Weary and wary

Tsunami | Sri Lanka's wiped-out fishing villages do a slow business in aid, comfort, and reconstruction

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

GALLE, Sri Lanka - In the bygone fishing village of Hambantota sits a large sturdy statue of Buddha, unfazed in a debris field that extends one-half mile inland. In 39 fishing villages along Sri Lanka's southern and eastern coastline that scene repeats. Entire towns have been swept off the map yet the stone Buddhas remain.

"What kind of god would save himself but not save his people?" asks a woman drawing water from a spigot that protrudes from the ground where her house once stood. She does not expect an answer and soon walks away to join her husband, gazing out to sea where a fleet of fishing boats once lolled.

One month after the deadly tsunami, the seas surrounding Sri Lanka look calm and innocent, while the coastline churns with a torrent of activity. Armies of volunteers and curiosity-seekers-from South Korea, Norway, France, the Czech Republic, and the United States-clear rubble, fix buildings and roads, and comfort survivors. It is a wearying, slow business in the lingering muck and devastation. No one is less wary of the placid sea. Almost five weeks since it took 31,000 lives and displaced 1 million people from this island nation of 19 million, imported workers and displaced residents keep one eye on the ocean as they labor.

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Unlike India and Indonesia, where red tape awaits outside relief workers, Sri Lanka's government has welcomed all aid and volunteer workers. But 6,000 people remain missing and only half the displaced have found reliable shelter. Among nearly half a million people still living with friends, families, on the streets, or in one of over 400 relocation camps, there is growing discontentment.

Aid is flooding into major cities and easily reached areas but only trickling into most areas of the east and south coast where the tidal wave hit hardest. "It is an incredibly difficult task. The Sri Lankan government had a hard time for the first few days. Any government would," said Jeff Lunstead, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka.

For its part, the United States has thus far quietly provided $38 million in emergency assistance, not including the cost of military personnel and assets. It deployed the USS Duluth and support vessels to Sri Lanka with bottled water, earthmoving equipment, two dozen helicopters, and 1,000 military personnel. In addition, millions of dollars in private contributions from Americans and other foreigners are pouring into Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's two-decade-old civil war compounds the government's logistical nightmare. A temporary and spotty truce in some locales following the disaster did not ease the conflict, which threatens to fracture the tiny island nation along religious and ethnic lines. Sri Lankan officials deny they are preventing aid from reaching rebel areas. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The United States, too, has announced it will not send personnel to rebel-controlled areas, according to Mr. Lundstead. Local officials hope the United Nations and other international assistance will reach those areas. But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who toured devastated areas here last month, had his visit cut short because the government could not guarantee his safety in rebel territory.

Children are the most vulnerable in the turmoil. The rebel Tamil Tigers in recent weeks have worked to conscript suddenly orphaned children to serve as child soldiers. Grieving parents, seeking to replace their own lost children, have kidnapped others. Other orphans have been snared and sold into the sex-trade business or targeted for recruitment into criminal gangs. An overwhelmed Sri Lankan government has placed a temporary ban on foreign adoptions.

In Hambantota relief organizations work around the coastal devastation's perimeter, installing satellite phone systems, shoring up medical facilities, setting up housing and makeshift markets. But in the middle of the devastation one tiny Christian church has established a feeding center. "We watched in horror during Sunday morning church services as the wave covered the town below. We cried as all the people died," said the man known simply as Pastor Lillith. Now his congregation of 20 Christian families is an aid station, providing bare essentials to shattered families. It is a place of life and comfort in contrast to the stone-faced Buddha not far away.


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