Jan. 12, 2005
|A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey, ACT International
Mary Sriyoyogaveni and David Shanmugarajah lost three family members, and their home, in Sri Lanka.
An ACT Report
By Paul Jeffrey*
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (UMNS) — Mary
Sriyoyogaveni isn’t ready to go home yet. Sheltered in the Holy Trinity
Methodist Church in Kaddaively, she is still healing from the
lacerations dealt her body by the Dec. 26 tsunami that ripped through
the coastal fishing villages in this part of northern Sri Lanka, on the
Bay of Bengal.
then there are the wounds that will never heal: Sriyoyogaveni lost a
daughter and two grandchildren to the waves. Another daughter is in a
nearby hospital with broken legs.
government agent came to the shelter during the week of Jan. 3 and told
Sriyoyogaveni and her husband, David Shanmugarajah, that it was time to
move home. Yet she has no home. Besides her loved ones, the tsunami
took her house, her cooking pots, her clothes, and the tools her husband
used to earn a living as a painter. Three of her daughters who survived
also lost their homes.
if her house still stood, Sriyoyogaveni isn’t sure she’d return. "I
can’t look at the sea without being afraid. What if it comes again in
the night?" she asks.
Sri Lanka moves from burying the dead to rebuilding a thousand
kilometers of shattered coastline, there are many who, like
Sriyoyogaveni, are afraid to return to where their homes once stood.
of them remain camped out in schools the government needs for classes,
though when the new school year began Jan. 10, many expected students
didn’t show up. If they continue to be absent, many will be presumed to
have died, and the body count on this island nation — which lost a
higher percentage of its population than any other country — will rise
even higher than the government’s Jan. 10 figure of 30,725 confirmed
dead and 5,903 missing.
government is also limiting where families can rebuild, effectively
prohibiting construction within 500 meters of the sea. President
Chandrika Kumaratunga explained the measures to Sri Lankan religious
leaders during a Jan. 4 meeting in the capital city of Colombo, saying
the government would build three-story apartment complexes for those
left homeless by the tsunami.
officials support the push to get people out of the emergency camps as
soon as is practical, claiming the conditions in the shelters are
particularly unhealthy for women and children. But they express concern
that the government’s initial plan downplays cultural dynamics that need
attention now, not after the fact.
homes are an important part of their culture, especially for the
fishers whose home is closely related to where they work," said the Rt.
Rev. Duleep de Chickera, the Anglican bishop of Colombo. "This is bound
to create tension between state policy and social demand, but the only
way forward is through dialogue. I have the impression that this is
under way, that the state will summon people, explain their position and
then listen to what they say.
|Photo by Paul Jeffrey, ACT International
A woman walks along the seashore in Point Pedro, a village near Jaffna in Sri Lanka.
a pragmatic point of view, it’s necessary that people get back to
normalcy as soon as possible. But insofar as a regime requiring people
to move, I would question that. What I would really like to see is a
force that can mediate in this. Perhaps the churches and civil society
can play that role, to negotiate and soften any rough or hard edges that
people may experience as a result of the government’s decisions," the
the Jan. 4 meeting, President Kumaratunga also told church leaders that
the immediate need for emergency food had been largely met. But she
appealed to the churches for assistance with safe drinking water and
trauma counseling. Kumaratunga also called for help caring for the
orphans left behind when the tsunami’s killer waves receded. Sri Lanka’s
churches have considerable experience caring for widows and orphans
generated by the country’s two-decade-long civil war.
Rev. Jayasiri Peiris, general secretary of the National Christian
Council of Sri Lanka, said reports he had received from around the
country verified that many emergency shelters had enough food on hand
for the next few days, a testimony to the herculean effort that faith
groups and nongovernmental organizations have made following the
the first two weeks, for example, the council dispatched 27 trucks of
food and other aid from its emergency distribution center in the
Methodist City Mission in Colombo, in addition to sending money to
remote areas where local churches and ecumenical groups purchased food
and other supplies locally.
council is a member of Action by Churches Together, a global alliance
of church-based agencies responding to disasters. On Jan. 7, ACT issued a
$41.8 million appeal for tsunami relief and rehabilitation activities
in the Indian Ocean region.
United Methodist Committee on Relief, a unit of the United Methodist
Board of Global Ministries, is also part of ACT. UMCOR representatives
have been meeting in Colombo with officials from other relief agencies
to plan longer-term recovery work.
National Christian Council has a long history of humanitarian and
peace-building work, yet Peiris said the scope of the current crisis led
the organization to create a new Temporary Relief Unit to manage the
massive program, which will run until the end of 2006. The council is
hiring new staff for the unit, as well as accepting the seconding of
technical staff from other ACT member agencies.
starting to move out of this first crisis phase and into
reconstruction, trauma counseling, and livelihood generation, of working
with people at a community level to help them solve their own problems
and rebuild their lives," he said.
cautioned that the council wasn’t interested in huge reconstruction
programs just because the money may be available. "We may have access to
funding now for relief work, but we must keep the spiritual and
religious character of our work intact," he said.
see how much we can tackle, rather than getting all the money that is
available," Peiris said. "We’re trying to identify things that we can do
in local areas, using not just money but the tremendous human resources
that we have available, working ecumenically with other Christians and
in an interfaith manner with people of other religions. We are also
called to provide pastoral care to the people. Otherwise we will build
all this infrastructure without building up the people."
key to this approach is listening, Peiris argues. "We have to first
listen to the people. They’re still in trauma. We’re training people to
go and sit with them and just listen to their stories. And then slowly
help them come out of that situation."
tsunami hit all ethnic and religious groups alike, and church leaders
continue to hold out hope that the tragedy will help heal the nation’s
deep ethnic tensions. Peiris suggested it was time for churches to
redouble their efforts at building peace.
is a moment to work together, when the government and the (rebel
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and civil society, when people of all
faiths can work together to revitalize the peace movement. This can’t be
separated from the tsunami crisis. It’s a God-given opportunity, which
isn’t to say that God caused the tsunami," said Peiris.
De Chickera suggested the crisis would make for lasting change in the church.
have difficulty with reading the tsunami, as some are suggesting, as
God’s judgment against the victims," he said. "Whether God is saying
something to the whole country, I need to reflect on that. But if God is
saying something to the whole country, God is saying it at tremendous
cost. And the God of love I see in Jesus was not only present with the
more vulnerable, but also became vulnerable. This is a new challenge.
Theology in South Asia will definitely see a paradigm shift because of
*Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for Response
magazine. He went to Sri Lanka as a journalist for ACT International.
This article is a shortened version of a report he filed for ACT.
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