by Vithya Balasubramaniam
Three weeks ago, I had planned to visit Sri Lanka with 52 other students from all over the world to do some service work in the war-torn areas. And for the first few days of my trip, I actually managed to visit a few orphanages and spend some time with the children and those who have become disabled due to the war.
But on December 26, my optimism on the country's restoration from war all changed in a second. That day, around noon, a group of friends and I were driving east towards the coast from the Kilinochchi. I vividly remember a tractor pulling up right in front of us and stopping about 5 ft in front of me. I initially thought the group of people lying in the tractor were sleeping, but when I looked closer, a man was foaming at the mouth and no one was moving. There was a little girl piled up on top of the man in a pink and white dress and about 4 more bodies next to them. I stood there frozen, not able to take my eyes off the bodies, wondering if war had started again.
As the tractor started pulling away, we were told that there was a bit of a flood on the coast and we had to turn around so more bodies and ambulances could come inland. We went back, everyone wondering how badly the flood affected the villages, and me unable to erase the image of the bodies from my mind.
The next morning, we heard that the flood had hit the whole coast of Sri Lanka and that there was extensive damage. We immediately split up into groups and were assigned to different displacement centers. We all opened up our suitcases and offered anything we could - clothes, soap, towels, and food to bring with us.
The displacement centers were all schools in the area that were set up by Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO). Some had 900 people, some had 100 people. The conditions of the schools all varied. Some had toilet facilities and a well to bathe in, but some had neither toilets, nor an area to wash. Some people had mats to sleep on and some just slept on the hard concrete floor. In the evening, we went to one school that held 15-17 families in each classroom with only 3 small candles in each classroom. I was not even able to see their faces while speaking with them. Everyone was sitting in a small cramped area in the same clothes that they almost drowned in the day before.
One woman recalled the previous day with tears as she explained that, as she was swimming through the water with her baby in her hands, the current was so strong that it pulled her clothes off. As she reached over to grab some cloth to cover herself, her baby got pulled away from her by the current.
One ten year-old girl was crying as she explained to me that both her parents had died in the flood and she now had the responsibility of raising her four other brothers and sisters.
One man sat there expressionless. As I gave him some food, he told me he went out of town for the day. He came back and found his house, wife and children all gone.
The following day, we went to Mullutivu, which has a death toll of about 3,300 from a population of 15,000. The houses were completely torn apart. A massive cargo truck was sitting on trees. The local people were still trying to find bodies under the rubble. The bodies they were finding were partly white because the force and heat of the water had peeled off their skin. The lack of proper disaster recovery equipment was evident as the bodies were just piled into more tractors. TRO and the local people did their best to work efficiently and effectively with the minimal supplies they had. Almost 3 days passed before I saw the first NGO truck in the area.
I came back to the capital a few days later and started reading the headlines, the Sri Lankan army accusing the LTTE of hijacking aid and the LTTE accusing the Sri Lankan army of doing the same. Random civilians were coming up to the relief trucks and openly grabbing boxes and running away to sell them. And probably the worst, orphaned girls and children being raped in the displacement camps. They could be the same girls that I spent time with drawing pictures in the sand and singing songs with right after the disaster - the same girls that clung to me as I said goodbye and promised to write when they returned to an actual home.
The walls of the few remaining buildings in Mullutivu had something very distinctive about them that caught my eye as I left the town. They were covered in bullet holes. The people of the Tamil-administered areas in Sri Lanka have suffered for 20 years in war, being displaced out of their homes, being injured, and losing loved ones. The cease-fire, which has been in effect the past 3 years, has finally put a light at the end of the tunnel, allowing them to finally start rebuilding their lives. And in a few minutes, it was all taken away from them again.
These civilians are no longer just victims of politics and war, they are victims of Mother Nature. Unfortunately, politics will always exist, and along with the agony of losing everything to a natural disaster, these victims are not receiving sufficient aid due to politics. It took almost 3 days for any type of outside aid to come into the Tamil-Administered areas and 7 days for the first media coverage in the area.
The victims in these areas are still victims of the same disaster. Shouldn't they be treated equally? Sri Lanka is not a united nation and needs all the help possible. So, please, imagine yourself in the position of a simple human being, who has lost everything that took a whole lifetime to obtain.
If you wish to contribute to the relief, please do so through Tamil Rehabilitation Organization www.trousa.org or International Medical Health Organization http://imhousa.org.
And please do not think that you may not have enough. Anything is worth something. It only costs 10 cents to buy a bar of soap and less than a dollar for satisfying meal.
If you would like more details or more ways to help, please contact me at VithyPonnu@aol.com
Posted January 13, 2005