Setback to Lanka’s reconstruction

Amantha Perera:

Vaharei, a fishing village in eastern Sri Lanka and controlled by the Tamil rebels, had been enjoying the breathing space made possible by the three-year-old ceasefire in the ethnic conflict.

After 10 years, the absence of open war after the February 2002 truce allowed a semblance of normalcy to sink into this village. Public transport was restored between the government-held areas and rebel territory, easing the movement of people. The biggest symbol of Vaharei’s resurgence was the new hospital complex with its entrance looking out to the sea.

But the Dec. 26. tsunami brought the new hospital to the ground. The report

from Sri Lankan Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition said that damages to health care facilities in the Tiger-held Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu administrative districts reached more than $4.5 million.

A month after the tsunami, a group of medics from the Italian Red Cross set up a field hospital in the compound that was to have housed the new hospital. But it is unlikely that any permanent hospital would be constructed, and no reconstruction work has started. On top of this, the lack of trained professionals is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka’s conflict, which has led to the deaths of more than 64,000 people.

The Sri Lankan military has raised concerns that the field hospitals in territory controlled by the LTTE could give them an advantage in the battlefield. But whether the hospital comes up or not does not mean much for some. Forty-five year-old widow Kasumathi Thangamani, who has lived all her life at Panichchankerni, south of Vaharei, feels that the tsunami has set her life back by much more than 10 years. In the area ravaged by the waves around Vaharei

referred to as Koralai Paththu North, 2,887 houses were rendered useless.

According to government statistics, 3,497 families lost their homes. More than two months after the tsunami, no reconstruction work has commenced in the area. There are quite a few unique challenges to aid workers like the danger that mines and unexploded devices had been shifted by the waves.

The complex politics in the east stemming from the ethnic conflict is also hampering relief work. The Tigers designated the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) to carry out the bulk of the relief work in Tamil-dominated areas. However, the government

and other rival Tamil parties allege that the TRO is a Tiger front and prevents others

from carrying out effective relief work.

The east remains an area to watch — civilians are caught in between as Tigers battle other Tamil groups, and in the wake of the killings that followed a breakaway by its former eastern commander, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna, in March 2004.

The killing of the former head of the LTTE office in Batticaloa in July started off a series of tit- for-attacks between the Tigers and their rivals. Since then, only once have the attacks subsided, in the wake of the tsunami, only to resume in February. The highest-ranking LTTE leader to be killed during the ceasefire is the Tigers’ political head for the East, Eliathamby Lingarasa, gunned down on Feb. 7. On Mar. 21, Mangalan Master, a top Karuna lieutenant, was ambushed and killed.

It is unclear how long would tsunami relief operations can be in place and how far can the relief effort reach, under rising tensions. One attack can drive aid convoys scampering out of affected areas. The air around Batticaloa is pregnant with an all-out battle for supremacy between the Tigers and Karuna loyalists. — IPS