January 4, 2005
Arriving in Ampara
is an atmosphere of eerie calm in the village of Marathumanai. In this
one small village on the east coast of Sri Lanka in the Ampara District,
3,000 of its 21,000 inhabitants were swept away by the giant tsunami on
the morning of the 26th December 2004.
Nearly 2 weeks later, as local
NGOs deliver food donated by neighbouring villages, the remaining inhabitants
form orderly queues, quietly collect their ration and walk away with astonishing
dignity. In an almost catatonic state, people sift through the destroyed remains
of their homes.
The debris occasionally offers up possessions like mangled bicycles
or touching mementoes of a life before the horror swept through Marathumanai. All
too often it yields up the decomposing remains of those who were not quick enough
to escape the deluge.
The acrid smell of death alerts rescue workers that there is a body
nearby. It's strange that no crowds gather for this grim recovery. Local volunteers - young
men - prepare themselves for the grim task ahead by donning latex gloves and makeshift masks.
They work efficiently and with great delicacy - they have, after all, already too much
experience to be anything less than thorough.
they excavate they find the decapitated remains of a woman. By chance
they see something else close by. Closer inspection reveals the remains
of a child, no older than a year old.
They reverently wrap the bodies
in pristine white shrouds and carry them to a nearby mosque for the ritual
wash and later burial. One of the relief workers breaks down and weeps
unashamedly. He sits amidst the debris and sobs uncontrollably. Another
volunteer tells me that he has yet to recover the remains of his wife
and child. He imagines that this is how they will be found - if they ever
are. "We carry bodies away every day," the volunteer tells me, "but those
young bodies are the heaviest burden."
The destruction is so complete and the
people so broken that it is hard to know where to beginOne of the few international relief organisations who are making deliveries in
the area is Islamic Relief. A British Non Governmental Organisation, Islamic Relief have worked in
areas like this before. I was in Iran with a team from the Birmingham based agency at the same time
last year and witnessed the destruction of a city and the desolation of whole communities.
not enough to prepare me for what I saw when I came here. The destruction is so complete and the
people so broken that it is hard to know where to begin to pick up the pieces. Experienced emergency
relief workers from Islamic Relief's Birmingham Headquarters, however, work side by side with local
partners to assess the greatest areas of need.
The area is predominantly Muslim but there is a large
proportion who are Tamil. Islamic Relief is working to help both community and this fact has not been
lost on the people of Sri Lanka. Amjad Saleem is a civil engineer from London whose family are from
Sri Lanka. He immediately offered his services and local knowledge to Islamic Relief because he knew
he would be able to work amongst mixed communities. "The wave was indiscriminate in the lives it claimed,
why should we discriminate in the way we help?" he says.
January 5, 2005
A Wounded People
After taking in the initial shock of how powerful the wave must have been
to leave so much destruction, one begins to look around and take note of some of the less
apparent scars - those which will take longer to heal. "Cities can be rebuilt," says Abdul
Jabbar, the head of a local NGO. "It is the wounds of the heart and the mind which we must
the wounds are deep. It is striking in all the villages one visits along
this 25 mile coastal stretch at how few children there are. Parents tell
stories of how they tried to hold on to their sons and daughters, but
were forced to let go when the waves crashed into them.
Young bodies were
tossed helplessly and washed up days later, crushed under the force of
the water. "I could not hold on to him," cries one grieving father. "I
should not be alive. What kind of father am I that I live while my child,
who looked to me to protect him, lies buried somewhere under all of this?"
He makes a sweeping gesture towards the remains of his village and then
turns away and starts digging with his hands through the layer of sand
which covers his former home.
"I could not hold on to him," cries one grieving father. "I should not be alive. What kind of father am I?"Elderly people also are a rare sight. They, too, were unable to run fast
enough and were either swept away or crushed in their beds. Whole generations were lost. One
of the first rescue workers on the scene, a young looking 22 year old called Imdad, tells of
how he found the small bodies of 4 children clinging to their father underneath the rubble of
He also tells of a courageous primary school teacher who tried to get his 40 charges
to safety by helping them on to the roof of their school house. The wave claimed the lives of all
the children. When the teacher was found he was clutching a child under each arm, unwilling to
relinquish his responsibility to the children he loved even when his own life was at stake.
Villagers speak of him in terms of a saint. He could have easily escaped but resolutely stood
and faced death rather than abandon those he had sworn to protect.
This village was once famous for its weaving and textile industry.
Like other coastal towns and villages in Sri Lanka, it also had a thriving fishing community.
Even now, the nets and fishing boats lie broken and abandoned up to 2 miles inland. It will
take years before the communities affected by the tsunami will be able to recover.
look to outside help, but in this district it has been painfully slow
Part of the reason is the relative inaccessibility of the area
due to flash floods brought on by the current rainy season. The distance
from Colombo to Ampara is around 180 miles. One has to cross mountains
and potholed roads in a journey which takes around 12 hours. This doesn't
make the relief efforts any easier. Whatever the reasons, the people here
are desperate. Most aid agencies are concentrating on the south of the
Islamic Relief, the assessments over, begin initial deliveries of essential
supplies which are transported across country on trucks to Ampara from Colombo. Emergency
kits being distributed by Islamic Relief include mosquito nets for babies, hygiene kits and
It also includes food packs for widows who, under Islamic tradition seclude themselves
from the outside world during their period of mourning. Unlike the other homeless inhabitants
of the area, they are unwilling to travel out of their seclusion to find food for themselves. It
is, instead, delivered to them.
January 6, 2005
Immediately after the disaster, a £4 million appeal
was launched by Islamic Relief and the public response was overwhelming.
One small charity shop which normally receives donations of around £400
a day is currently receiving £60,000 a day. In the UK alone the charity
has received over £1 million in donations and has allocated a further
million from its own emergency fund. The appeal has now been increased
to £10 million.
the figure is not nearly enough. Essential needs are still not being met
and with the threat of water borne diseases still dangerously close, the
crisis is far from being over. When one remembers that in some makeshift
refugee camps 500 people are reported to be sharing one toilet between
them it is clear that the need is great. "The generosity of ordinary people
from all walks of life, whatever their beliefs and backgrounds has truly
touched our hearts," says UK fundraiser for Islamic Relief, Muhammad Imran,
"but it is vital that people keep giving. We are working amongst affected
communities in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and must ensure that nobody is
neglected through lack of funds."
And the aid is getting through. It may seem like it
has been a slow process, but it is gaining momentum. Essential needs are
beginning to be met and over the coming days and weeks more will be arriving
and delivered to the most vulnerable members of the community by Islamic
Relief staff and local volunteers.
worry is that when the world moves on to the
next newsworthy story, donations will stop.In the coming months there will be a huge need for the
relief efforts to be stepped up in this neglected area. For now the people
are in shock and are surviving on the generosity and goodwill of their
neighbours. But this goodwill is as exhaustible as the supplies which
are needed for the refugees to live. Eventually people will have to begin
looking after their own families and homes will have to be rebuilt. The
worry for many people is that when the world inevitably moves on to the
next newsworthy story the donations too will stop.
Desperate relatives still travel from as far away as
Colombo to hear news of their loved ones. They sift through the wreckage
and ask everybody they meet if they know anything. They then make their
way to the schools and municipal buildings which serve as refugee camps
to many of the nearly 200,000 homeless people of Ampara.
Invariably their desperate pilgrimage ends at the graves
of the thousands buried in shallow graves near the local mosque. There,
all that is left for grieving families is to weep and remember loved ones
whose unmarked graves will haunt these communities for generations to