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by Bryant Richards
December 26 2004 is a day that will remain etched in the blood and tears of the people of Sri Lanka forever. It was a day when mothers, fathers, daughters and sons were stripped away from their loved ones by the power of an unforgiving ocean, a day that took lives and livelihoods.
The destruction, both physical and emotional, is evident as members of The Salvation Army in Sri Lanka walk through tsunami-devastated villages. The rubble and household effects lie indiscriminately strewn across the ravaged landscape and yet the real story unfolds as we listen to people.
It is in listening to the retelling of painful memories that we start to grasp the magnitude of what the tsunami has done to this country.
The story of the Lorant family from Alavali, a fishing village in the north of Sri Lanka, is typically tragic. Thomas and his wife lost two of their daughters as well as his brother and sister. Today they have rebuilt a shelter from the rubble of their home and receive food support from the local camp for tsunami victims.
Thomas and his father have started weaving small nets out of coconut leaves so they can commence fishing again, if only along the shore.
In the north, it is not just the tsunami that people are learning to cope with. The area has seen 20 years of war between the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the Sri Lankan government. Many families had already experienced the grief of losing sons and daughters to the war. Another fisherman, Jayaraj, lost a son to the war and then saw his wife injured in the tsunami.
For now there is peace but people know how quickly things can change. Because of this uncertainty, any rebuilding process in the north has been tentative.
Stories full of sadness and loss echo throughout Sri Lanka and among the families The Salvation Army is working with. In Akurala, a small village in the southern district of Galle, The Salvation Army has provided supplementary food supplies, clothing, tents and other temporary shelter as well as – probably most importantly – community counselling by a team of Sri Lankan Salvationists.
In a neighbouring village, The Salvation Army has set up a project to put 187 families back into business by funding the essential equipment in a coir- manufacturing business. Workers use the husk from coconuts to make rope and decorative items. For the price of a good lounge suite, an entire village now has its livelihood back.
The main strategy in the south has always been the building of permanent housing for the displaced. A large plot of plantation land had been allocated to The Salvation Army by the government to establish an entirely new community. Galagoda Wattha, as the estate is known, boasts pepper, cinnamon and rubber trees, and it is here the Army waits with anticipation for building to commence, once negotiations with the government have been finalised. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka himself was at the opening of the project.
Within 20 minutes of the project being unveiled, more than 500 people had applied for one of the new houses. By the next day the project was oversubscribed. Now the work begins to decide who will be able to start a new life in Galagoda Wattha.
Back in the north, a coordination body which included the government agent, LTTE representatives and other community leaders has put together a list of 140 war widows also affected by the tsunami. Because of The Salvation Army’s long history in the area, and its proven social concern and mobilisation, it has been invited to work alongside these women and provide empowerment and wellbeing programmes.
As a newcomer to the International Emergency Services team, I see that we offer hope as we form partnerships with the affected and as we search and toil together in forging a positive future.
I must admit that at times I just cannot bring myself to meet another family, hear their story and take another photo. It is all just too personal for me to pry too deep – and then tell the world. Yet I know these people find relief and some release to their pain as they tell their story. This act in itself is part of the healing process.
Constant exposure to these catastrophic stories can also harden people to the painful reality of the situation. Stories tend to merge together as we spend ‘just another day’ at the office. It is vital that everyone involved here in the ministry of The Salvation Army, whether Sri Lankans or those of us who have come from overseas to support the local work, continue to seek the heart and eyes of Jesus and to serve with his compassion.
We can never expect to understand the depth of grief, of pain and loss, but we can listen. We can cry with the mother who has lost her daughter. We can pray with the family as we provide a tent as a means of temporary shelter. We can hope that the love of Jesus emanates powerfully as we help in meeting their most urgent needs and start to set in place the means by which they can get back on with their lives.
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© 2013 The Salvation Army