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Saturday, May 25, 2013
- It’s a hundred days since Asia’s devastating Dec. 26 tsunami and communities across the region are trying to rebuild and heal. In the face of tragedy, Sri Lankans have always looked towards religion as an antidote to the battered national psyche.
Every month since the tragedy, Buddhist monks have chanted mantras to honour the more than 31,000 dead. It was the same on the third month after the killer waves struck.
As night fell, on Mar. 26, monks in saffron robes chanted centuries-old prayers and laid small clay lamps on the rail track at Pereliya, north of Galle, where more than 1,500 perished when waves swept away a packed train. Among the thousands who participated in similar ceremonies all over the country, none would have expected to relive the horror again.
But two nights later, they nearly did. On the night of Mar. 28, national television announced the possibility of another approaching tsunami with the government ordering everyone to evacuate the densely populated coast. An 8.7 magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra prompted the order.
”We were so scared that night,” said Ahmed Faizal of Galle. He suffered extensive damages to his electrical appliance shop situated in Galle town in December and only returned back to business in late February.
As frightened people tried to move to safer places, two kilometers from the coast as ordered by the government communiqué, there was chaos in certain places. Several deaths were reported due to traffic accidents and the evacuees remained on the side of the main roads till the government officially lifted its tsunami warning at 3 a.m. on Mar 29.
”It was fear, people were frightened and they did not know what to do but they all knew what it was like the last time,” Mohideen Ajimal a fish retailer from Sainathimaruthu said. According to villagers more than 3,500 perished at the village in December.
Psychologists and relief workers warned last week that the latest scare might worsen the tsunami survivors’ trauma.
”Something like that will increase the level of nervousness,” Amanda Harris, a psychologist with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) told IPS.
Some tsunami survivors have only recently started to show emotional trauma and aid workers warn the consequences could be dire if the psychological disorders are not given due attention.
Aid agencies and private donors have tried to deal with the survivors’ trauma by counselling and providing recreational activities, together with work-for-pay programmes. However, uncertainty over permanent housing appears to be the biggest obstacle for some of the survivors, causing them to endure more emotional stress.
”I think people are really worried about what is going to happen next. Living in camps is not easy, there is no privacy, there is not even your own garden," Harris said. IOM calculates that it would have to run transit shelters for 12 months till permanent housing is provided. "We don’t know how long it (new housing) will take," Harris said.
Soon after the tsunami the government proposed a 100-meter buffer zone along the coast. But business owners are unhappy and there has been mounting opposition to the move.
Two weeks back the zoning was challenged at the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission. The main opposition party the United National Party urged residents to openly defy the zone ruling.
But President Chandrika Kumaratunga said last week that if another tsunami were to hit Sri Lanka, the buffer zone would be invaluable in saving lives.
Businessmen like Faizal and Amjal, however, remain unconvinced. Both have businesses within the zone and are adamant about not moving.
”We will face anything – we had to do that on Dec. 26 and we were ready to battle it out on the night of Mar. 28. We will face whatever that comes,” Faizal said. He added that he would only consider relocation if the entire Galle town with its business as well administrative offices are moved.
Opposition to the buffer zone appears to be swelling primarily because the government is yet to announce a clear relocation programme. Among those who are threatening to resist relocation are house-owners who have been compelled to return to partially destroyed houses along the beach.
”We have no place to go. On Dec. 26 we left all our belongings behind and walked up to Galle Road. Our house was not destroyed, but all our household goods were ruined by seawater,” said K Shanti from Rathmalana, south of Colombo. ”We were given refuge at a school. A few days later all those whose houses were not destroyed were told to go back by the officials at the school.”
The residents who have come back to Rathmalana threatened last week that if they were forced to leave, they would protest on the rail track running close by. Such protests are likely to spread all along the coast.
In Moratuwa, just south of Rathmalana, tsunami survivors have defied the Coast Conservation Department and Urban Development Authority restrictions and built new houses in the buffer zone.
”They can’t place a price on our lives. Our past, present and future is with the sea and we will face whatever the sea throws at us," said a defiant Maduwage Sigithi.