Nature’s fury has kept the Tiger guerrillas much busier than the times during the near two decades of war they fought with the Sri Lankan security forces. I was greeted by heartrending scenes as I entered the heartland of the Tamil guerrilla controlled terrain – Mullaitivu - Friday (December 31) morning. Along the coast lay a vast swathe of destruction extending for miles.
Guerrilla cadres and relief workers pull out bodies from the debris – collapsed buildings, broken-down structures and fallen trees. The last rites are performed with an odd combination – kerosene and sugar. Makeshift pyres burn all round.
I walk around them. A few hundred yards away, a guerrilla cadre armed with an assault rifle is on a killing spree. He is shooting dead all the stray dogs he could see. He says they want to avoid the spread of disease. Worse enough, there have also been dogs feeding on human carcasses.
I had to obtain permission from the LTTE to enter the area. Civilians are required to obtain permission. They are selective. Those who get the clearance are inoculated and issued with face masks.
I walk past a collapsed building. My Tiger guide tells me that this was a home for children. Thirty-two had died on that day. Most of them were under three years.
The pyres exude a smell of burning flesh all around. My guide says he feels eerie. That was too much even for the battle-hardened one, a medic of all things. It was bizarre indeed. Night was engulfing the area. On the New Year’s eve, the only light to guide us came from the burning pyres. What a contrast to those glittering decorations of the years past.
As we move around, word is out that the Sea Tiger “Special Commander” Soosai is in the area. The presence of uniformed military cadres in the area proves it. Uniformed cadres are conspicuous by their absence. Most are in civvies. Soosai has been given the job of clearing the area fast. His men tell me that he has not slept for days now. He is personally supervising. Seeing Soosai was clear proof that reports of his parting ways with leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was again disinformation. Here he was, carrying out his leader’s orders. We were on our way back to Kilinochchi. As the headlight of our vehicle pierces the night air, we saw a stout figure in military fatigues. My guide excitedly whispers Soosai. That was how we spotted Soosai.
The worst problem it seems is the identification of bodies now bloated after being in the water for days. The next day, in another area, I found the dead were being dumped in mass graves. The stench was unbearable but the relief workers prodded on.
The injured had been moved to hospitals and even houses or open ground. Some of the serious cases have later been transferred to Vavuniya hospital after clearance was granted at the Army check-point. The Tigers have placed the death toll in their areas at over 20,000 with well over 12,000 missing.
It’s now two weeks since the tsunami struck the island; the shock and surprise caused by this enormous force from the sea have sunk in. The death toll and the damage it caused to property no longer make headlines.
Relief work is gradually turning into reconstruction – to build the shattered lives of the thousands living on the coastal belt of our country. A common disaster to the whole island, it struck in the so-called cleared and uncleared areas with no discrimination. But what was common in this disaster has not brought any common ground in the handling of relief work and plans for reconstruction. North-South mistrust still exists with the LTTE and the Government pointing fingers at each other.
The Tigers say the Government does not help them because of its alliance with the JVP. They say that 80% of the coast of the North and East is administered by the LTTE. They say that they have no hope for the rehabilitation of their fishermen because the Fisheries Ministry comes under the JVP.
The LTTE wants southern aid but wants control of it when it crosses the border. They are willing to be a part of the national disaster management programme but on their terms. LTTE's political wing leader S. P. Thamilselvan says “the hand of friendship extended by the South will be appreciated over time and will be viewed positively in the peace process”.
Even in disaster, politics seems to be taking the upper hand over relief or reconstruction. Politics of this tsunami even extends to the orphaned children – as to who would take charge of them. Just a few days after the disaster Sarvodaya Chief A.T. Ariyaratne visits the LTTE-controlled Wanni. His luxury Intercooler takes him to the media unit of the LTTE where he greets the head of the unit, Daya Master, with a loud “Vannakkam” and his first few sentences are in faltering Tamil. He has a plan for the orphaned children – the setting up of a centre in Mullaitivu to look after them. The plan, he says will extend until the children become majors and the funds for this project “no problem” he says. Daya Master is very polite. Dr. Ariyartne and his team are plied with cool Necto and at the end of the meeting Daya Master promises a meeting with Mr. Thamilselvan. The head of the Sarvodaya departs not knowing whether he has struck gold.
The aid is slowly coming in and it is centrally controlled by the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO). All items that come in are documented carefully and stored in warehouses. As it is usual now key administration points for this disaster management is supervised by expat Tamils. Computer scientists, doctors, engineers are all actively involved in the processing and distribution of relief items. “There must be accountability in aid collection. Not a drop will go waste,” they say.
At the Tamil Health Organisation (THO), there are careful needs assessments being made for drugs and the right amounts are being bought and shipped to Sri Lanka by the Tamil Diaspora. There is aid coming from the South and there are complaints from officials of the Tamil Health Organisation that some of the items have passed the ‘best use before’ date. These items are separated and burnt. Slowly the presence of the international community and the world media is taking focus.
An Italian delegation who visited Mr. Thamilselvan with an aid package had only praise for the efficiency for this organization. The warehousing techniques are excellent, they said and “we are sure that these supplies will be used efficiently”. The disaster has not in anyway hampered the hospitality of the LTTE. Their ‘Tank View’ Guest house is packed to capacity with diplomats, international media and members of the Tamil Diaspora.
In the LTTE Peace Secretariat, Tamil expatriates gather data on the dead, injured and displaced in the eight districts of the North and East and compare them with the Government Agents' figures. They say they are evaluating needs at a ground level.
Ana Pararajasingham, Chairman of the Australian Federation of Tamil Associations says, “We are on ground zero. What they need is to be compensated, not to go to the pre-tsunami position. They should be given what had been denied to them due to the war. Aid should be equitably distributed in the North and South. If the Sri Lanka Government continues to ignore the North-East, it will only demonstrate that it is not interested in the well-being of the people of the North and East and I hope it does not stay that away and I hope the Sri Lanka Government rises above politics and helps in a humanitarian way.”
The Government has offered help to the LTTE. The guerillas, however, say they do not need helpers but only the help. The debate continues 14 days after the catastrophe.