Vol. 52, No. 26Eleventh Week • Spring Semester • April 4, 2005

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E-mail message from Rita Webb, March 30, 2005

Dear Friends …

Rita Webb
Rita Webb

March has somehow seeped away … with winter slipping slowly but gratefully into spring back home in Wisconsin … and another rainy season come and gone here in Sri Lanka … sliding into more, if that's possible, sunshine and heat. March found me ending my time in Matara in the south and shuttling back to the east after almost three months' absence. I have been away from my regular assignment in Batticaloa District since the tsunami hammered us on 26 December. Following some (literally) life-changing holiday time with Marty in January, I was sent to the south again to reopen the Matara field site while my two teammates there went on home leave to recover from tsunami injuries.

Back in the east, which was the area hardest hit by the tsunami (and particularly the Muslim communities), ongoing factional fighting and almost daily killings add to the insecurity and difficulties of all the people. But, of course, life goes on in varying semblances of normalcy, and most people, most of the time, try valiantly to keep on keeping on. In addition to the widespread grief and psycho-social trauma that such a national disaster has meant for the people affected directly by the tsunami, relief and reconstruction work continues unevenly in the coastal areas throughout the country. Several organizations are trying to play a monitoring role, including us with our limited capacity, in how the aid and reconstruction efforts are being distributed, but it's a Sisyphean task. In conjunction with the national Human Rights Commission, we will be paying particular attention to the human rights implications of aid distribution and reconstruction efforts. The president said recently that only 4 percent of the pledged international aid has come into the country, although international agencies and other organizations have brought in huge quantities of goods and money, which doesn't seem to be counted in these curious totals.

It is really dreadfully complicated, even without a fragile ceasefire hanging in the background, government and rebel forces vying for control of aid coming into the conflict zones, and a stumbling ruling coalition of fractious political parties trying desperately to play the local heroes for their own political advantage. I don't envy any of the government agents their thankless tasks, where only too much of everything is sufficient, and accusations of maldistribution are endemic. There's lots of international experience as to how the flow of foreign aid in such circumstances needs to be carefully managed so as to minimize the disruption of local economies, but it seems hugely haphazard at the moment. While most of the other affected countries declined the offer of "debt relief" because of what it means for their international credit rating, Sri Lanka did not. There is debate now on the ramifications of that for longer term investment and recovery.

While thousands of people have put in thousands of hours, the government does not appear to have the political will and/or the ability to create the administrative infrastructure that would allow for the needed level of coordination for the rebuilding work. In Matara District, for example, we met with the assigned "tsunami coordinator," a young man with lots of good intentions and no experience, who's been given great responsibility with no authority, as well as no telephone, no computer, and no support staff. How do you coordinate your way around those obstacles in this environment? I'm at a loss to say, but he seems to be making an honest go at it. People's immediate and basic needs do seem to be more or less met, but solutions to all the bigger problems will plague the country for the foreseeable future.

The issues have now shifted from emergency foods and medicines to rebuilding livelihoods and creating more substantial housing so that people can begin to move out of tents and into something that can serve them for the (shorter or longer-term) future, along with the necessary water and sanitation infrastructure. The government still hopes to enforce a coastal "no-build buffer zone" of 100-300 meters from the sea, but finding both suitable and available land inland to move people back to is proving difficult to impossible in most areas.

The fisherfolk are, of course, particularly reluctant to be moved too far from the sea, although persistent fear of another tsunami continues to be voiced from time to time (most recently two nights ago with the 8.5 Sumatra earthquake), and some people are refusing to be resettled anywhere near the sea. In some places the tsunami waves came inshore as far as 500 meters, so the threat for some of being forced to go back even within that larger margin is untenable. For others, there is widespread distrust that the buffer zone will actually be enforced for people who have the right connections and/or sufficient money to use those connections to build on what they see as prime ocean-front land, as well as for either the military in the conflict zones of the north and east or for the tourist industry in the south and west. And while the tourist industry certainly contributes to the economy, the main beneficiaries of such investments typically don't keep or spend their money in Sri Lanka, limiting the potential positive impacts.

So the problems are many and the progress slow. After such massive disruption, there's really no way to make people's lives significantly better in the short-term. The loss and sorrow can hardly even be addressed, much less "fixed." And, because so many people are poor, and the tsunami-affected are getting at least something, the potential for more conflict simmers in some communities between those who lost everything and are getting at least some relief, and those who didn't lose anything on 26 December but never had much to lose in the first place and aren't getting anything now either. Everyone's shared hope, I think, is to use this crisis as an opportunity for overall development to the benefit of the whole country, but as usual, the devil is in the details.

We in Nonviolent Peaceforce are continuing to get more and more clarity as to where and how we might contribute, but measureable outcomes are difficult to claim yet. It's of course much easier to destroy communities through violence and war than it is to build up and develop them. The ceasefire period has shown again what we've always known: that peace without justice will never be a sustainable peace. Killings and low-level warfare continue in the conflict zones between competing factions and, as usual, it's the poorest who suffer first and most.

I'm grateful that I will be able to stay on with the project beyond my original two-year commitment, as it would have felt quite "unfinished" had I been leaving a few short months from now. I'm in new(er) quarters now with two other teammates in Valachchenai, with lots of bugs (or should I say birds?) yet to be worked out. One problem yet to be solved is that the roof line is not sealed and pigeons like to roost on our walls, whether invited in or not. I don't mind sharing with them up to a point, but they're way too generous in sharing their outputs, if you know what I mean.

The big advantage of the house is that it's located right behind our other team house, which is why we REALLY wanted it. And why we weren't very good bargainers with the owner. The outdoor privy isn't a problem at the moment, but I'm thinking monsoon season and picturing my midnight runs then (no pun intended). Be careful what you wish for, I always say … or at least I'm saying it now!

Marty continues to tick needed tasks off his list as he counts down the moons until the end of the semester and the oh-happy-day arrives when we will share the same tropical time zone. I will be returning to Wisconsin for four weeks in May/June to help clean out and dismantle our house for sale, with an additional week to be spent visiting family in California on our way back to Sri Lanka. Our housemates of 10 years, Carol and Virginia, have bought a small house that they're also excited about and are looking forward to their move to more manageable quarters, along with our aging communal dog in tow.

I hope to see many of you when I'm home. Thank you for your continued kind thoughts and support. Your work for peace, justice and happiness sustains me here, as I truly believe we're all in this together!

In love and all good cheer!

Rita

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