01/06/2005, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Mullaithivu, the tsunami and the civil war

by Danielle Vella

Bishop of Mannar promoted an aid campaign in an area marked by civil war and prostrated by tsunami. Many hopeless tried to suicide.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Giving destitute people hope for the future is crucial to rehabilitation efforts in the wake of the Tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, says Sri Lankan Catholic Bishop Rayappu Joseph.

Bishop Joseph heads the diocese of Mannar in northern Sri Lanka, and his people are no strangers to suffering. In more than two decades of civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels, the island's north has been hotly contested territory. Civilians there have repeatedly been subject to crossfire, displacement from their homes and severe poverty.

Now, in another blow, entire swathes of land have been laid to waste by the deadly tsunami waves which swept across Southeast Asia late last month. Hardest-hit in this region is the coastal area of Mullaithivu, where so far, the death toll has reached 7,000. This count is set to rise further still: when interviewed this week, Bishop Joseph said the bodies of three small children had just been recovered, and more corpses are found daily as pools of stagnant water are dredged.

In the mammoth rebuilding task which lies ahead, material aid alone is not enough. Solidarity expressed through personal presence with quake survivors is key to keeping hope alive. Bishop Joseph: "People in Mullaithivu are lifeless in the sense that they have lost all hope. They have lost everything. Every family has a sad story to tell. In each home, one or two people were killed".

So the response of the local church is twofold: distributing private donations of food, medicine and clothing and dispatching members of religious congregations to live among quake survivors.

"We have gone with lorry-loads of material and we have sent priests and sisters trained in counselling, to talk to people, to give them encouragement and hope for the future", continued Bishop Joseph, who personally oversaw church relief operations in Mullaithivu in the days immediately following the onslaught of the tidal wave.

People urgently need  basic necessities to survive, especially medication to treat strong infection which is proving resistant to normal treatment.

In practical terms, although emergency relief is still a matter of urgency, the most pressing need is fast becoming temporary resettlement. "At the moment, people are taking shelter in schools some way out of their villages. However the school term starts on 10 January so we must clear the buildings", said Bishop Joseph.

But this is not the only reason for action. "People need help so they can start life on their own once again. For this, they must be temporarily resettled. They certainly cannot return to their villages. They have been reduced to rubble, razed to the ground, people cannot even think about going back".

Essential to the long-term rebuilding process is equipping people with skills to find work. The people of Mullaithivu – in common with hundreds of thousands of quake survivors elsewhere in Sri Lanka and the rest of the region – depended on fishing to survive. All their boats and nets have been washed away by the Tsunami waves, so they have no means to earn a living now.

Caring for children orphaned by the disaster is another task which lies ahead. Bishop Joseph has urged his parish priests to open homes to cater for up to 20 children in each parish, and he himself is building one such home right now.

The local church is doing its utmost against heavy odds: 25 villages in Mullaithivu have been completely washed out, and Bishop Joseph estimated that as much as 98% of homes have been wiped out. Around 30,000 families are homeless.

The situation is complicated by politics: Mullaithivu falls within so-called uncleared territory, that is land controlled by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This reality threatens to compromise aid delivery. Bishop Joseph said he heard government aid had not reached these areas yet.

If so, the people of Mullaithivu could find themselves without the support they desperately need to piece their families and communities back together.

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See also
Bishops look at 2004
31/12/2004
Pakistani Church close to Sri Lankan victims
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Thai Catholics start reconstruction after the tsunami
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The tsunami questions man about his limits and the reasons for evil, says Card Sodano
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