Tsunami Disaster & Tamil Eelam
Despite Rebel Ties, Tamil Aid Group Earns High
Colin Freeze, The Globe and Mail, Toronto
18 January 2005
MULLAITTIVU, SRI LANKA -- Naren Narendran laughs the bitterest laugh imaginable
when he is asked how the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization learned how to help
displaced people. "We were adequately trained," the 49-year-old director of the
TRO's disaster-management unit says in a deadpan manner. He, too, is a refugee,
having fled angry mobs as Sri Lanka's long-simmering cauldron of ethnic tensions
erupted 20 years ago.
Mr. Narendran ran all the way to Australia, where he became a financial manager.
But now he is back in Sri Lanka, working out the complicated logistics of
disaster relief. Trucks have to be loaded, communications lines have to be set
up and battle plans have to be drawn. He is here to impose order on all the
chaos, as well as to give something back to an organization that he says has
stuck with the Tamils through two decades of civil war.
Many others swear by the organization -- from the expatriates who gathered in
Toronto banquet halls in recent weeks to raise money for tsunami aid, to the
professionals who have returned to Sri Lanka to work for the charity, to the
thousands of displaced Tamils who depend on the TRO for aid.
The most important booster, of course, is the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,
which controls the areas where the TRO works. Because the TRO sprouted up to
help Tamils displaced by war, the organization's officials have formed a
symbiotic relationship with the Tigers.
Yesterday, the LTTE's political leader paid homage to the TRO's work three or
four times in the course of one interview, but denied that the Tigers ever help
themselves to the charity's funds, as some Western governments have alleged.
Ottawa has refused to give the TRO tax-exempt status because of the group's
close relationship with the Tigers, and The Wall Street Journal reported
recently that U.S. officials will be watching closely to make sure aid doesn't
end up in the hands of the LTTE, which Washington considers a terrorist group.
Mr. Narendran says that every penny the TRO receives is scrupulously accounted
for, but he concedes that the lines can be blurry in northern Sri Lanka.
"I don't know where Tiger starts and non-Tiger stops," he said, explaining that
so much is under LTTE control that everyone has to work with the Tigers one way
For this reason, aid work in the north can appear better co-ordinated than that
in the government-controlled south, where local officials have complained about
agencies heading straight into the camps without touching base with the
In the north, agencies are often directed to Mullaittivu, which was pulverized
by the tsunamis. Three thousand people died in the fishing town, and many times
that number were displaced, leaving much work that requires co-ordination.
Maran Rajadurai, an LTTE task-force manager responsible for looking after 8,000
refugees in 10 welfare centres, says that even the big aid agencies, such as the
Red Cross and the United Nations Children's Fund, are directed to funnel
material aid such as food and tents toward the TRO. This way, it is the Tamil
agency that distributes the goods directly to the people.
"We always give the TRO the lion's share of activity," Mr. Rajadurai said
yesterday. Those activities include running a vast complex of schools that
function as camps, including one that 1,500 people call home.
"The first day was difficult, but after that it was okay," said Vendan Sivan, a
28-year-old TRO worker, describing how food was distributed in the early hours
of the crisis brought on by the tsunamis.
Mr. Sivan said he cut his teeth organizing relief efforts a decade ago, when
thousands of Tamils made an exodus to this area after government forces
recaptured the northern city of Jaffna.
As in many camps for displaced persons, the work at Mullaittivu has progressed
far beyond procuring food, water and basic medical care. The job now is to get
schools back up and running and, within six months, find permanent dwellings for
thousands of people who have lost homes along the coast.