At disaster sites, leaders try to help while numb with grief

The Rev. Indika Anthony, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows church in Sri Lanka, looks out over fields where more than 1,000 died.
HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka - For hours that first day, the Rev. Indika Anthony loaded up his pickup truck with dead bodies. Some were piled like cargo in the back. But, much worse for the priest, others were seated like passengers in the front, stuffed even into the middle seat next to him as he drove away, his white cassock soaked in blood.

Anthony had finished offering Mass at his church, Our Lady of Sorrows, when a tsunami transformed the playing fields below the church grounds into a graveyard with 1,000 bodies, most of them women and children who had been at a Sunday market on the beach.

For hours Anthony carried bodies to the truck by himself, about 60 of them, one by one.

"I asked for help. 'Please come and help me!' But they were not helping me because they were searching for their own families," Anthony said.

In this southeastern corner of the country, accessible from Colombo, the capital, only by a single winding road, the transport planes and ship containers and truckloads of the world's relief effort eventually trickle through the shocked, numb fingers of community leaders such as Anthony. He is the point man here for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services' aid effort, and he needs help.

Every village along the rim of the Indian Ocean that has just experienced the worst natural disaster in memory is having to learn how to provide relief on a mass scale. People such as Anthony are the first sets of eyes, ears and hands to sort out needs in communities previously untouched by international relief agencies.

Partners are victims

"It's an ability to land anywhere because the Catholic Church is so, so omnipresent," said Kevin Hartigan, South Asia regional director for CRS, during a three-day visit to the wiped-out southern coastline of Sri Lanka. "The disadvantage with a situation like this is that [our partners] are also victims."

Regions with the most history of strife, such as northern Sri Lankan towns that are victims of two decades of civil war, are in some ways better prepared to cope with yet another torrent of displaced refugees. They know better how to begin rebuilding communities and livelihoods, and where to begin.

"People still don't know where to start and how to start and what to do," said the Rev. Charles Hewawasam, pastor of the Shrine of Our Lady of Matara. He was giving Communion after Mass on Dec. 26 when he saw not a wall of water but a car hurtling into his church at the front of the tsunami.

He sprinted for his life. An elderly nun also giving Communion died, one of more than 500 deaths in the Matara community on the southern coast. That figure might be low; in one village of 400 families near here, almost every home was destroyed.

It is not clear even when rebuilding can or should begin. The stench of death still lingers here, as bodies are being found and delivered by tractor or by truck to mass burial grounds.

As many as 3,000 Hambantota residents and up to 2,000 visitors to the beach market are believed to have perished. Most have been buried in a mass grave on the grounds of a mosque in this predominantly Muslim town, whose name literally translates as "Muslim Port."

Many of the bodies Anthony found that first day were naked, their clothes ripped away by the incredible force of the sea that carried the bodies hundreds of yards.

Each foot of shattered coastline is testament to that force: brick and concrete houses pulverized into chunks; iron and steel crumpled like aluminum foil; smashed cars, trucks and boats wrapped around uprooted trees or jammed at odd angles into buildings like projectiles.

The wreckage is grimly decorated with dispossessed household furniture, from mangled mattresses to a perfectly intact upholstered red chair.

"It's like a bomb, a bomb exploded," Anthony said, surveying the wreckage. Others described it as more like a tornado that relentlessly ground down about 500 miles of Sri Lankan coastline.

And for each building destroyed, so much more was destroyed within than can immediately be grasped. In the southwestern coastal district of Galle, the tsunami swallowed up a small hospital's maternity ward, taking the recently born out to sea to their deaths. If records of their existence were committed to paper, even those papers were lost.

Galle's property deeds and election records were destroyed, officials said; relief workers are using yellowing election records to track down and account for the district's 5,000 estimated dead, 2,000 missing and tens of thousands of others displaced.

And for each boat wrecked along the coast, livelihoods were wrecked as well.

A.G. Nuwan, a 28-year-old father of two in the southwestern fishing and tourist village of Hikkaduwa, had returned from 11 days at sea at 3 a.m. the day the tsunami would hit. The boat he worked on was ready to unload more than 13,000 pounds of fish - an excellent catch - but the fish were still on the boat when it was engulfed by the tsunami.

Nuwan, not far from the boat when the waters came, was swept away, remarkably landing safely on the roof of the village railway station.

"We have no savings. We don't have bank accounts," said Nuwan, who was staying at a Buddhist monastery on a hilltop within walking distance of his intact home. For now he was afraid to return, like hundreds of thousands of others whose homes survived the tsunami.

Nuwan said he could have looted dead bodies to secure a living for years to come, but he chose not to. He plans to go back to fishing because he knows how to do nothing else, and the country needs fishermen. But he and perhaps hundreds of thousands of other fishermen need help that the government likely will not be able to provide anytime soon.

"Two-thirds of the Sri Lankan population rely on us for their food. The government should put us back on our feet to do our professions," Nuwan said. "Getting our boats and fishing equipment repaired, that is the most important thing to us."

This is only the physical catalog of obstacles to recovery and rebuilding. The fragile equilibrium of these communities has also been upended. On the back of a pickup truck, carrying a dozen young men sitting on coconuts and water and dry rations, a poignant hand-scrawled sign begins to explain this - "To the sea: you're so soft and nice, why did you become so cruel to us?"

Rejection of the sea

It's not just that countless boats and fishing nets have been destroyed, but that, unlike Nuwan, some of the fishermen who use those boats and nets say they do not ever want to return to the water. They had just seen their friends take their fascination with the sea to their deaths.

All along the coast, the curious had wandered into dried-out inlets and lagoon bottoms, eyeing old sunken boats or other oddities, unaware that the water that had been sucked out with such historic force would return in subsequent deadly waves. For some of the surviving witnesses, that bond with the sea is broken forever.

"I don't want to see in my life again the sea," said Narin Prasad, 34, a fisherman in Galle who was caught while on the shore by the tsunami, which ripped his clothes from him but left him alive. "Never in my life."

The rest of the economy suffered too. It's not just that hotels have been destroyed and tourists killed, but that hotels might not be replaced and the tourists might not return in great numbers.

"You look at the tourism infrastructure here that was destroyed and imagine what it will take for Sri Lanka to get back into that incredibly competitive market," Hartigan said during his survey of coastal damage. "Would this ever recover? Would people ever want to come back and vacation here again?"

And it's not just that these towns are in seemingly hopeless states of disrepair, but their governments are in disrepair, leaving religious leaders and aid organizations to fill the vacuum.

At Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples and Christian churches, local leaders distributed food and water to survivors and, in some cases, to police officers brought in from out of the area to help but apparently not being fed.

Religious leaders and churches, along with the government, tallied up damage and did their best to count their dead and living, while charities and private companies delivered food and water to relief camps and along the two-lane coastal road. The road itself was cleared of debris in a number of places not by government but by private efforts.

Nongovernmental agencies can't provide the security necessary to restore order, and it didn't appear the police and military were doing the job, either.

Locals and volunteers in Galle and elsewhere reported looting of dead bodies and victims' homes, rapes of survivors, even theft by police.

According to a local religious leader in Galle, on Friday a police sergeant commandeered a rental van full of dry rations that had been sent from Colombo; the religious leader pleaded to remain anonymous, certain that if he were named the police would take "revenge."

At the Galle town police station, Superintendent of Police Kalansooriya, who refused to give his full name, loudly and forcefully declared, "We are maintaining law and order so far."

Kalansooriya quickly denied, without even being expressly asked, that police have done anything wrong. He also said there had been no looting in Galle. His voice continued to bellow: "No serious incident happened."

Short term, long term

Despite so many obstacles, people's basic immediate needs are being met across most of the country. Sri Lankans are meeting immediate needs for food and water in most of the country, and only a mile inland from all the wreckage, the basic infrastructure is intact, complete with electricity and running water. Water contamination remains a threat, but clean water is being brought in by the truckload.

The hundreds of thousands of homeless people now need other supplies: bedsheets, pots, pans, cooking utensils. Catholic Relief Services and other charities have begun purchasing those and will begin distributing them soon. The survivors need counselors to begin coping with their loss, and CRS and other charities are beginning to provide those as well.

But what they will need most are temporary shelters that can eventually become new homes, and that is where CRS will be investing most of the money it will spend in Sri Lanka.

It is a logistically daunting task, requiring extensive cleanup on the ground - it could take three months in Galle, a municipal council member there said - and coordination with the national government, which met with CRS and other agencies yesterday to discuss the problem.

One characteristic bureaucratic hurdle: The government has a long-standing law, obviously ignored until now, that homes cannot be built within one kilometer of the sea. If observed, that law might have saved thousands of lives, but such a restriction is also utterly unworkable, relief agencies say - there's not enough unoccupied land a kilometer inland to house everyone.

Because many of Sri Lanka's newly homeless are not as desperately poor as those in India or as the refugees of ravaged African nations where CRS often works, rebuilding and recovery is far more expensive.

"You can't take these people who've lived with electricity and water put them in a mud hut," Hartigan said. "We're not used to disasters hitting these sorts of mid-income places. Usually, they hit rich countries who can take care of themselves, like the U.S. or Japan, ... or they hit really poor places."

For that reason and many others, he said, achieving the "pre-disaster state," the typical goal of a relief operation, doesn't seem possible.

Compounding the problem is the first irony of disaster aid: those areas without a history of strife and trauma are least equipped to rebuild now.

Many of Hartigan's local partners - such as Anthony in Hambantota and Hewawasam in Matara - have never before had to manage a relief effort. They will need help in everything from keeping track of the money to hiring people to supervising reconstruction.

In the weeks ahead, they will have astronomically more money at their disposal than they've ever had before, Hartigan said, and it will be a burden.

It would have been a burden even if these local partners had been untouched by the tsunami, but it is a far heavier load now. Anthony needs help just to drive the truck around Hambantota.

"I'm afraid to drive myself ... because it was the truck I used to take the bodies," he said. "I can't go alone. I have to take somebody."