Update from Sri Lanka

by Shiranee Pararajasingham, April 4, 2005

It is with much sadness that I have begun saying goodbye to the wonderful people I have met during my stay here in Vanni.  It is so true that time flies when you are having a good time.  This is my final update before I return home in a week.

People have been very warm and gracious in sharing their stories with me.  Every person I met had a story – they had lost at least one (usually more) family member either in the war or as a result of the Tsunami.  Displacement has thrust them into poverty.  It is interesting how they’d go to the trouble of explaining how well off they were before the war/Tsunami. 

All the Tsunami victims have now been moved into temporary shelters by the TRO which is a very basic structure – one room and verandah, communal baths/toilets.  The shelters are built only 7 meters apart from each other – no privacy at all.  They cook outside on an open fire.  The children in these compounds seem reasonably happy, but some have not gone back to school yet.  This is probably because they are left with one parent (or none) and have no guidance and support to get them back to school.  Many school buildings were destroyed by the wave.  Some of the students gather under trees in the school compound for lessons.  I have enjoyed sitting cross-legged on a mat and chatting with these newly resettled families.

Most are happy with the assistance they have received, but TRO is not without its share of disgruntled beneficiaries.  They are unhappy that they have not been given boats and fishing equipment yet – they are not able to comprehend the mamoth task that TRO is faced with.  I had to explain to them that TRO itself relied on donations from the Tamil diaspora and had very little money to work with.  Some were also annoyed with people like me (incl. myself!) who come, chat to them and go away leaving them ‘empty handed.’  I hope they understood when I said that my aim was to go back and publicise their plight and get more donations so TRO could do more for them.  I could easily have caused a riot if I started handing out money.

It is very clear that people are emotionally disturbed and the men in particular seem lost and helpless.  Some are not coping well with their ‘altered’ social status and stress that they owned big houses with their own generators, a couple of boats, trucks, etc. before the Tsunami. 

Tamil funeral customs are fairly eloborate and there is a lot of trauma relating to people not having been able to perform the burial/cremation rites for their loved ones who died in the Tsunami.  In a sort of compensating gesture there were several memorial functions held on the 90th day of the Tsunami, a couple of which I attended.  At one such service I met a 45 yr old lady who was terminally ill.  She said she lost her husband and all 3 kids in the disaster – she cannot work out why she was spared and can only attribute it to ‘karma.’  At one of the shelters I met a man who kept thrusting this photo of his family (all perished) at me repeating "thanichu ponan" (I am left alone).  He had scribbled the names of his family on the door of his shelter.  In the adjoining shelter there was a young widow with 3 kids with sad vacant eyes. 

I have lots of photos, but there have been occasions when I have felt it inappropriate to take photos.  I have given up trying to make sense of these people’s misery.  It has been an emotionally draining experience, but very enriching at the same time.

Sumathi is a student teacher at the English College run by the TRO.  I always spoke English when conversing with Sumathi so she’d get some practice.  Whenever she reverted to Tamil I would keep speaking English until one day, exasperated she said "Akka, can we speak Tamil because I want to ‘talk’ to you."  She then poured out her story.  She had lost two brothers in the war and her family had been displaced several times.  Her older sister fell in love with an LTTE soldier and married him which threw her parents into further despair.  Sumathi said she tries to remember the times when her mother was happy (before the death of her brothers).  She seems desperate for her parent’s happiness.  Interestingly, she didn’t refer to her own grief.

I have been visiting a few of the Nutritional Centres run by the TRO.  These are places set up in remote villages where malnourished mothers and babies are cared for until the baby reaches an acceptable weight.  A mobile doctor visits the centres weekly.  The dormitories that house the mothers and children are mud huts with thatched roofs which often collapse during the monsoon season.  There is a chart of recommended nutritional meals up on the wall, but they can’t often afford to follow that chart.  TRO allocates only Rs. 25,000 (A$320) per month to each centre for food.  This is far from adequate and the kids often go without basic necessities such as milk.  With donations from family in Sydney I have arranged to buy 2 cows each for 2 of the centres and 200 chickens for another and also paid for the construction of a hen house.  This will now provide enough milk and eggs for the centres and any excess will be sold. 

The needs are endless.  These centres are also refuges for abused women.  I met a 14 yr old mother who has been abandoned by her parents for bringing shame on the family by becoming pregnant out of wedlock!  The man who promised to marry her has absconded.  The centres provide training (cottage industries) for these mothers who are often illerate, so they will have a skill and are able to earn a living when they leave.

This email is going out to friends and family in over 9 countries.  Some of you have worked tirelessly for TRO over the past 20 years.  Having lived and worked amongst these people I can tell you without a doubt that your efforts are not in vain.  You’d never find a more dedicated bunch of people such as those working for TRO.  They work long days and have a ‘makkalukaha" (‘for the people’) attitude in everything they do.

On a lighter note……

Sleeping-in is not a choice we have in this part of the world – the cockadoodledo usually starts around 4.30 and goes on until around 6am when the last lazy rooster decides to join in!  I am usually up and out of bed by 5.30am with absolutely nothing to do until I leave for work at 8am.  I lie in the hammock under the mango tree until the sun is up and scorching, around 7am.  One of our neighbours must have managed to buy some batteries for his radio – he thinks nothing of sharing his choice of Tamil music with the entire neighbourhood from about 5am and then again late into the night.  He plays the music so loud that it is really horrible and distorted.

I ride about 2km to work along a dirt road bordered by beautiful paddy fields on one side.  The fields were dry and brown when I arrived in February, but are now being ploughed and prepared for ‘Siru Poham" (low season) cultivation.  It is sad to see young boys who should be at school working in the fields.  For farmers who cannot afford to pay for labour, this is the next best thing – to have their children help in the field.  Very young girls bring cooked food to the field for their fathers and brothers at lunchtime.

I am going to miss everyone here so much, particularly the 3 young boys in our compound who insist on doing a ‘full service’ on my bike each morning!!  All I need is to have the rear tyres inflated a little.  They love tinkering with bikes and I seem to have provided them with the perfect toy.

Kate is another Aussie volunteer sharing the house with me.  She arrived 3 weeks ago and plans on staying for 6 months teaching English.  We both have a session of debriefing at the end of each day, which is great.  I have been translating for Kate both in the neighbourhood and at the orphanage where we teach together on Sundays.  She is now hurriedly writing down Tamil phrases that she can use after I am gone.  It's been a lot of fun and I will miss Kate, too.

This incredible experience would not have been possible if not for the support and encouragement of my immediate and extended family.  My employers were generous in allowing me 5 weeks ADDITIONAL leave as part of their Tsunami relief effort.  I was therefore able to save some of my leave and hope to come back again, maybe late next year.

See (some of) you soon...

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Posted April 13, 2005