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SRI LANKA: Tsunami Tragedy Bridges Divide Among Ethnic Groups

Amantha Perera

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, Dec 30 2004 (IPS) - The tsunami that caused more than 23,800 deaths so far in Sri Lanka is creating temporary rapprochement between ethnic groups that stayed away from each other despite a three-year ceasefire between the government and Tamil separatist rebels.

The tsunami that caused more than 23,800 deaths so far in Sri Lanka is creating temporary rapprochement between ethnic groups that stayed away from each other despite a three-year ceasefire between the government and Tamil separatist rebels.

This is happening even in the East of the country, where Tamil-Muslim relations have been tense during the truce because the Muslims have refused to pay taxes to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tigers are known.

Muslims – who account for seven percent of Sri Lanka’s population after the majority Sinhalese who make up 74 percent and the Tamils, 18 percent – have also demanded representation at the negotiation table. Muslim leaders have gone so far as to demand a separate Muslim administrative area in the East if a federal set-up, run by the Tamil Tigers, comes into place.

But these appear to pale in comparison to the human tragedy that is bringing communities together in Vakaneri.

“These (Tamils) are just people who ran away when the sea came into their village,” S H Rafique, who is the ‘thaliwar’ (head) of a mosque at Vakaneri, a town north of Batticaloa, told IPS.


Rafique has been leading the effort to feed and clothe 300 displaced Tamils who walked into Vakaneri from the neighbouring Tamil villages of Mankerni and Panichankerni, which were flattened when the tsunami hit on Dec. 26.

Villagers who have fled said that hundreds were still missing or unaccounted for days after the disaster, whose death toll reached more than 84,000 from 12 countries around the Indian Ocean and Africa as of Thursday evening.

Ironically, Vakaneri has always remained a simmering pot of racial tension in the island nation’s ethnic conflict.

Within four months of the cessation of hostilities between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government in February 2002, Vakaneri and adjoining Valachchenai erupted in racial riots between Tamils and Muslims in June 2002.

The intermittent escalation of tension between the two groups has been intensified with the defection of former Tiger eastern commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan alias Colonel Karuna, in April 2004.

The Tigers’ leadership in the East has accused the Muslims of supporting the rebel faction.

But these days, Rafique has been appealing to Muslim businessmen in Ottamavadi, a neighbouring town, for help for the displaced Tamil survivors and says he is satisfied with the reception. “I can take care of these people for the next two or three days,” he said.

The hold on local commerce by the Muslims is one of the reasons for the animosity with the Tamils.

Elsewhere in the country, Buddhist temples, mosques and churches have overnight become catalysts for the massive relief effort, even as international aid began to come in.

At Kurunegala near the central hills, village temples have networked together to collect dry rations and other essentials destined for the displaced. Villagers walking from house to house announcing the effort said that it did not matter to them where or to which ethnic group the aid was ultimately headed for.

In Ambalangoda, Ven. Baddegama Samtha Thero, a leading monk and a former member of parliament, was leading the effort to retrieve bodies from a train wreck on the coast where 1,500 were feared dead.

Monks traditionally dissociate themselves from any contact with corpses.

But Samitha Thero was getting into the wrecked train carriages and retrieving bodies. “This is a health disaster waiting to happen, with so many dead bodies around. We don’t need food and water, first we need to take care of the health issues. That is why I am doing this,” he told IPS.

Despite a massive outpouring of domestic and international goodwill, Samitha Thero’s criticism of a disorganised relief effort echoed right along the shattered coast.

“I can take care of their daily needs, but I am not a doctor and no one has come here to assess the health needs,” Rafique said. Two days after the tsunami, there was hardly any island-wide network to distribute the aid and manage the effects of the disaster.

The Tamil Tigers rejected government intervention outright and their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, directly appealed to international donors for help. The LTTE estimated a staggering casualty figure of 18,000 from the tsunami in areas under its control, mainly in the north and east.

“Whatever international donors are giving, they should give to the NGOs working here and not the government,” LTTE political head for Batticaloa Anupmaran said.

In the southern city of Galle, residents were blaming local authorities for relief efforts that they said reflected mispriorities.

“They (local officials) are sweeping the municipality compound when there are still bodies here,” A Fahim said, standing beside a three-day old corpse wedged under a lorry. The day before, Fahim had helped retrieve 32 bodies, but later walked home dejected.

“They are only interested in getting the city centre clean, while five minutes from town it’s a massive sewage with rotting bodies,” he said.

In the East, stunned villagers continued to walk miles to the nearest school or temple without any prompting from authorities.

“I just came here because we heard that there were relief centres. No one has spoken to me,” explained Kapila (one name only), who hitched a ride on a lorry from Kinnya, in north-eastern Trincomalee, to get to a refugee centre with her daughter at a school in Kantale, 40 kilometres away.

She was inside her hut with her daughter when the big wave came crashing with a thunderous noise on Sunday.

She ran out with her daughter and could only salvage the clothes on their body. “It was so fast we could not do anything,” she recalled. Her husband, who had been out fishing, disappeared. “I don’t know what happened to him,” Kapila said, walking into the refugee centre where the displaced were cooking meals on open fires.

The devastation along the coast is overwhelming in the island nation of 20 million people. From northern Jaffna to southern most Hambantota, entire villages have been wiped off.

“There is no Kalmunai left. We are going looking for bodies,” said S Farook, heading to the south-eastern town of Kalmunai that was devastated. Over 2,500 are feared dead at the town. “There are bodies all over,” said Meera Mohideen who hails from Kalmunai.

Rescue crews removed bodies from Batticaloa, Galle in the southern coast and Kalmunai. At Hambantota, rescue crews feared that as much as 1,000 bodies still remained in salterns.

 
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SRI LANKA: Tsunami Tragedy Bridges Divide Among Ethnic Groups

Amantha Perera

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, Dec 30 2004 (IPS) - The tsunami that caused more than 23,800 deaths so far in Sri Lanka is creating temporary rapprochement between ethnic groups that stayed away from each other despite a three-year ceasefire between the government and Tamil separatist rebels.
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