Volume 18 Number 3
After the Tsunami
01 June 2005
How are people in Galle, Sri Lanka, picking up the pieces following the disaster in December? Mark Perera finds out.
Sunlight sears through the open car window as I travel down the Galle Road on Sri Lanka's southern coast. Houses rest silently in the shade of coconut trees guarding the roadside; the landscape whispering secrets of beauty and mystery, as we tear through the morning traffic.
We begin to see tents. First one, alone; then more, jostling for position amongst uprooted trees, and defeated architecture. Suddenly more; orderly, banal. Palaces of loss housing the victims of 26 December's tsunami. Weary eyes gaze back at us. I catch a glimpse of the sea through a break in the trees, and turn once more to eye with disbelief the canvasses that have replaced the villages lost to its dark power.
Two months after the tsunami, which killed over 30,000 people on Sri Lanka's northern, eastern and southern coastlines, I visited Galle. The town and area around it were ravaged by the wave-the scale of destruction is staggering.
Relief camps have sprung up along the road leading from the capital, Colombo. Elsewhere tents have been erected upon the ruins of houses, with street addresses carefully marked on their sides-a small detail that speaks volumes about the resilience of these communities, and the challenges they face.
Sadly, I saw scant evidence of coherent reconstruction work; stymied as it was by logistical, political and financial difficulties. Much of the most critical relief work has thus been left to the initiative of local and foreign volunteers.
The huge international presence testifies to the strength of the response from around the world. However, the random nature of the destruction left many within the affected communities acutely aware of their good fortune, and has created a strong impulse for selfless action, locally.
One such example is a group of mainly British expatriates who were living and working in the area and came together to set up Project Galle 2005. 'Immediately following the tsunami, it was clear that, due to logistical reasons, no proper outside help would reach Galle until 3 or 4 January at best,' explains Project Galle's Communications Officer, Becky Hayes. So the group brought together individual relief efforts until government and outside agencies arrived and, by 31 December, had set up a centre of operations in donated gallery space, using computers from their own homes.
'We pooled our resources and began asking friends and business associates for money,' continues Hayes. 'They gave us their credit card numbers and were telling us to take what we needed.' None of the group had experience of humanitarian or relief work, but they quickly established a database holding information on those affected and their immediate material needs; then drew on their network of friends to coordinate the purchase and distribution of supplies.
The initial vision was to do what they could until more experienced hands arrived on the scene. But once other groups did arrive, they looked to Project Galle to help them coordinate their work: no one stepped in to take over. Two months on they were helping over 35,000 people-serving some 60 camps for displaced people (96 at the heightof their activity) along a 36km stretch of coast.
The project supplements government food rations, builds temporary housing, provides medical services, and addresses sanitation needs for schools and other communal buildings: 'We can't even think about an exit strategy,' jokes Hayes. They are also developing smaller projects to help local people back to work- complementing this aim by employing 30 local workers themselves.
The project is now applying to the Sri Lankan government for official NGO status; the 40-odd volunteers have put their former lives on hold indefinitely. They are also working in partnership with many international NGOs, including Concern Worldwide, who have pledged US$250,000 toward home starter packs, which have already been delivered to over 10,000 people.
Cooperation on addressing the multiplicity of issues raised by the tsunami has extended beyond the traditional humanitarian groups. For instance, the Vanguard Foundation, set up by the company which runs the national ETV channel, is working with Project Galle to develop a trauma-counselling project. The company is also funding a major project to establish a national 'All-Hazards Early Warning System', as well as running smaller community-based development projects in three villages.
The Vanguard Foundation stresses the importance of working in partnership with local people. 'These people were living in good conditions before, so we don't want to build dependency,' says Ajith Rajapaksha, who is leading the Foundation's voluntary work. 'We want to empower them to rebuild their lives.'
Volunteers are visiting and befriending villagers and their families, offering support and assessing material needs. Strategic financial assistance is being given to enable local people to resume work, in projects developed by the villagers themselves. For instance, a group of fishermen approached the Foundation for help in replacing their lost fleet of boats. While three boats were needed, the fisherman requested funding for just one. With the income they generate from this, they intend to buy the two further vessels. Twenty-one families stand to benefit.
Aside from these projects, the Foundation also has a longer-term vision of building a community centre, working closely with a local Buddhist temple. It is hoped this will provide a focal point around which internal community relations can be strengthened; with the huge influx of aid, says Rajapaksha, tensions have arisen over who is benefiting and why. To begin this process, volunteers worked with the community to organize understandably muted celebrations for the Singhalese New Year in April.
Cooperation and partnership will be essential to the arduous process of recovery. This need is even more stark in a country which is nurturing a fragile three-year-old ceasefire after 20 years of civil war. The urgency of the task is apparent, but so too is the hope and belief underpinning it. As one friend put it, 'Whatever's happened, we will stand tall again.'
To learn more about the work of Project Galle 2005
and the Vanguard Foundation, visit