Tsunami Disaster & Tamil Eelam
Reporting on a Visit to Tamil Eelam
Shiranee Pararajasingham, Australia
April 4, 2005
It is with much sadness that I have begun saying goodbye to the
wonderful people I have met during my stay here in Vanni. It is so
true that time flies when you are having a good time. This is my
final update before I return home in a week.
People have been very warm and gracious in sharing their stories
with me. Every person I met had a story – they had lost at least one
(usually more) family member either in the war or as a result of the
Tsunami. Displacement has thrust them into poverty. It is
interesting how they’d go to the trouble of explaining how well off
they were before the war/Tsunami.
All the Tsunami victims have now been moved into temporary shelters
by the TRO which is a very basic structure – one room and verandah,
communal baths/toilets. The shelters are built only 7 meters apart
from each other – no privacy at all. They cook outside on an open
fire. The children in these compounds seem reasonably happy, but
some have not gone back to school yet. This is probably because they
are left with one parent (or none) and have no guidance and support
to get them back to school. Many school buildings were destroyed by
the wave. Some of the students gather under trees in the school
compound for lessons. I have enjoyed sitting cross-legged on a mat
and chatting with these newly resettled families.
Most are happy with the assistance they have received, but TRO is
not without its share of disgruntled beneficiaries. They are unhappy
that they have not been given boats and fishing equipment yet – they
are not able to comprehend the mamoth task that TRO is faced with. I
had to explain to them that TRO itself relied on donations from the
Tamil diaspora and had very little money to work with. Some were
also annoyed with people like me (including myself!) who come, chat
to them and go away leaving them ‘empty handed.’ I hope they
understood when I said that my aim was to go back and publicise
their plight and get more donations so TRO could do more for them. I
could easily have caused a riot if I started handing out money.
It is very clear that people are emotionally disturbed and the men
in particular seem lost and helpless. Some are not coping well with
their ‘altered’ social status and stress that they owned big houses
with their own generators, a couple of boats, trucks, etc. before
Tamil funeral customs are fairly eloborate and there is a lot of
trauma relating to people not having been able to perform the
burial/cremation rites for their loved ones who died in the Tsunami.
In a sort of compensating gesture there were several memorial
functions held on the 90th day of the Tsunami, a couple of which I
attended. At one such service I met a 45 yr old lady who was
terminally ill. She said she lost her husband and all 3 kids in the
disaster – she cannot work out why she was spared and can only
attribute it to ‘karma.’ At one of the shelters I met a man who kept
thrusting this photo of his family (all perished) at me repeating
"thanichu ponan" (I am left alone). He had scribbled the names of
his family on the door of his shelter. In the adjoining shelter
there was a young widow with 3 kids with sad vacant eyes.
I have lots of photos, but there have been occasions when I have
felt it inappropriate to take photos. I have given up trying to make
sense of these people’s misery. It has been an emotionally draining
experience, but very enriching at the same time.
Sumathi is a student teacher at the English College run by the TRO.
I always spoke English when conversing with Sumathi so she’d get
some practice. Whenever she reverted to Tamil I would keep speaking
English until one day, exasperated she said "Akka, can we speak
Tamil because I want to ‘talk’ to you." She then poured out her
story. She had lost two brothers in the war and her family had been
displaced several times. Her older sister fell in love with an LTTE
soldier and married him which threw her parents into further
despair. Sumathi said she tries to remember the times when her
mother was happy (before the death of her brothers). She seems
desperate for her parent’s happiness. Interestingly, she didn’t
refer to her own grief.
I have been visiting a few of the Nutritional Centres run by the
TRO. These are places set up in remote villages where malnourished
mothers and babies are cared for until the baby reaches an
acceptable weight. A mobile doctor visits the centres weekly. The
dormitories that house the mothers and children are mud huts with
thatched roofs which often collapse during the monsoon season. There
is a chart of recommended nutritional meals up on the wall, but they
can’t often afford to follow that chart. TRO allocates only Rs.
25,000 (A$320) per month to each centre for food. This is far from
adequate and the kids often go without basic necessities such as
milk. With donations from family in Sydney I have arranged to buy 2
cows each for 2 of the centres and 200 chickens for another and also
paid for the construction of a hen house. This will now provide
enough milk and eggs for the centres and any excess will be sold.
The needs are endless. These centres are also refuges for abused
women. I met a 14 yr old mother who has been abandoned by her
parents for bringing shame on the family by becoming pregnant out of
wedlock! The man who promised to marry her has absconded. The
centres provide training (cottage industries) for these mothers who
are often illerate, so they will have a skill and are able to earn a
living when they leave.
This email is going out to friends and family in over 9 countries.
Some of you have worked tirelessly for TRO over the past 20 years.
Having lived and worked amongst these people I can tell you without
a doubt that your efforts are not in vain. You’d never find a more
dedicated bunch of people such as those working for TRO. They work
long days and have a ‘makkalukaha" (‘for the people’) attitude in
everything they do.
On a lighter note……
Sleeping-in is not a choice we have in this part of the world – the
cockadoodledo usually starts around 4.30 and goes on until around
6am when the last lazy rooster decides to join in! I am usually up
and out of bed by 5.30am with absolutely nothing to do until I leave
for work at 8am. I lie in the hammock under the mango tree until the
sun is up and scorching, around 7am. One of our neighbours must have
managed to buy some batteries for his radio – he thinks nothing of
sharing his choice of Tamil music with the entire neighbourhood from
about 5am and then again late into the night. He plays the music so
loud that it is really horrible and distorted.
I ride about 2km to work along a dirt road bordered by beautiful
paddy fields on one side. The fields were dry and brown when I
arrived in February, but are now being ploughed and prepared for
‘Siru Poham" (low season) cultivation. It is sad to see young boys
who should be at school working in the fields. For farmers who
cannot afford to pay for labour, this is the next best thing – to
have their children help in the field. Very young girls bring cooked
food to the field for their fathers and brothers at lunchtime.
I am going to miss everyone here so much, particularly the 3 young
boys in our compound who insist on doing a ‘full service’ on my bike
each morning!! All I need is to have the rear tyres inflated a
little. They love tinkering with bikes and I seem to have provided
them with the perfect toy.
Kate is another Aussie volunteer sharing the house with me. She
arrived 3 weeks ago and plans on staying for 6 months teaching
English. We both have a session of debriefing at the end of each
day, which is great. I have been translating for Kate both in the
neighbourhood and at the orphanage where we teach together on
Sundays. She is now hurriedly writing down Tamil phrases that she
can use after I am gone. It's been a lot of fun and I will miss
This incredible experience would not have been possible if not for
the support and encouragement of my immediate and extended family.
My employers were generous in allowing me 5 weeks ADDITIONAL leave
as part of their Tsunami relief effort. I was therefore able to save
some of my leave and hope to come back again, maybe late next year.
See (some of) you soon...