Saturday, January 08, 2005

Regimented Wanni wants help- not helpers by Tyronne Devotta

Tyronne Devotta, Deputy Editor with The Sunday Times, was the first journalist from the South to visit the tsunami-battered Wanni dominated by the LTTE. Here is his on-the-spot report.

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.

The Indian Naval ship "Kutch", one of the Indian Military ressels involued in the relief effort at the Ashraff Jetty in Trincomalee.  Posted by Hello

State radio’s 'Prabha dead' story a dead rope

The LTTE dismissed yesterday a state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation report that suggested its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran and his intelligence wing leader Pottu Amman were missing and presumed dead after the tsunami catastrophe, saying it was not a time for false propaganda.

An official statement accused the SLBC of broadcasting reports that are "fabricated by interested parties" and added that they "strongly protested against the mischievous act".

The SLBC attributed its report to Chief of Defence Staff and Navy Commander Daya Sandagiri. However, Vice Admiral Sandagiri last night told The Sunday Times that he had not made the remarks.

Several foreign media outlets gave wide play yesterday to the report quoting the SLBC. However, last night the SLBC retracted its report.

JVP allegedly hijacking food convoys by Asif Fuard

JVP activists wearing red t-shirts, red caps and badges – with the words 'JVP relief services force', the JVP star symbol and in the center of which is a red cross – were seen collecting goods and medical items to be distributed among tsunami victims.

JVP volunteers are operating mainly in southern areas such as Galle, Matara, Hambantota and Tissamaharama. According to reports, the displaced people are unaware that some of the food items and medicines given to them by JVP volunteers have been allegedly 'hijacked' from relief convoys sent by various groups.

It is alleged some vehicles carrying relief were redirected into JVP stores. In one case, vehicles were diverted to the New Imasha film hall in the Hambantota town, instead of a Government store 5 km away. New Imasha film hall owner Nimal Kularatne said he did not know that the JVP was this food storage point for alleged political mileage.

"I am also doing relief work for tsunami victims. Some people calling themselves Sahana Seva Balakaya asked for my theatre to set up a medical centre. I did not know that the JVP was behind this and party members would put up banners all round my film hall," he said.

Mr. Kularatne said they wanted the hall for five days but were now staying on longer and he had heard some were watching films also in the theatre. At this film hall we saw vehicles from JVP collecting centres were coming and storing goods.

Most of the vehicles belong to ministries of JVP members, but they now carried JVP banners. A resident alleged that aid lorries coming from Matale to Hambantota were stopped JVPers and the drivers were told to put up JVP banners. If they refused, the drivers were assaulted and the vehicles hijacked.

Among the Ministerial vehicles used by the JVP were a bus bearing number JK-0194, tractors bearing numbers 49-6145 and 49-9623 and a lorry bearing number 253-3506. Despite the JVP having several collection centres and warehouses, we found that several refugee camps did not receive aid from the JVP relief service force but from other groups.

The JVP-run Tissamaharama Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman's coordinating secretary, S. Seneviratne, said 200 houses were being builts and would be completed within the next few days to give shelter to the displaced people and stocks would also be given to them.

The Sunday Times has also received reports, which say the JVP is trying to be the sole relief group by preventing others providing help and aid. With the JVP apparently trying to monopolise aid distribution in the south, a serious incident also took place at Goddauda in Dickwella, with JVP allegedly asking the army to withdraw from a refugee camp.

JVP Deepal Gunesekara siad besides members from the south, hundreds of JVPers from districts not affected by the tsunami had volunteered to work in the south. He said the party was operating some 12 medical centres for the refugees and 30 centres to collect goods in Hambantota.

He said party workers had cleared the rubble and would now start building houses for the fisher folk. At a time such as this when our brothers and sisters have come forward to re build our country we have kept politics aside and have stepped out to serve the affected people in their time of need," Mr. Gunasekara said.

Refugees shattered, receiving little or no aid
The displaced people in the eastern province are also facing a situation similar to the one faced by those living in refugee centers in the south. Even here the JVP is reportedly diverting food relief convoys to locations specified by them, instead of allowing them to be unloaded at government authorised centres.

The JVP volunteers wearing red shirts and red caps were seen to be involved in relief activities in refugee camps set up at the Jayasumanaramaya in the Trincomalee town which houses most of the refugees from Sirimapura and Abhayaramaya. Sirimapura a fishing village was washed away by the killer tidal waves. Some of the refugees said they are yet to receive food, clothing or soap even after several days in the camp.

The refugees held the JVP responsible for this situation charging that the needy were receiving little or no aid while those not in need received most of the benefits. It was sad and unfortunate to see refugees desperately queuing up for food being ignored when close by several three wheelers were seen nonchalantly transporting food parcels.

"We were sent by Trinco district MP Jayantha Wijesekera here. We refute the charges made against us as false. We are doing a solo job and no state help comes here. The government must intervene or soon these relief measures will cease. All we need to do therefore is to save whatever relief we get now", Indika Priyadharshana, a JVP relief worker said.

Rev. Sooriyagoda Piyananda Thera the viharadhdidpathi of the Sooriyaramaya temple who had brought relief items from Galenbindunuwewa confirmed the allegations leveled against the JVP. "These people are trying to boost their image and are not interested in real relief work. What we brought here too has been spirited away by outside elements in our very presence. People are disenchanted with this type of relief work", the Thera said.

World Solidarity Conference, Sri Lanka branch joint patron Rev. Mahagalkadawala Punyasara Thera was emotionally moved when he said:

"The relief that should be given to the refugees are getting into wrong hands and we ourselves saw it happen. Some refugees unable to see this display of selfishness are giving away their meals to other more deserving victims. Both organisations are attempting to boost their image and we decry this mentality".

Another relief organisation from the Wayamba said the JVP took over the distribution of the relief items they donated. This organisation said that if they had earlier known about this JVP interference they would have not brought the relief items there in the first place.

These matters were highlighted at a provinicial council meeting held on January 4 at Wayamba where SLFPers of the Sandhanaya and Oppositon UNPers condemned this attitude by the JVP.

Govt. slow boat for tsunami by Iqbal Athas

A joke now doing the rounds in Colombo's social circuit speaks of how the Tsunami Monitoring Centre in Hawaii was trying to make contact with local officials in the early hours of Boxing Day, December 26. They first called the Meteorological Department in Colombo. There was no response. Then they rang the Monitoring Centre in Pallekele near Kandy. There was no response there too.

Exasperated officials later telephoned the office of a leading Government politician. He was out on his morning walk. An aide picked up the message from a Honolulu official. There was a tsunami coming from Indonesia.

On the politician's return, the aide told him about the phone call. He said he had been informed by the US that Tsunami from Indonesia was arriving in two hours. The politician acted promptly. He ordered a delegation to be sent to the Bandaranaike International Airport with a paging board that said "Welcome to Sri Lanka - Mr. Tsunami of Indonesia."

The joke did not end there. After the tsunami had unleashed its fury leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, there was more. The story did the rounds that the same politician was told that Powell was coming to Sri Lanka. The reference, of course, was to US Secretary of State Colin Powell. But the politician got it wrong. He issued orders to promptly alert the Navy and the Police to evacuate people from the coastal areas.

Jokes apart, these tales clearly underscore the confusion and chaos that reigned in the Government after the deadly tsunami struck. The immediate responses to the tragedy came not from any state agency or the armed forces but from civilians. They retrieved the bodies, rushed the injured to hospitals and even cleared debris. Many of them were also offering medication.

It took the Government exactly eight days to post policemen and troops to guard centres housing displaced persons. That came almost by chance. At a top-level conference in Colombo, the story of how a young girl was saved by a group of people was being talked of. Later, one of them had pulled the girl out from an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Centre and raped her. The distraught girl had to go out of that area to make a complaint at the Kalutara Police Station. It was immediately decided that security presence was essential at IDP centres.

Nine days after the catastrophe Military Co-ordinating Officers were appointed to the 12 districts affected. They are: Ampara- Colonel Jagath Dias, Batticaloa - Vajira Wijegoonawardana, Colombo - Brigadier P. Chandrawansa, Galle - Rear Admiral K.B. Tennekoon, Gampaha - Captain G.E. C. Jayawardena, Hambantota - Commodore S.R. Samaratunga, Jaffna - Major General S.D. Tennekoon, Kalutara - Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, Matara - Major General Sharman Kulatunga, Puttalam - Colonel H.K. Gunarathne, Trincomalee -Major General Sumith Balasuriya and Vavuniya - Major General Parami Kulatunga.

The two measures - posting armed troops and policemen to IDP centres and the appointment of Military Co-ordinating Officers - no doubt has had a salutary effect. But the question remains why it came so late. It highlights the absence of any contingency mechanisms in place.

If President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was on a private visit to Britain, the Brahmins in the Ministry of Defence, who are quick to criticise the media from the comfort of their air-conditioned rooms, did little or nothing to take control of the situation. Hardly anything moved. Not until President Kumaratunga returned to the country and chaired a few conferences. Instead of a natural disaster, if it were to be a guerrilla attack, one would hate to imagine the consequences.

Last Tuesday I accompanied CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour on a tour of the affected areas in the Batticaloa district. Soon after Squadron Leader Waruna Senaratne touched down on a Chinese built Harbin Y 12 at the SLAF base, we drove out to be greeted by the swathe of destruction. Hundreds of houses have been razed to the ground forcing occupants to flee to hurriedly set up IDP centres.

I visited one of them at St Michael's College in the town. Nine days after the catastrophe, more than 2,200 men, women and children were crowded there. More were coming in. Seven to eight families were being huddled together in every classroom. The overflow occupied the corridors. Adults and children were sleeping only on sheets of newspaper spread on the floor. Children in particular were wailing for food. Private individuals had cooked food and served only one meal a day. The quantities, many complained to me, were only a handful and was inadequate.They were starving. There were only four toilets in the complex. Twelve temporary ones had just been put up.

With the deployment of a team of soldiers and police, the Government machinery had got into full gear at this school. This was only on the ninth day after the catastrophe. Local officials were busy compiling a register of all those displaced. They queued up to take their turn to give personal details and relate their tales of woe. Each one of them had a sad tale to relate. Some had lost their parents, others their children or loved ones. Almost all had lost their belongings and had come to the centre only with the clothes they were wearing.

As the registration process went on, I saw a multi-religious delegation arrive at the IDP centre. It comprised representatives of Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu clergy. They began an assessment of the needs of the displaced. It turned out that Government help had not yet arrived. That is nine days after the catastrophe. But the good news was that the machinery was now moving and help was not far off.

Unlike some of the other affected areas in the East, still inaccessible, Batticaloa was not. But the Government machinery had not moved. This was the case in most of the other affected areas including the South. This is underscored by the experience of the top most military officer responsible for Sri Lanka's security forces - Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri.

On Sunday (December 26), he turned up at his office in the Navy Headquarters to clear some urgent work. Minutes later, he received a telephone call from Deputy Eastern Naval Area Commander, Commodore Jayantha Colombage. He said there was an unnatural tide level. For a moment he pondered whether this was related to the full moon day (December 26) and was an astronomical tide. But Vice Admiral Sandagiri was told the water level had reached the floor of the office of the Commander, Eastern Naval Area - an approximate sea level rise of more than ten feet.

By then other reports about rising tidal waves were reaching Navy Headquarters from the South coast. Soon Defence Ministry and other Government officials were informed. Vice Admiral Sandagiri said on the first day itself the Army despatched 5,000 packets of food to the South. The Navy joined in by providing a further 3,000 packs. He said he inducted 500 sailors who had been awaiting their passing out on December 29 having completed their training. They had cleared the road from Boosa to Galle.

Vice Admiral Sandagiri said he visited Galle, Matara, Hambantota and Kirinda three days after the catastrophe. In Galle, he saw people stopping lorries loaded with relief supplies. They took away the items. He felt there was an immediate need to co-ordinate the supplies, he pointed out. In Hambantota, students from the Moratuwa University had already arrived and were engaged in relief operations. They were helping to move out to various areas supplies sent by private parties and NGOs. A weekly Pola held on Sundays drew large crowds. This time the vendors and those who came there were all gone.

In Kirinda, Vice Admiral Sandagiri said, the Naval Sub Unit was no more. The only structure that remained was a small building. The Officers' Mess was no more and the billets that accommodated soldiers had virtually disappeared. He said arrangements were being made to re-build the camp.

It is in this backdrop that President Kumaratunga last Tuesday named three different task forces - one for rescue and relief (TAFRER), one for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN) and the other for Logistics, Law and Order (TAFLOL). The first is chaired by Dr Tara de Mel, the second by Mano Tittawella and the third by Tilak Ranaviraja.

If these task forces are vested with responsibilities relating to state and private agencies locally, co-ordination of all foreign relief teams has been placed in the hands of the Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES), Tilak Ranaviraja. He is also Secretary to the Ministry of Public Security, Law and Order. Mr Ranaviraja also chairs the Task Force on Logistics, Law and Order.

In his capacity as Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES), the responsibility of co-ordinating all assistance provided by military teams from several countries has fallen on him. Conspicuously the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, former North-East Governor, retired Major General Asoka Jayawardena, has not been named for any of these committees.

Among the foreign military teams with which Mr. Ranaviraja is now co-ordinating activity are those from the United States, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, France, Israel, Italy, Britain and Canada. In addition CDS Vice Admiral Sandagiri is also holding daily meetings with some of the Defence Attaches who represent countries that have sent military teams.

Besides military teams, several other countries have also despatched relief/medical teams. They include those from Austria, Australia, Abu Dhabi, Belgium, Thailand, Brazil, Bahrain, Dubai, Egypt, Germany, Holland, Japan, Korea, Kenya, Malaysia, Oman, Spain, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, Slovakia, Turkey and Tanzania.

Now, slowly but surely relief is pouring into the affected areas. But the biggest question for the Government still remains. It has to ensure they reach the needy and does not end up in unscrupulous hands.

Navy to rebuild fisheries industry
The Government has called upon the Sri Lanka Navy to undertake an urgent multi million rupee fibre glass boat (FGB) building project. This is to help fishermen who have lost their boats and thus their livelihood in the North, East and the South due to the tsunami catastrophe.

"These boats, 17 foot and 27 foot long, will be manufactured in Colombo, Trincomalee and Galle," Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri told The Sunday Times. He said in terms of a Cabinet decision, the Navy would undertake the boat-building project on a priority basis.

Besides building new boats, Vice Admiral Sandagiri said Naval teams are also being assigned to visit coastal areas to repair damaged boats. For this purpose, statistics of repairable boats are now being collected by Navy Headquarters.

In an interview with The Sunday Times Vice Admiral Sandagiri answered questions relating to the tsunami and the relief efforts now being carried out by the security forces. Here are excerpts:

On reports that the Navy had received a tsunami warning from a monitoring centre in Hawaii:

This is utter rubbish. There was no such thing. In fact some were trying to extend this rumour further by saying I had told a foreign TV net-work that I was aware of a warning. Thereafter even a local newspaper reported on this. There is absolutely no truth in this.

Appointment of Military Co-ordinating Officers for affected districts:

Usually Military Co-ordinating Officers are appointed when the Government machinery at district level fails. But this one is different. These MCOs have been tasked to work closely with the Divisional Secretaries (Government Agents) who have been appointed as Competent Authorities. The primary task is to ensure the proper co-ordination of relief supplies. MCOs have assigned armed forces officers to be in charge of a cluster of camps housing internally displaced persons. It is the latter's responsibility to report on the shortcomings to their respective MCOs. They in turn will keep the Divisional Secretaries briefed.

The MCOs are vested with full powers to deal with any situation. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga already directed that the Divisional Secretaries should meet every day with the MCOs to discuss the prevailing situation and take whatever action necessary to overcome problems.

On restoration of normalcy:
Armed forces and Police functioning under the MCOs have been told to provide whatever assistance required in this regard. One task before the Navy is the commencement of a priority project to build fibreglass boats for use by fisherman. In addition we are also sending out teams to coastal fishing villages to carry out on-the-spot repairs on boats damaged. We want to make sure the fishing industry returns to normal without much delay.

I must make clear that the deployment of armed forces personnel is by no means a military takeover. Their role is to assist the civilian authorities. We are also helping the Police in the maintenance of law and order.
This is why troops have been deployed in camps housing displaced persons. We want to ensure they are protected.