“Everything is bullshit but the open hand…”
- Bruce Cockburn, Strange Waters
Haven’t written much since Dwayne took off, exactly a week ago. The first few days are spent in Colombo, trying to make something happen; and then, as things will, they do.
I depart Colombo at 6 a.m. Saturday morning after a fitful night’s sleep. Dilan’s at the wheel. We drive down darkened Galle Road, where my unsuccessful attempts to steal a few more minutes’ sleep are bled dry by an anemic sunrise. It soon becomes another journey through the looking glass, as we pass from the healthy (a relative word if ever there was one) suburbs of Colombo into the suddenly devastated areas.
Much has been done in this area since my last trip down the west coast, nearly a month ago. There are many more tents, a world’s fair of shapes and colors from Britain and China, France and Cuba. The road is cleared; no more boats lying like sleeping dogs across the road. But by the time we reach the flattened beaches of Kahawa, a mile north of where the Queen of the Sea met its end, we realize the truth: the cosmetic improvements we’ve seen in scattered areas barely scratch the surface of the chaotic, unforgivable inefficiency everywhere else.
Kahawa lies a bit inland. From the look of the place, it still looks like the tsumani happened last weekend, rather than four weeks ago. A young man who lost his wife and daughter stands amid his friends with dark, empty eyes, more a zombie than a living soul. We speak to a member of his group — a now unemployed baker named Ujith Nishanta. He agrees to lead us through the inner part of his village.
Stagnant ponds are everywhere, clouds of mosquitoes breeding on their surfaces. The houses are still in tatters. There’s a PVC water tank, but Ujith tells us it hasn’t been filled in two weeks. Dogs prowl amid sacks of rotten grain, and nose through the rubble; yesterday, one of them dragged a human skull from the swamp. (A fair amount of body recovery is now being done by dogs; I also saw a collarbone, and a femur, lying in the muck.) It was profoundly depressing, and very frightening.
For now, the people of Kahawa are encamped at the local monastery.
They are aimless, and resentful. They have no idea when or where they might rebuild, as the government has decreed that no houses may be built with 100 meters of the sea. So they wander amid their collapsed homes and with household brooms and sticks, half-heartedly clearing the shambles. They are waiting for the government to help them, and it seems they may be waiting a while.
When we return to the coastal highway I reach for my wallet, but Ujith will not accept my money. “I just wanted to show you the truth,” he says. “Please tell anyone who will listen.”
If nothing else, this dispatch is meant to keep my end of the bargain.
How is this happening? On the front page of today’s newspaper, The Island, a headline says it all: “Over 70 per cent still to get any tsunami relief.” This out of 960,000 surviving victims. The reason, according to Law and Order Secretary Tilak Ranaviraja? Bureaucratic bungling, and ignorance on the part of tsunami survivors.
I’m here to tell you that money, hard cash in the millions of dollars, has been pouring into this country for five weeks. Some relief agencies, as I’ve reported, have actually begged people to stop sending them money. The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) is operating on double their projected budget, as are many other agencies. Mercy Corps is here for the long haul, and we are making large, wise, and effective grants — but even we are stunned by the level of support we’ve received.
Where’s the money going, Sri Lanka, and why are three quarters of the tsunami victims still without aid? “We are dealing with 10 billion rupees,” Ranaviraja said, “and naturally all people will not be honest. There will be a certain amount of corruption, I am not trying to whitewash anyone.”
I suggest that Ranaviraja and his colleagues try a hell of a lot harder to get to the bottom of this disgraceful situation. Stealing relief money, or delaying its delivery to the population, is no better than looting the dead. Only dogs can do so with impunity.
* * *
If Kahawa is disheartening, I find its antipode at my destination, a Buddhist center just north of Matara. I’ve come to monitor and film the three-day program (Friday through Sunday) spearheaded by the Centre for Peace-Building and Reconciliation (CPBR) and funded, in part, by Mercy Corps. The staging area is the Sri Sudharmarama temple — and the moment we arrive in the packed courtyard, finding it packed with men and women, mothers and children, we realize that the CPBR people are building something real.
In the main temple an engaging, short haired nurse named Patty (from western Massachusetts) diagnoses and treats, with impressive compassion, a long line of villagers. Their ailments range from fungal infections to migraine headaches. Sitting next to her, a Sri Lankan psychologist counsels anxious locals, discussing their stress and depression. Right beside him, an eye doctor is examining locals for cataracts, while vision tests are conducted across the room. Eyeglasses will be distributed tomorrow.
That’s just for the adults. Next door, in a single-room building, scores of kids are bent over construction paper, making drawings and collages — many of which graphically illustrate their post-tsunami memories. The majority are cheerful seascapes and sunrises; but in a dozen of the artworks, huge waves engulf homes and trees, and victims bob in a fiercely crayoned sea.
These activities have been arranged by the Tsunami Relief Foundation (firstname.lastname@example.org), a totally grass-roots organization under the direction of a tall, thin, pony-tailed Sri Lanka filmmaker named Timothy Senavirajne. During the course of the day he’ll be leading the kids in five activities: drama; music; clay sculpture; crafts; and art.
There’s also a program on the importance of dental hygiene (ostensibly to balance the lollipops that Patty’s giving away), and a reel of Tom & Jerry cartoons. The kids are loving it; and each one leaves the temple, at the end of the day, with a sturdy daypack filled with toys, exercise books, pencils, a stuffed animal, and candies. It’s the real thing; everything Lyn and I tried to put together for “Comfort for Kids,” thought through and done right.
The long weekend’s program doesn’t end at the temple. In the seaside village, demolished by the floods, volunteer students from the University of Ruhuna are clearing out the grounds of fallen houses, restoring homes that can be repaired, and cleaning contaminated wells.
By wrap-up Sunday the team (which is a consortium of CPBR, TRF, and a journalists’ and artists’ NGO called Lanka Shakti) have cleared more than 20 houses, repaired five, and cleaned a dozen wells.
The stories you hear. One could write a “Believe it or Not” book based on them. There’s the man who went to bed drunk and woke up floating on his bed; the man who clung for seven hours to a rough log, which turned out to be an equally terrified crocodile. And there is the story of Padmakanti, a 24-year-old management student at Ruhuna University. On the morning after Christmas Padmakanti saw the sea suddenly rise. She grabbed the hand of her 64-year-old mother, uttered a prayer to her dead father, and began running. “Untie the dog! Untie Kalu,” her mother cried. “There isn’t time,” Padmakanti gasped, and off they ran.
The water was waist high; they were dragged by the current. Padmakanti tried to hold her mother above the waterline as they tripped and floated and collided with racing flotsam, but it was impossible to hang on, and in a single horrific instant her mother was torn from her grasp.
Padmakanti is a round-faced woman with sad chestnut eyes, and a white Buddhist blessing cord tied around her right wrist. She lost her mother that morning; but when she returned to the remains of her house, Kalu was alive — still tied outside what was once their front door. Even more miraculous, all of Padmakanti’s birth and school credentials — nearly impossible to replace in this bureaucratically twisted country — were intact. A wall of the house had collapsed onto the cabinet that held her papers, sealing it from the surge. For this, Padmakanti thanks her father — reunited with his wife at last.
Today, as thunder rolls in from the sea, Padmakanti stands beside a bulldozer as her friends from the University are lined up outside the ruins of her home, handing tiles down from the roof and moving them, bucket-brigade style, to a large pile about 50 yards away. But it is more a matter of closure, and friendship, than a practical solution to her recent homelessness. The house cannot be rebuilt; and even if it could, she has no desire to return. “I don’t want to live here,” she says. “Or anywhere near the sea.”
She is alone now, trying to rebuild her life with the 50,000 rupees ($500) that the government has provided her. If this were a typical demolition, the tiles might fetch a bit of money. But Padmakanti shakes her head. “No one wants anything touched by the tsunami.”
* * *
Sunday is a long day shooting pictures, recording interviews, and filming an epic distribution of mattresses, pillows, and cooking sets. Lots of very interesting insight into the relief process, viewed through the lens of Matara. It’s especially revealing to watch Dishani, the tireless Director of the CPBR, make her rounds this morning, armed with a list of people who claimed to need immediate reconstruction jobs on their homes. It was a shock to find that a fair number of them were not in bad shape at all, but hopeful that the CPBR would help them out with a kitchen remodel.
In the late afternoon I check out of the noisy, mosquito-infested Government Hotel and into one of Matara’s two remaining beach hotels. I seem to be the only guest. Indika, the manager, is an articulate 31-year-old Sinhalese who reminds me of Brian O’Donoghue, my college roomate. When I get back from the Sri Dhamarama temple, exhausted and sweaty, he suggests a “sea bath”: the charming local phrase for a swim. The tide is in, but the local beach is sheltered — and I’m aching for immersion in another element.
The truth is, I have been avoiding swimming in Sri Lanka. I don’t know why.
So it’s a gorgeous shock to step onto the fine sand, and flop into a sea as warm as a bath and as smooth as velvet. I paddle gingerly back and forth, floating in the late afternoon sun. But my reticence returns; there’s something a little creepy about stepping into this ocean, which so recently swallowed the lives of so many thousands of people. But I get over it, and stay in a good long time.
When I emerge, I walk slowly along the tideline, studying the morose fruits of the sea. Along with striped shells and chunks of broken coral I find lost sneakers, purloined plastic toys, and the occasional human rib. Indika denies these bones belonged to people dragged under by the tidal wave. He offers, instead, the barely less macabre intelligence that they came from the adjoining cemetery, exposed by the claws of the tsunami.
There’s a dog on the beach, trailing five feet of rusted lightweight chain from his collar. It leaves a long, snaking groove in the sand. He finds a spot on the beach and starts digging, watching me furtively as I walk by. According to Dishani, there are now more than 100,000 stray dogs in Sri Lanka; dogs whose masters have vanished. They wander their villages with fading hope, eating whatever they find. One does not wish to think too long about what they find.
* * *
An hour south of Matara, in a village called Ambalantota, a Berkeley-based non-profit called Seacology is funding a program to preserve the local reefs and mangrove swamps. The project was stalled by the tsunami, and won’t get back in swing until mid-February. Nonetheless, I take a walk down to the beach to see the mangroves — and run into something entirely unexpected.
The Gangarama Buddhist temple sits right on the beach, an allegedly ancient building destroyed on the morning of December 26th. In its day, this must have been one of the most colorful temples on the west coast of the island. The main chapel has fallen to pieces, and dozens of brightly painted statues and Buddhas stand half-buried in the sand. Some are well preserved, but others are totally disembodied.
I listen in amazement to the monk’s tsunami survival story. Every day, Ratnapura tells me, he crosses the nearby river on a big inner tube to cut some of Sri Lanka’s famous king coconuts, which he hacks open for the sweet water inside. When the sea rose on Boxing Day, the monk happened to have the tube under his arm. He and his charge climbed onto the tire and floated on the wave, steering with a cricket bat until the waters receded some 20 minutes later.
It seems the experience affected them strangely. Ratnapura and his companion have gathered up heads, limbs, and hands from the broken statues, and assembled them into some rather horrific figures that remind me of the mutant playthings in Toy Story.