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Sri Lanka’s tsunami victims return to what’s left of home


Sri Lanka’s tsunami victims return to what’s left of home

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey, ACT International

Mary Sriyoyogaveni and David Shanmugarajah lost three family members, and their home, in Sri Lanka.
Jan. 12, 2005

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.

And 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.

A 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.

Even 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.

As 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.

Many 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.

The 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.

Church 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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo by Paul Jeffrey, ACT International

A woman walks along the seashore in Point Pedro, a village near Jaffna in Sri Lanka.
"People’s traditional 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.

"From 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 bishop said.

During 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.

The 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 disaster.

During 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

"We’re 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.

Peiris 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.

"We’ll 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."

A 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."

The 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.

"This 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.

"I 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 the disaster."

*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.

News media contacts: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759; Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470; or

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