SITUATION: Sri Lanka
Hope. . .
by Jennifer S.
It was a bright sunny morning in Hambantota
district on Poya day, a Buddhist praying holiday in Sri Lanka.
People were in a serene mood while the rest of the world still had a
hang-over after celebrating Christmas. Everybody was enjoying the solitude of a
calm Sunday morning.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Deepika Wikkramage and Mrs. M. Sriyawathee were on
their way to the Sunday fair, a weekly market located near the Hambantota
harbor. In an effort to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, the weekly
market activity was a sanctuary of hope and ephemeral distraction from the
pain brought about by the disappearances of Ms. Deepika’s father and Ms.
Sriyawathee’s brother .
By 9:30 a.m., all their hopes vanished, as the land area of Sri
Lanka changed by 20 minutes of a tsunami which caused more than 80,000 deaths
in this former British colony. In an interview with Shantha D. Pathirana ,
OPFMD Secretary–General in Manila, he said, “Those two women went to the
market to buy food and the market was very close to the sea. They were
affected by the tidal waves.”
The death of the two women
was a rude shock to the already suffering families but also to the members
of the Organization of Parents of Family Members of Disappeared (OPFMD). Mr. Pathirana added, “the day after we heard the
news, OPFMD were looking for their bodies but it was already too difficult
and impossible to identify anyone. The bodies were already bloated and smelled
bad and there were thousands of them lined up on the beach.” With a far–away
look, he softly whispers, “those people who died had sand in their mouths.”
A doubly paralyzing form of fear and wishful thinking awaits the
families and friends of Ms. Deepika and Ms. Sriyawathee as they
patiently look for them. They are slowly experiencing mental torture wondering
whether they are still alive and if so, under what conditions. Mr. Pathirana
said “after four days of search and rescue operations conducted by
government and civil society, the bodies that were left unidentified were
buried in a mass grave. Identified bodies were taken by their relatives but not
one of them were the remains of the two womenwhom we are looking for. The full
body photographs and fingerprints of many victims were taken and filed as
Sri Lanka , a teardrop
shaped island with a population of 18 million was badly hit by the tsunami
with 14 districts greatly affected. The most affected area was the Ampara
district, with more than 10,000 confirmed dead according to government
statistics . Second was the Galle district with many still unaccounted deaths
and many travelers stranded. This was also the place where one bus filled with
tourists overturned . Third was the Mullaitivu district, a Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) occupied area where data gathering was very difficult
because the LTTE did not let outsiders enter until recently.
Social problems were created
of an entirely different magnitude from a country wrecked by two decades
of war. The unimaginable shock of the natural
catastrophe slowly crept into the consciousness of the Sri Lankans because it
was so difficult to understand about the -tsunami. Everyone was caught
Statistics of victims of
tsunami - OPFMD members.
“In Sri Lanka , there is no history of earthquakes. It is our first
time to experience an earthquake and a tsunami, Mr. Pathirana said. “At 9:30
a.m. in Sri Lanka, water came up to the land and water went back to the
sea for about a stretch of 1 km. People could see the fish, the crabs and the
corals. People wanted to see the long beach. After 30 minutes, the second wave
came again in almost 10 meters high and very dangerous. There was no chance
for people to run.”
After the tsunami disaster, OPFMD reported to AFAD that 749 family
members of the disappeared were affected. 151 of whom were confirmed dead and
73 missing. The scale of physical destruction was unnerving to an already
hurting people .
As we talked about the OPFMD members, Mr. Pathirana’s shoulders
sagged and his eyes became misty yet he never wavered in telling me his
stories about his constituents. To emphasize the gigantic problems brought by
the tsunami disaster, he opened his black planner and showed me a location
map of Sri Lanka. At this point, he said, “There are 670 OPFMD members who
were displaced mostly in Hambantota area, their houses were destroyed. Some
bad people misused the incident and stole the jewelry from dead bodies while
some also took pieces of property and equipment from the houses.”
There were also children who became victims of the natural
disaster. Some survived but the after-effects brought about by the tsunami is
still evident on their faces and they live in fear. For many tsunami victims,
nightmares, memory loss and listlessness constantly recur in their mind. For
the families of the victims of disappearances, they were once again traumatized
and sent another shock wave of emotion in a never-ending drama of grief and
As their houses and properties were destroyed, the families are
more displaced than ever, some of them were made to stay in refugee camps,
where they sleep on mats on a concrete floor with a limited supply of safe
drinking water and food.
In the wake of the tsunami, Mr. Pathirana discussed their
organization’s course of action with their coordinators. OPFMD would take
immediate action to collect information and establish 62 centers in 14
districts to identify the needs of the victims, provide direct assistance
in the form of food, safe drinking water, clothing and immediate shelter.
They were also able to receive complaints of violations especially from tsunami
victims. As the days went by and more victims were found dead, donors came
forward so that OPFMD could guide donors to the proper disaster prone areas
providing them with masks and alcohol so they can see first hand the
destruction that broke the headlines on that bright Sunday morning.
“OPFMD offered a scholarship program to assist school children and
those engaged in vocational trainings. The education we will provide will
boost the confidence of the children and will give them hope to continue
amidst adversity,” Mr. Pathirana sighed as he flipped through the sheets of
paper of the mini project proposal he submitted to AFAD.
He was also comforted with the overwhelming support of civil
society. People were helping without considering ethnicity, religion, political
parties or language. The amazing generosity provided by civil society brought
showers of blessings out of storms of adversity.
On the national front, the government of President Chandrika
Bandaranayaka Kumaratunga created a scheme to assist displaced families
with a monthly allowance for six months until the survivorsshall have
The AFAD secretariat was also able to raise a significant amount
of local funds from the Redemptorist Church, Siervas de San Jose, Augustinian
Missionaries of the Philippines, and other kind-hearted groups and individuals
which amount was then divided between AFAD’s two affected members IKOHI
/ KontraS in Indonesia and OPFMD in Sri Lanka.
In a reflective mood, Mr.Pathirana revealed a unique scenario
during the tsunami disaster. He said, “Along Galle road, the second most
affected area in the country, the highway has a stretch of Buddhist statues
in a line, yet they were left undisturbed and not one destroyed, even the
The OPFMD Secretary–General Shantha Pathirana carries a big
responsibility on his shoulders as his constituents hope for better things to
The interview was done at the AFAD office when Mr. Shantha D.
Pathirana visited the Philippines during the simultaneous launching of the
book and video project entitled , “Healing Wounds, Mending Scars” on
February 28, 2005.