Overview Sri Lanka
SOS came forward to help our village
“There was something different about the sea that day….we normally go fishing early in the morning and since our homes are very near the sea, we come back, rest awhile and go back again. But that day the waves rushed towards us, fast and furious, forcing us to retreat. Meanwhile the church had organized an event—it was the day after Christmas—and my family was getting ready to attend it. I warned them to stay away from the sea. In no time at all, the waves attacked us ferociously and till today I marvel at how we somehow survived. We lost everything of course—our house, boat, engine. When SOS came forward to help our village, I joined them as a volunteer”—Peter, Kayankerny village, Sri Lanka
Nindhaur, Ampara District
They serve as grim reminders of a tragedy that people—especially survivors—would prefer to erase irrevocably from their lives and memory. Yet the few dilapidated and decrepit structures dotting Sri Lanka’s eastern coastline— among the worst-hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004—are ample indicators of the vast scale and magnitude of the disaster. If the rubble scattered on the floors and the water marks left behind on the open walls could speak, they would mention the 39,000 deaths due to the frenzy of the Tsunami; the 1,000,000 people affected, the 114,000 houses damaged and destroyed, the devastating impact on the coastline with boats, nets, engines and ports damaged, and the colossal loss in terms of emotional trauma. Trapped in the silence lies the suffering and anguish felt ten years ago.
“Sri Lanka had never experienced devastation like this. It was the first time for all of us; we were really struggling—the Government, private sector, NGOs.
SOS is not a relief organization, we went to field without any experience and learnt in the field; our intention was to help people in need. Initially we couldn’t travel on the roads, all organizations could go to affected areas only after three days or so. In the coastal province, in southern areas like Peraliya and Gandera, we rushed immediate relief: food, clothing, water; we set up medical camps where doctors from our Children’s Village Galle were able to help and child centers where children were protected and engaged in trauma therapy and games,” says Ananda Karunarathne, National Director, SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka, outlining the immediate relief measures provided by SOS ten years ago in the wake of the Tsunami crisis.
Divakar Ratnadurai, the genial Deputy National Director, SOS Children’s Villages, has a ‘part of his heart’ embedded in the two villages SOS selected for rehabilitation work post-Tsunami—Kayankerny and Komari.
Working in challenging conditions with an on-going (Tamil militant) war, Divakar developed close, personal bonds with the people he spent time helping, selecting local volunteers to assist in collecting data and information about peoples’ needs. “You can never replace what people lost in the Tsunami” admits Divakar frankly, “ but we tried to at least replace 60 percent of the material things they had lost. As immediate relief initiatives, we distributed food, clothes, slippers; people told us they were tired of dry rations given by all relief agencies so we loaded up fresh vegetables and they welcomed those !” smiles Divakar.
As part of mid-term relief measures, 264 temporary shelters were built in record time in Kayankerny with the help of volunteers; generator-powered electricity and medical aid was also provided; the distribution of boats, bicycles, kitchen utensils, furniture and school books for children and setting up child centers where organized play and counseling combined to help deal with trauma, was common to both villages. The temporary houses were later replaced ( around mid-2006) by 264 permanent houses in Kayankerny and 677 in Komari, complete with proper drains, wells, trees and plants, gravel roads, a kindergarten school, a play-ground and a community social center. Nine Tsunami/social centers, six kindergarten centers and three Family Strengthening Programmes (FSP) with a special focus on nutrition, health and education, were launched simultaneously with the rebuilding of homes and peoples’ lives.
In response to the peoples’ –especially female—personal requirements, SOS decided to distribute Rs 30,000 in three instalments to every Tsunami-affected villager, convincing banks to open accounts with just a photograph and an SOS authorization letter; peoples’ homes and records had all been washed away by the Tsunami. This money proved to be a turning point in the lives of most families in Kayankerny and Komari—while some villagers bought essentials for their homes, most used it to start small businesses to earn a living.
50 year-old Dhayanidhi Poonayi runs a small grocery shop outside the house that SOS built for her and 263 others in Kayankerny almost 8 years ago.
“Earlier we used to sell chilli powder and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. The Tsunami destroyed us further. My children had quit their studies. When SOS came here, they gave us a house and money, with which I started this shop; I now earn Rs 5,000 a month, I’ve bought a motor-bike and a three-wheeler and a cow from my savings and two of my children have re-started their studies” says Dhayanidhi gratefully.
Kayankarny SOS Co-worker Jayaprakash remembers the impact of the money given to villagers, “People started new lives due to the money. Their attitude towards education changed—we used to provide mid-day meals for children earlier along with education and extra classes, later when that stopped, parents would ask us only for continued help in educating their children, understanding that education equals better jobs.”
T Kalidhasan, Principal of the local school in Kayankarny openly credits the increase in the number of Ordinary(O) and Advanced(A) Level students in the school since 2010, to the afternoon classes conducted by SOS in the activity center in the village. “The long-term impact is in the attitude towards education—earlier girls here would get married at the age of 14 to 16 years, boys at 20. Now this has reduced drastically” says Kalidhasan.
21 year-old Susanthini, studying Christianity at Valaichenai college, Kayankerny’s first A-level student and a role model for youngsters in her village, is well aware of her responsibilities, “It was hard for students here to even think of reaching A levels earlier. SOS is the main reason I am in college today; they supported me through O and A levels with books, stationary, meals, even shoes! I feel very proud and happy. I am going to study to become a teacher and serve society,” she concludes earnestly.
The ten year journey from devastation to development has seen remarkable high points and unique challenges. Divakar recalls quick lessons learnt as a result of prevalent cultural practices in both villages—building toilets outside the home; those that had already been built inside were quickly converted into store rooms for fishermen to keep their nets. For a vast majority of the villagers ( as polled in a survey conducted by SOS) access to a toilet and using it, was a novelty, courtesy SOS post the Tsunami.
“In Peraliya and Gandera where we built social centers in response to the Tsunami’s devastation, there is a complete turn-around--today education is valued, there are good results in O and A levels, the drop-out rate is low, children who used to be targeted for abuse by tourists at the beach are safe in schools, hygiene levels have gone up, domestic violence rates are lower” says the National Director, listing the snow-balling effect of SOS intervention over the years. These two centers continue their FSP-related work for people below the poverty line, even as Tsunami survivors have regained their equilibrium and their standard of living.
A simple plaque inscribed with the names of 106 children who died due to the Tsunami is the only visible indication of SOS efforts to rebuild the entire Al Misbah Muslim School at Kalmunei. Today the school, complete with a computer center, has 1600 children studying for their O levels.
What we promised we delivered, says Divakar, we were the only organization to stay right till the end; in Komari for instance, there were 39 relief organizations for Tsunami victims, SOS involvement in Tsunami-affected villages of Kayankerny and Komari ended on December 31, 2013.
Komari school teacher Kamal Raj— both an SOS beneficiary and volunteer-- offers the highest praise possible when he declares that in case Community Based Organizations ( CBOs) or NGOs are unable to offer further aid, he will ensure that the work SOS started with the children’s kindergarten program and tuition classes, continues for future generations.
Peter continued to work for SOS, having travelled the distance from being a victim to beneficiary to volunteer to co-ordinator; today though he works for the Rural Development Scheme, he is a respected and familiar figure in the village, a proud representative of SOS efforts to bring back normalcy and progress in Kayankerny.