A year later, many tsunami victims still wait for help

In Sri Lanka, housing shortage, corruption are major problems

December 26, 2005|By MARK MAGNIER | MARK MAGNIER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KATUGODA, Sri Lanka -- Sitting in the tattered tent that has been his home for eight months, Pela Ketiyage Sanjaya Premanath waves the flies away as he grips the cheaply framed photograph of his wife and reflects on what might have been.

Chandrika would still be alive, Pela Ketiyage says, if she had ignored a mother's natural instinct and run away from the gargantuan wave. Instead, she headed toward the sea to save her child, not knowing he had taken the infant to higher ground.

It has been a year since the deadliest tsunami in living memory killed an estimated 220,000 people, and here in southern Sri Lanka life has moved on. From Pela Ketiyage's vantage point, however, it hasn't moved that far.

Pela Ketiyage's life underscores the problems that dog the survivors a year later: the frustratingly slow pace of reconstruction; the lingering pain felt from Africa's East Coast to the Indonesian island of Sumatra; and the enormous human toll of the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.

After the water demolished Pela Ketiyage's house, killing six family members, the eight survivors headed for the nearby Sugatharama Buddhist temple, where they spent several weeks with hundreds of other refugees. Eventually, however, the head monk started losing patience with people smoking and drinking on hallowed ground. So the family moved in with friends, until they wore out that welcome.

Today they live in a 10- foot-square tent pitched between the coastal road and the remains of a former grocery store, now their kitchen. Recently they've come under pressure from the former shop owner to leave here as well.

Throughout the tsunami zone, the lack of permanent housing remains a major problem, as do graft, confusion and incompetence surrounding the spending of billions on reconstruction. Months ago, a government official promised Pela Ketiyage, 27, and his family a place to live, and asked them to fill out some forms. But because they're not in an official camp, they've been overlooked.

Recovery efforts go through stages, and the tsunami aftermath is no exception. With most emergency food and basic health needs met, housing has become the priority. Sri Lankan government officials initially promised to have 60 percent of permanent houses built within a year and 100 percent by 2007.

That has proved wildly optimistic. Less than 10 percent of the permanent houses are done, as Pela Ketiyage's growing frustration attests. More than 300,000 people are still displaced from their homes in Aceh in Indonesia and more than 100,000 in Sri Lanka.

All told, 12 nations were hit by the tsunami that followed a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Aceh. About 223,000 people were killed, according to U.N. figures, although the exact number might never be known -- many bodies washed out to sea, and population figures in the affected areas were not always reliable. In Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the worst hit, entire communities washed away. Thailand's tourist industry was hard hit; parts of the Maldives were temporarily submerged.

The United Nations estimates that 2 million people were left homeless after the wave destroyed nearly 400,000 houses throughout the region. Global aid pledges reached $13.6 billion. But the amount delivered has been lower, as often happens, and Oxfam estimates that 20 percent of those displaced are in permanent housing.

The outpouring of money and legions of aid workers often have been too much to absorb, dubbed by some people the second tsunami. Some quietly acknowledge that there's too much money to spend effectively.

Sri Lanka's highly centralized government bureaucracy has at times nearly ground to a halt, creating bottlenecks. Scores of registered charity groups and untold thousands of unregistered do-gooders often work at cross-purposes.

The northern and eastern shores of Sri Lanka, some of the hardest hit, have received far less aid than the south, stronghold of the majority ethnic Sinhalese. In Hambantota, the home district of the president, plans call for building 2,253 houses, although 1,158 lost their homes, says Danny Lee, a representative with the Tzu Chi Foundation of Taiwan, which recently scaled back its construction plans.

There have been the inevitable corruption charges, particularly surrounding Sri Lanka's presidential election in November. "There's been huge bungling and misallocation of funds," added Fredrica Jansz, a reporter with the Sunday Leader newspaper, which published an expose on the questionable use of tsunami funds in bank accounts linked to the president.

"People not even affected by the tsunami are receiving aid just because they know someone," said Anushika Amarasinghe, Colombo-based program director with Transparency International.

In the isolated village of Sindujayapura, fishermen who lost their boats line up to clean a reservoir twice a week for $6 under an Oxfam work-for-cash program. They welcome the subsistence help, their only income, but say the real problem is local government agents who play favorites.

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