipped out of my hand. We recovered his body. Now, I am left with my wife and the second child." 

Shanmugam, wife Kalanithi and his 4-year-old daughter Vilasini have got over the initial shock.. He told the medical team that examined him, "It should not have happened, but it happened. What to do? We must live with that. I must bring up the daughter. For that I need a boat." 

Anthony Gerard, 39, was another survivor who asked for a boat. He was preparing his net when the tsunami swept in, pushing him 200 yards and slamming him into the roof of a house. "I caught a beam and hung on it. I found my wife's body jammed under a bus. My daughter is still missing," he said. Even so, Gerard said, he and his son will rebuild their home and go back to fishing. "We need a boat," he said.  

Nanda Kumar, 36, said, whatever their initial reaction, the fishermen are now determined to go back to the sea. "They have to, if they are to rebuild their lives. There's no other place for them, they work in the sea," he said.

The medical team that made a comprehensive assessment of the displaced persons in a welfare centre in Kilinochchi said most of them had got over the grief-reaction.

"We found that the majority of them are not brooding over the loss of members of their families or possessions. They have got over that. That is a good sign," a doctor from that medical team said.

He attributed the quick recovery from the psychological trauma to the difficult life the people of the northeast lived during the war years. Sudden disruption in life is normal to them. They are also accustomed to displacement and refugee life. 

"Their attitude to life is positive. They want to rebuild their lives. They donít want to be dependent on charity or the dole," Doctor S. Yogenthiran, who came down from Britain to work with the displaced, said. 

Dr. Yogenthiran said the nutritional status of the refugees was satisfactory and their heath was good. Most of the injured had been treated and the wounds were healing fast. 

The injuries the tsunami victims suffered were mostly cuts from the thorns in the stems of the palmyrah leaves and bruises when the waves jammed them against tress and buildings. Serious injuries were few. 

The medical team found that the refugees were well looked after. They get enough food, sufficient clothing and the required medicines. 

Dr. Yogenthiran said the LTTE and the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) had looked after them well. They had acted promptly, efficiently.

"Most of the victims from Mullaitivu told us that Sea Tigers, led by its chief Soosai, were at the beachfront even before the waves receded. They helped to save several persons from the wave that dragged them into the ocean," he said. Sea Tigers and other fighting formations worked like a well-oiled machine, victims told the medical teams. They searched the rubble of row upon row of houses that were flattened for bodies trapped underneath.

They found shelter for them and clothed and fed them. They completed this phase of their work within three days, survivors said. 

Tigers and the TRO are now working on the second phase - providing temporary shelter and making the survivors active. Thus, the current needs of the affected persons are decent temporary dwellings and the assistance to put them back to work. Then most of the affected persons will rebuild their lives which will be the third and final phase. 

Trincomalee Tiger Commander Sornam who visited the five welfare centres in the badly hit Eechilampattu village defined the parameters of these phases clearly.  "We cannot keep the displaced languishing in welfare centres. That will make them lazy and unproductive," he told a planning session held on Tuesday at the Divisional Secretariat office.

"We are going to settle them in temporary dwellings and put them back to work. They will then rebuild their lives with the assistance of well-wishers and the international community could provide. We need money to buy tents and materials to put up temporary sheds. For that we need huge amount of money,í he said. 

Similar sentiments were expressed by TRO officials. "We must not make an active community like the fishing population aid dependent. We must energize them. We must make them active," said A. Sivagnanasutharam, a TRO project officer overseeing a welfare centre in Mulliavalai in the Mullaitivu district. "We'll send them to temporary residences and provide them with dry rations. They must return to their former family life," he added.

The NorthEast lost 19,134 persons, nearly two-thirds of the 30,513 persons killed by the killer wave on December 26. The number of missing persons in the NorthEast is 11,416. The number of displaced persons in the NorthEast is 61,255. And 380 of the 751 camps or temporary shelters in the country are in the northeast.    

TRO is now involving the displaced persons in rehabilitation activities. They are now spraying disinfectant in the affected areas, cleaning up the wells and chlorinating them. They are gradually taking over the tasks the LTTE fighters did instead of confining themselves to cooking meals in the camp and squatting in the shade under trees.  

The Tigers have banned the rebuilding of houses along the coast and are planning to allocate lands inland. The Sri Lanka government has banned building within 300 meters of the coast, but the Tamil Eelam administration is considering banning buildings up to 500 meters.

Rebuilding the demolished and damaged houses is going to be costly affair. The Sri Lanka Central Bank has estimated the cost at Rs. 13 billion to rebuild the 100,000 homes wiped out islandwide. More than half the number of these houses are in the NorthEast. 

The majority of the affected persons belong to the fishing community. Except those who live in the stretch from Chilaw to Mannar, all the other fishermen have been affected. The estimated loss to Sri Lankaís fishing industry has been computed at Rs. 30 billion. The major portion of this loss is to the fishermen of the NorthEast.  

Thousands of fisher families have to rebuild their lives from scratch. and they want to live close to the sea to enable them to carry out their activities like beaching boats, mending nets and drying fish.

The resettlement plan the Tigers are now devising will take all these factors into consideration, Tiger officials said. "Tamil Eelam fishing industry has almost been wiped out.

In Mullaitivu, there were about 1500 fishing boats. Now, only 12 are seaworthy," Soosai, said. "Reviving the fishing industry is our major task. We need help from our brethren abroad and the international community," he said. 

The situation in other parts of the northeastern coast is no better. Hundreds of fishing boats have been destroyed, forcing the fisher families to totally rebuild their lives from scratch, fisheries sources said.

Fishing Ministry officials said 10 of the country's 12 co-operative fishery harbours were damaged.

More than a million fishermen in the NorthEast have lost their livelihoods officials said. About 80% of fishing boats there are believed to have been destroyed.

Education, health, roads are the other sectors that need urgent attention.  

Two hundred and seventy one schools in the northeast coastal areas have been destroyed or damaged, said North East Provincial Education Ministry Secretary Thiagalinkam in a report to the Provincial Ministry for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. Of them, about 50 schools have been completely washed away.

The Education Ministry will construct a few buildings, but building the schools to cater the advanced needs of the present era is a task for the expatriate community. 

The Secretary said an urgent appeal has been made to the Ministry of Education to allocate a sum of 135.5 million rupees to effect repairs and rehabilitate these schools. Teams of officials are collecting statistics about the number of students, teachers, principals and non-academic staff who have lost their lives, and the number of students who have lost their school uniforms and school textbooks. Survey teams are also assessing the damages caused to the infrastructure of schools, education offices and official quarters, furniture, equipment and vehicles.

Several hospitals have been damaged. The Thileepan Mobile Health Service has provided relief to the displaced persons in most of the remote areas. The Tamil Eelam Health Service possesses sufficient capacity to look after the needs of the displaced persons. A Tamil Eelam health official said they donít need expatriate or foreign doctors.

Thamilselvan also told that to the international community. "What we need is expertise in certain fields. Just now, we need psychiatrists and psychologists to do counseling," he told the media.  

Worrying about the spread of disease, Tamil soldiers shot dogs scrabbling through the debris and around rotting bodies.  

Tiger cadres are being used to repair bridges and roads vital to maintain transportation. "Our resources are already stretched to the maximum possible limit. This is an area where we need assistance," Kugan who was overseeing the road repair activity in the Mullaitivu district, said.  

Vast stretches of the coastal roads in the Northeastern Province have been washed away. 

According to the information available in Kilinochchi the urgent needs are:

(Please see the list of priority items needed posted by the TRO on 

An official in Kilinochchi appealed to the expatriate well-wishers not to waste their energy and money in sending clothes and other materials not needed by the people, but to provide monetary help.  "We will buy what we need. Donít send us things which we may have to bury," he said.

I was touched by a TV shot which showed an elderly lady opening a parcel of garments given to her, scanning the used frocks one by one and throwing them away into the nearby shrub with tearing eyes. She had no use for them. Her daughter and grandchildren had been washed away.


Posted January 7, 2005