Sea Change

In Sri Lanka, mothers' breasts ache for phantom children. What will it take to rebuild?

But while that spirit of unity is alive at the grassroots, it has not prevented political rivalries from entangling relief efforts at the national level. The government and the Tigers have repeatedly clashed over the delivery of aid supplies to rebel-controlled areas. The Tigers have complained that the central government has been neglecting their territories, while the government has accused the Tigers of setting fire to a camp in the Jaffna Peninsula after the refugees there accepted aid from the government. The Tigers say it was the army who burned it down. Neither side wants to cede any of the territory it now controls to the other, even if it means that the thousands of tsunami survivors go yet another day without shelter or clean water.

In such a severe and deli-cate situation, the impulse to do nothing is strong, for fear our efforts would be wasted. In fact, the opposite is true. Throughout the last two decades, even in the depths of the civil war, individuals and independent nonprofit groups have stepped in where politics and violence have failed. They have done the hard work of living, choosing to stay and thrive in a country where that in itself is often an act of courage.

If you want to see what it will take to rebuild a post-war, post-disaster Sri Lanka, read Sanjiva Weerawarana's blog. A programmer in Colombo and an open-source partisan, Wee-rawarana used to fill his blog mainly with swipes at Microsoft and worries about the relevance of Java. Now he is directing efforts to build a database of people missing in the disaster and a system to coordinate the efforts of the 13,000 nonprofit organizations working in Sri Lanka. "What's incredible is that there doesn't appear to be software for this stuff," he wrote. "Well, we're going to build our stuff (openly/freely) and we'll be happy to share it."

Like so much of the rebuilding, Weerawarana's work will continue long after the images of this disaster have started to fade. Sri Lankans today talk about the generation who has known nothing but war. They wonder whether a "tsunami generation" will now follow. This is a country that has suffered more than most of us can ever imagine, and yet it welcomes outsiders when other countries turn them away, and it hopes more than most of us would ever think wise.

The American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Oxfam are doing immediate relief work throughout the areas affected by the tsunami. Give2Asia is working with local groups in India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia on long-term recovery efforts. The Lanka Academic Network is focusing on recovery and rebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka.


Jyoti Thottam, a writer living in Brooklyn, is a past president of the South Asian Journalists' Association.

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