2006 Spring - Turning Back the Tide
By James Addis
Men, stripped to the waist, skip between boats and shovel fish into buckets and crates. Women brush past with heavy baskets of mackerel balanced securely on their heads. Small traders with load-carrying tricycles nudge up against the big boys with their refrigerated trucks. A man with an enormous pole thumps it into a large wooden bucket to smash great blocks of ice. Fish to be turned into chicken feed are strewn across the ground where flies go wild.
By long tradition the auctioneer is a woman—often a poor woman, maybe a widow—who makes a living by taking a small percentage of the catch she trades. She yells out prices above the melee. A deal is struck. Fish are hauled into the waiting trucks or trikes. It is a piece of unselfconscious, live theater played out every day that would beat the pants off most Broadway productions. What makes it even more compelling is that a year ago the jetty was a desolate mass of rubble and smashed boats. For 100 days after one of the world’s worst natural disasters of all time—the Asian tsunami of a year ago—no auction was held here. The fishing industry—the backbone of Cuddalore’s economy—was broken.
That today there is not a hint of the savage blow delivered on Dec. 26, that once again the market is boisterous and vibrant, is tribute to the outpouring of compassion from around the world that followed the disaster.
If the tsunami was big, the world’s capacity to open its wallet was more spectacular. Three days after the waves hit, World Vision’s U.S. website crashed—unable to cope with an unprecedented volume of donors trying to give. It was quickly fixed and after World Vision’s offices worldwide raised more than $350 million, the organization took the extraordinary step of declining further donations.
It’s at places like Cuddalore that one begins to see the impact of this generosity. World Vision zone manager Andrews Devarajan cannot walk more than a few steps at the fish auction without being hailed by a beaming trader or fisherman like some long-lost friend.
For it was Andrews and his dedicated team who set up the cash-for-work plan that gave shattered members of a desperate community a means of earning cash by hauling the garbage off the jetty as a first step to reconstruction. Then it was a case of supplying the practical necessities to make the industry sing again: new fishing boats and nets for fishermen; scales, tricycles, crates, and establishment of new business associations for fish traders.
For fishermen like Vinayaga Moorthy, things are better than ever. Formerly he could only work as a laborer on other people’s boats. Now he owns a share in his own vessel. “What does the new boat mean?” he asks. “It means liberty, and that’s a fact. Whatever profits I make, I make for myself.” And not just for him. In his village of Akkarakori, there are now 58 fishing boats—26 supplied by World Vision, the rest from other agencies. Before the tsunami there were only 10.
M.S. Hanumugam, the top government official responsible for tsunami relief in Cuddalore, says that thanks to aid agencies, local people will soon enjoy a standard of living substantially better than they had previously. Better roads and schools are in the pipeline, and destroyed shacks are
being replaced with quality homes featuring water and sanitation facilities previously only dreamed of.
His verdict on the international response: “Splendid. Splendid. We could not have asked for more.”
Better Than Ever
Take the Kalmunai base hospital on Sri Lanka’s east coast. When the tsunami hit, about 1,000 injured people poured in and 500 corpses were carted to the hospital’s doors for disposal. But the under-resourced institution was in no position to face the strain. Its water supply broke down, and it had no means to dispose of dangerous medical waste. Superintendent Kandasamy Muruganaodan recalls that the hospital grounds were a “jungle.” Discarded needles, syringes, and broken vials were littered everywhere. Dogs and cats rooted among the stinking garbage.
It’s a different picture today. World Vision arranged for regular water delivery, installed a beefed-up incinerator to get rid of the trash, and re-equipped the medical lab.
Lab technician V. Ibrahim has worked at the hospital for nine years. “We’re in better shape than ever before,” he says.
Further south at the fishing village of Kirinda, half a dozen adults laugh and gossip while their children scamper around their soon-to-be completed homes. These will be the first of hundreds of permanent houses that World Vision plans to build in the country. The mood is buoyant, and not just because the families will soon escape their cramped, sweltering temporary shelters for pleasant brick-and-tile two-bedroom homes, but also because they, too, will be in
better shape than ever before.
Fisherman Bagoos Latheef says his former home was built on lowland and flooded regularly. His new house will not only be better appointed, it’s going to be a lot drier. Neighbor Thakileen Pakirdeen adds that his old house was built on government land and had no secure title, whereas his new house will come with a deed.
Small wonder the community has big plans for housewarming parties where they will be tucking into plenty of pani bath—the traditional Sri Lankan food of celebration— a sweet rice dish made with milk, nuts, and dates.
Even today, vast tracts of Banda Aceh look like a nuclear bombsite. Some lands are now covered by water, so roads can suddenly careen off into the ocean. Even more bizarre, large ships are marooned amid shattered urban developments, miles from the sea.
The scale of the problems has taxed the relief response to the limit. Engineer Wangsit Panglipur, supervising construction of temporary shelters at Lambung, Aceh, laments that work could only recently begin because the area has only just been cleared of debris. While these problems will be overcome, those involved in the relief effort are acutely aware that meeting physical needs is only part of the story. Tsunami survivors grieve the loss of those closest to them and often personally witnessed their horrific deaths.
Grandmother Huriah, 53, is joyful when she talks of her scattered community getting back together at Lambung once World Vision has completed its shelter program there.Then, unexpectedly, she breaks down. Through her sobs she explains that she lost three daughters and a son. She was proud of their accomplishments. One was a nurse; one was training to be a teacher; another was running her own beauty salon; and her son was working for a cell phone company.
“They were all doing so well,” she says. “Then, in seconds, they were all swept away.” Others are beyond tears. At a World Vision temporary shelter in Lhoong, 17-year-old Amriyadi is now the head ofhis household, taking care of his three younger brothers on his own. They all share a single room.
Amiryadi is still trying to come to terms with the loss of his parents and most of his other relatives, while attempting to cope with new and unexpected responsibilities. He speaks respectfully but so slowly you wonder if he will ever reply.The events surrounding the tsunami are too painful to talk about. Right now he is preoccupied with keeping his brothers on track—in particular, making sure they stick at school.
“I have to take care of everything,” he says. “I do fear for the future. I don’t know what will happen to us.”
“I saw men crying because they lost members of their family, particularly if they lost their wives or their children. But as they shared what was bottled up inside them, their attitudes improved,” she says.
But the most notable examples of emotional healing have occurred among children.
In some ways, re-establishment of routine has done the trick. Walk into a World Vision-built elementary school in the Besar district of Aceh and it’s hard to imagine that each of the lively 5- and 6-year-olds will almost certainly have lost a close relative.
English teacher Khairah, 26, says even something as simple as having their own desks and chairs has dramatically improved the children’s morale—a nice change from sitting on the floor in tents and shelters. At a nearby children’s play center—known as a “Child-Friendly Space”—volunteer Latifah Affan, 32, has seen a similar change in mood. She says that in art classes formerly morose children used to draw tsunami horror scenes—now they paint flowers and
mountains and have learned to smile and laugh again. She says offering a regular program of fun activities has helped younger children overcome their pain.
But for most older children and adults, it’s faith that has kept them sane. Eighteen-year-old Sri Lankan Buddhist Lasanthi Nirosha has also found strength in adversity. Lasanthi remembers returning home by train to the southern town of Hikkaduwa. Her carriage was flicked on its side by the surging waves and filled with water. Lasanthi nearly drowned as she fought to reach a window to escape. She was pulled free, but 1,400 were killed, including her closest friend, Lakmini. She says that far from demoralizing her, the experience changed her for the better.
“I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on why I was saved,” she says. “I’ve come closer to my faith and become stronger mentally.”
At the Zainol Abidin General Hospital in Banda Aceh, nurse Mawar, 41, says psychiatric problems related to the tsunami are uncommon because of the general populace’s trust in God. She knows how they feel. In charge of evacuating a pediatric ward as water smashed through the hospital grounds, she says the rush to move children to safety from the encroaching torrent reminded her of scenes from the film “Titanic.” As she worked, she was conscious that her own three children were home alone. Mawar could not return to her house for three days. When she did eventually get there she found a pile of rubble, but the bodies of her children—aged 18,14, and 7—have never been found.
Does she feel guilty about what happened to them? Mawar is Muslim, but her answer might well be understood by many Christians.
“No. I could not help my own children, but I could help children in the hospital,” she says calmly. “One day, everybody dies. Nobody knows when that will be, but we do know it is in God’s hands.”
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