Picking up the pieces in Sri Lanka

Feizal Samath:

As this tragedy-struck country picks up the pieces from a day of horror, destruction and loss of human lives, people are rallying around, helping, offering words of support to the needy and providing moral support to others. This is the Sri Lankan people at its best, a trait seen in the past when colour, creed, race or community didn’t matter. Perhaps this may bind the nation together, provide the healing it needs to overcome its biggest enemy – the ethnic conflict.

Old political scores are forgotten. Enemies mingle together. Friend and foe decide what to do together. “I have seen the destruction in Galle town and sent a report to the prime minister. The government will now take steps to provide relief,” Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe was quoted on a local television as saying from the devastated Galle town in southern Sri Lanka. A rare comment indeed! President Chandrika Kumaratunga rushes back to the country while on holiday in the UK to lead the massive relief operation. She should take a cue from her political opponent and visit affected towns. Forget politics. Sit together with the opposition and let this country rise from the ashes — so to speak.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse who showed good control of the situation until the President’s return had earlier appealed for international support that has been pouring in. Medical help, relief supplies, food and dry rations are flowing in. Television stations are running non-stop pictures of the tragedy. The shock on the faces of the victims will be etched in the memory of many others who escaped the killer waves. And also those who watch these television images. The killer tsunami waves triggered by the massive earthquake has brought untold misery to Sri Lanka. Even for hard-nosed journalists like us who have traversed the length and breadth of this country reporting on the war and brutal killing that has cost the lives of close to 100,000 people in the past two decades, its extremely difficult to sit down and describe the brutality of the surging sea without shedding a tear or two. However, Sri Lankans are a resilient group of people and are gradually coming to grips with the worst ever disaster this country has seen.

Along with relief that’s pouring in, scores of foreign journalists are also flying in, in droves for one of the biggest international stories of the year. With some 200 tourists perishing in the disaster, thousands of tourists have already returned or are preparing to leave. According to some reports, almost empty planes were sent to Sri Lanka to pick up tourists desperate to get back. While television pictures concentrated a lot of the southern region, it was unfortunate that there was less focus on the northern Jaffna district and the eastern districts of Ampara and Trincomalee which bore the brunt of the killer waves. Meanwhile, what is needed is a state-led, coordinated relief effort. All relief supplies must be channelled through the disaster management unit set up at the Prime Minister’s office. When the dust settles in this week and the weeks to come, the biggest need would be rebuilding the lives of the survivors and their families. Let’s hope that politicians on opposing sides would continue to let bygones be bygones and work together to lift this country from the ashes. This country of many communities is binding together in the aftermath of this terrible disaster. One hopes it would continue to bind together to and find a solution to the ethnic conflict.

Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo