FLASHBACK Survivors sift through the rubble looking for items they can salvage from their homes. Thousands of families were made homeless by the tsunami and were forced to live in relief camps. GOAL helped by building temporary shelters, as well as providing food and non-food items, such as blankets, soap and cooking utensils.
Road to recovery
Ballinrobe journalist Liam Horan travelled to Sri Lanka with GOAL recently and assessed how the people are coping two years after the tsunami
TWO years ago this very week, death piled high on these narrow streets. When the tsunami struck the Ampara region on St Stephen’s Day, they used every means possible to escape, some making it far enough to avoid its powerful grasp – others were not so lucky and were swallowed up in the most devastating tidal wave the modern world has known.
“There were dead bodies everywhere here,” recalls a man locals refer to deferentially as Mr Baya, a former Ministry of Education official, “more than 7,000 bodies were buried just 3km from here in Sammunthurai. I lost quite a lot of my relatives and friends. Even now, when I think about it, tears come to my eyes.
“I was here that day, and people started running away from the sea shouting ‘the sea is coming, the sea is coming’. I was laughing because how could the sea be coming? But people just kept coming – cars, lorries, bicycles, walking, running.
“It was a very pathetic scene. It was a few days before we could even get to the coastline because of the debris of broken buildings and dead bodies. The hospital here was full of dead bodies.”
Around Sri Lanka’s coastline, it is thought that 35,000 people perished. Over 500,000 people were displaced. The paddy fields were contaminated by sea water. Schools, shops, houses, and public buildings were down. Roads were destroyed. Bridges crumbled. Three quarters of the country’s fishing fleet disintegrated and fisheries buildings were swept aside.
It was into this hellish scene that Irish aid agency GOAL threw themselves within days of the tsunami.
Life had ground to a halt.
Here – near Ampara, on Sri Lanka’s east coast – and elsewhere, the tsunami left a long shadow. “We sent emergency teams to three of the worst-affected districts in Sri Lanka – Ampara in the east, Hambantota and Matara in the south,” explains GOAL CEO, John O’Shea.
“Our first task was to provide life-saving assistance for those in dire need, bringing emergency aid and assistance to thousands of displaced families who took refuge in schools and government buildings, and out in the open air on higher ground.”
And so began the pain-staking return to what might pass for normality for the people of coastal Sri Lanka. Money donated by the people of Ireland was put to good use. “One of our first jobs was to build walls around the cemeteries where the dead were buried,” says GOAL’s Country Director for Sri Lanka, John Wain, a native of Douglas, Co Cork.
The projects quickly mounted. Education means a lot to Sri Lankans, so GOAL ambitiously took on the task of rebuilding 63 schools, some with populations of over 1,500 students. “This is one of the biggest building projects GOAL has ever done, and I am happy to say that we will have a lot of the schools re-opened by the second anniversary of the tsunami this Christmas,” adds John Wain, on the site of a huge school building in Ampara.
“One year ago, we were in the planning stage, but this is the fruit of our labour, the buildings come up out of the ground.”
The scale of the rebuilding programme has astounded locals. “Apart from building the schools, we have kitted them out too with desks, tables, and other resources. It has been an amazing undertaking, and there are times when you get very frustrated at the delays, but I think when you look back we will realise we have carried out a huge amount of work that will help to bring life back to normal here,” said Mark Ford, who was seconded to GOAL by Clonmel-based engineering giants Kentz in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 destruction.
With houses wiped out, an immediate priority for GOAL was the rebuilding of homes. “Initially, the Government ruled that no houses could be rebuilt within 100m of the sea, for fear of another tsunami striking. But that has since been relaxed to 35m, and we have been able to oversee the building of a large number of houses all around the coast,” says John Wain.
“We have tried two different approaches, one where we employ sub-contractors to build the houses, and the other where we give people grants to build their own homes. The latter has worked best, and all around Sri Lanka now people are building their own homes, hiring in blocklayers or plasterers or whatever they need.
“We gave out 1,350 temporary shelters after the tsunami, and many people are now using these temporary shelters as garden sheds as they move into their new homes. We grant-aided the reconstruction of 195 new homes by the owners themselves.”
In one home under construction, just a few hundreds yards away from the sea at Kirinda in southern Sri Lanka, the owner and his wife take a break from their work to tell of how GOAL have played a huge part in bringing their lives back to normal.
“GOAL gave us first of all a temporary shelter, and they have also given us a little cart from which we sell fruit. In a few weeks, we will be moving into a new house which has also been built for us by GOAL. Our house was destroyed in the tsunami,” said husband Amir Ismail.
All around the coastal regions of Sri Lanka, the cry is the same: “Thanks to the people of Ireland for all they have done for us.” Fishermen are back at sea and they have impressive new buildings on the shoreline where they sell the fish to the fish wholesalers who travel from Colombo.
Children are back in proper schools. Small shopkeepers are up and running again. The farmers can drive to their fields. The woman can bathe the children on the riverside steps. Families have a roof over the head again and – thanks to GOAL, and the people of Ireland – there is some small sliver of hope where previously there was only despair and destruction.
* Donations to GOAL can be sent to GOAL, PO Box 19, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin or for debit/credit card donations phone 01 2809779. Donations can also be made at www.goal.ie.