Sea Change

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

In Sri Lanka, they call it the dry zone. In a country that draws so much of its livelihood and pleasure from water, where crystal-blue ocean surrounds gemstone-green jungles, the few patches of rough, rugged brush hold an odd appeal. I understood it for the first time in Yala National Park, where I came during a visit to my husband's family, who live in Sri Lanka. On these 391 square miles in the southeast corner of the island, leopards, water buffalo, and wild boar range over the rocky hills looking for shade and water, and peacocks are so common that the farmers consider them pests. Early in the morning of December 26, 2003, I watched the sun rise over a salt marsh in the distance. The brilliant orange light softened the gnarled outlines of the trees, slowly warming the still morning air. The sea seemed worlds away.

I imagine now that the 200 people who died in Yala exactly one year later might have been thinking the same thing. In one incident, my husband's brother lost a close friend from California, and another friend from England lost her entire family. They were all in Yala on vacation, a few of the many Sri Lankans abroad who were home for the holidays. The animals ran to higher ground, but the people were not so lucky. They fled to their cars as the first wave rushed toward them, but its force and speed were overwhelming. Our friend survived by clinging to a tree but lost her husband, both her children, and her father.

Multiply that loss thousands of times across a small island nation, and you may have some idea of the scale of this tragedy. The death toll in Sri Lanka has passed 30,000; the country's largest hospital, in its capital, Colombo, has refrigeration facilities for only 40 bodies. In a country of 20 million people with an area the size of West Virginia, 1 million have lost their homes. In 20 years of civil war, more than 64,000 people lost their lives, and I have yet to meet a Sri Lankan family that is not touched by political violence. In six days, the tsunami claimed nearly half that number.

As in Aceh and the Andaman Islands, two other severely hit areas, isolation is crippling the relief effort in Sri Lanka. Turn on the news and you will see American television reporters in khaki vests reporting from Galle, an old Dutch fort and the biggest city on the country's southern coast. But there is another world of silent suffering miles away. The Galle Road, nearly the only way to move goods or people in that part of the country, is also one of the most beautiful beachfront drives I've ever seen. We came back from Yala last year this way, stopping along the way to admire Taprobane, the tiny island once inhabited by Paul Bowles, just wading distance from the road. The tsunami dumped buses and huts and fishing boats along its length, choking it off with debris and making it that much more difficult for large-scale aid efforts to reach the victims. Eight days after the wave hit, the United Nations reported finding a village of 4,000 people in the east that had been totally cut off from help.

Some of the most effective sources of relief have come from small volunteer groups, and the stories they have been sending back are almost beyond belief. Dr. Trishantha Nanayakkara, a professor at the University of Moratuwa, has been leading teams of student volunteers from his college to refugee camps in the south, where they have been burying bodies, sorting donated goods, and setting up makeshift medical clinics. He wrote last week of what he saw: "At one place, a mother's body with a premature baby delivered, still with the cord." At another, Nanayakkara found nursing mothers, their breasts aching and heavy with milk for the babies they had lost. "[They] needed some medicine to stop their breasts from swelling," he wrote. "I knew nothing about such medicine."

Nanayakkara's work in Sri Lanka is sponsored by a group called the Lanka Academic Network, one of the few independent sources of news about the country. The group has raised about $39,000 so far and begun rebuilding Sri Lanka's coastlines. The individual projects are small—cleaning toilets and wells in Tangalle in the south, delivering shovels and cooking pots by truck to Mullaittivu, a particularly battered town in the northeast—but they are the first steps in an effort that the government there estimates will cost $1 billion. This isn't simply the loss of several hundred fishing villages. It is the loss of the sole industry in many parts of the country. Sri Lanka's economy will surely feel that burden—its GDP is only $20 billion—but it has been growing at a healthy 5.5 percent a year since a 2002 cease-fire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the rebel group that, in effect, governs much of the north and east.

The fallout of the disaster on Sri Lanka's politics is more difficult to predict. When the tsunami hit, peace talks between the government and the Tamil rebels were nearly paralyzed, and many Sri Lankans began to gird themselves for a return to violence. Instead, stories of cooperation among Tamils, Sinhalese, and Muslims have fanned hopes that the country might finally transcend its brutal politics.

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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