By Latheef Farook –
Eleven years after Tsunami waves and billions of aid and grants; Some Muslims still live in makeshift huts
The anniversary of the ferocious and frenzied tsunami waves, observed on December 26, provides an opportunity for some soul searching -of our conscience, moral principles and religious values.
Tsunami waves which snatched away thousands of lives in the most devastating natural disaster ever to strike the island, dismembered thousands of families, wiped out communities, razed down buildings, swallowed villages, cities and left behind an unprecedented trail of destruction.
These waves disappeared as fast as they appeared leaving the shocked survivors speechless and dumbfounded.
During the first few post-tsunami days and weeks, there was an unparalleled outpouring of sympathy for the victims. Spontaneous goodwill poured forth overwhelmingly when people from all communities and from all walks of life rushed to help the victims.
It was highly commendable that they rose above race, religion, ethnicity and other considerations. They demonstrated that compassion and human kindness still remain alive among the average people. Though the tsunami brought together the divided communities, yet it was a short-lived dream as conflict broke out within a year.
Eleven years later today considerable number of Muslim victims still languish in worn out huts. Besides five hundred houses built for Muslim tsunami victims by the Saudi government still remain unoccupied and virtually collapsing amidst growing jungle due to a court case.
This is despite around three and half billion dollars given in the form of grants and donations from abroad and from local sources to help alleviate the sufferings of tsunami victims.
However this money was plundered by politicians and bureaucrats.
Sri Lanka’s then deputy executive director of the anti-graft organisation Rukshana Nanayakkara said: “it was almost impossible to find out what happened to the cash. According to an initial government audit only 13 percent of the aid was spent during the first year of reconstruction, but since then there has been no formal examination of accounts. There has been no proper accounts maintained on the aid money and we believe that only a fraction of the aid trickled down to the real victims”.
“The then government ignored an interim report by the Auditor General’s Department, which details a series of irregularities. The report has dealt with questionable transactions between December 26, 2004 and June 30, 2005. It is critical of lapses on the part of the General Treasury, Central Bank and the Customs. This report, now gathering dust, called for an in-depth police investigation. Rajapaksa government ignored that call, and allowed a group of corrupt officials and their political masters to go scot free.”
According to a report by then Auditor-General, S.C. Mayadunne, “government officials misspent or misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tsunami aid after failing to follow instructions. Officials gave millions of rupees in tsunami assistance to thousands of families who were not directly affected while others displaced by the tsunami did not even get the rations they were entitled to”.
“Some who were not even affected by the tsunami got houses. Some got two or three boats while others did not get any. They put too much emphasis on urgency and did not adhere to accounting standards. The tsunami in many ways was a blessing in disguise to the government. The inflow of aid saw local currency appreciate by over five percent while the state enjoyed both debt forgiveness and a moratorium on repayments.
“Later inquiries revealed that the defeated Rajapaksa government has failed to initiate action against them despite clear evidence of wasteful expenditure on a large scale. Politicians have connived with officials to help their supporters play out funds and in some cases, further the interests of their associates.
According to a report, money was feverishly transferred not only to government establishments, but also to accounts of individuals, companies and charity organizations; so much so that a report by The Tsunami Evaluation coalition (TEC), under former US President Bill Clinton, suggested that Sri Lanka was over-aided and the island should be the best and the most efficiently reconstructed.
A survey conducted by the Muslim Reconstruction and Resettlement Organization (MRRO) had complained to the Disaster Relief Monitoring Unit (DRMU) of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka about the delay and the violation of their rights.
No one knows for sure how many perished. According to some reports a total of 35,322 people belonging to 14 districts were killed, while 516,150 people were displaced, 65,275 houses completely damaged and 38,561 houses partially damaged. The total estimated damage stood at US$ 1.5 billion.
Muslims in the south, south east and the east coast were the worst affected and, according to some estimates, the Muslim community lost one percent of their total population in the island.
Then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was in London, rushed home, visited some of these affected areas in the east and assured the helpless and voiceless victims that their houses would be rebuilt within six months. But these promises disappeared in the same way tsunami waves disappeared.
A month-and-a-half after the tsunami, I visited the affected areas only to realise the full scale of the destruction and words couldn’t describe the sufferings of survivors most of whom were still in a state of shock.
Even after six weeks, the East remained a virtually neglected area. Attributing this to deliberate discrimination even during times of disaster, many pointed out that no reason could justify neglecting a region burdened with so much human suffering and misery. The traumatized and frustrated survivors in the east were seething with anger with the government, state agencies, politicians and even foreign donors for their indifference towards their unprecedented sufferings. They complained that nothing was done to alleviate their sufferings while foundation stones were laid on a daily basis for various projects to improve the lot of those affected in the South.
While foreign leaders were taken to the south, none of them visited the most affected areas in the east. No attention was paid to develop the worst affected east coast villages which were areas predominantly occupied by Muslims and even government officials from Ampara failed to visit these areas in and around Kalmunai.
The situation in the east did not improve even two years after the tsunami. The then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, slammed Sri Lanka’s warring parties, the government and the LTTE, for the violence that had slowed rebuilding after the tsunami. “No one could have prevented the tsunami’s wave of destruction. But together we can stem the tide of conflict, which threatens once again to engulf the people of Sri Lanka,” said Mr. Annan who, in contrast, praised Indonesia for the spirit of solidarity in rebuilding the tsunami-affected areas. “In Sri Lanka, that spirit has not been sustained.”
Summing up the situation, a compassionate Sinhalese columnist had this to state ten years ago in his column in the Island.
“It is true that we did rise to the occasion, but sadly it is also true that we folded up even faster than it took us to stand tall. This is why at 9.30 a.m. on December 26, if we mourn anything, we should mourn the tragic fact that we could not respond adequately as citizens, as fellow human beings. Perhaps we should all go to the beach, if not to show gratitude, to lament. Let us, when we do this, or whatever else we find ourselves doing at that most inauspicious time, reflect on the fact that in this Buddhist country there is a thing called karma pala, that while some things are bad, among the worst is the intent to prey on misery, and that such transgressions have a way of constructing appropriate punishments. I suggest, humbly, that we recognise in our blood streams, in our heartbeats and our sinews the sad truth that we have failed and hope that this recognition generates in all of us the first seeds of resolve that allows us to do better. Let us resolve to rectify our errors and truly emerge as a people worthy of a nation, simply by developing the faculty of sympathy and gathering the strength to move forward, not alone but with each and everyone left behind by the tsunami waves.”