Rebuilding Sri Lanka after the flood

Thiyagarajan and his fellow fishermen on Vailankanni beach. Picture: Sephi Bergerson
Thiyagarajan and his fellow fishermen on Vailankanni beach. Picture: Sephi Bergerson
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Ten years ago Scots contributed £2.7 million to Catholic aid in tsunami-struck Sri Lanka. Life is now better than it was before, says Alistair Dutton

WHEN I arrived in Sri Lanka in 2004 I saw the total destruction caused by the Boxing Day tsunami. Houses and trees had been ripped out of the ground along the eastern coast, with bodies and belongings strewn among the debris. Over 30,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka alone, not to mention India, Indonesia, Thailand and Myanmar.

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake which had erupted under the sea near Aceh, north Indonesia, had sent a wave fanning out across the Indian Ocean at speeds of nearly 500mph.

The waves turned into walls of water as they hit the coast and slammed into coastal areas with little or no warning, killing over 230,000 people in 14 countries. Millions were left injured, homeless, desperate, and heartbroken by the loss of loved ones.

I flew out to Sri Lanka in the days that followed to help set up the emergency response of the global Caritas network of Catholic international aid agencies, including the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF). As Caritas established teams throughout the island, I worked in what was left of the villages on the east coast of the island. Every building within several hundred meters of the coast had been laid to waste. The local population were traumatised, bewildered and in need of immediate emergency support.

The huge generosity of the Scottish people at the time meant that SCIAF received £2.7 million in donations and was able to provide food, water, clothes, and temporary shelters, and later permanent houses and long-term help to over 357,000 people.

When I arrived one of the first things we did was to set up temporary shelters where survivors could live for a few months while we built permanent houses for them. Working closely with the survivors, we selected volunteers to help us to organise the community so we could get relief out to as many people as possible.

Earlier this month I went back to Sri Lanka and revisited some of the villages where I helped set up those early temporary shelters. In the village of Mylambavely, near the city of Batticaloa, I had the great pleasure to meet Michael and Malar. Both had lost their respective spouses and their grief was unbearable. Even ten years later, when they recounted the events of 2004 I could still see the pain in their eyes.

Yet life moves on and the heartache and pain does fade. Four years ago Michael and Malar were married and they have just celebrated the first birthday of their beautiful son, Jackson. Today they live in one of the permanent houses that SCIAF and its sister agencies in Caritas provided.

They told me they had lived in very basic small huts before and they could never have dreamed of owning such a house. The house itself is nothing special, with a kitchen, living room, bathroom and two bedrooms. But it is built of bricks and has a good roof which can hopefully withstand the strong winds from the next cyclone and a wave should there be another tsunami.

For Michael and Malar the house has given them security, and an asset so they can plan their financial future in a way that would never had been possible before. Along with their new home, they told me how Jackson is a symbol of the new hope and dreams that they have for the future.

Thanks to Scottish donations, SCIAF has been able to build new houses for 420 other families. In addition to the new homes, I saw other signs that people had not only recovered, but were now living better lives than before the tsunami.

I also revisited the village of Kathankudy. Caritas had decided in the first days to work in this village because it had been one of the poorest areas in the district. It was and is almost exclusively Muslim and prior to the tsunami had been culturally isolated from the rest of the community on the east coast, which is predominantly Hindu. Previously there had been high levels of distrust between the two communities and one of the positive developments following the tsunami was that they worked together more closely and one can now detect the strong trust they have in each other.

No-one can take away the pain and the grief of the loved ones lost in the tsunami, but for those that were left behind it has been an opportunity to build better lives.

When international aid charities such as SCIAF work in emergency situations it is vital that we provide immediate relief to those who are suffering. This obviously helps us to save as many lives as possible in the short term. However, the real test of our worth is whether our long-term work to help survivors recover makes their communities stronger and more resilient, so they can enjoy a future of hope.

• Alistair Dutton is the director of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF), www.sciaf.org.uk