In Sri Lanka, aid workers combat wild rumors and lingering fear
An estimated 1.5 million displaced Sri Lankans are heading inland, a coastal exodus that is creating new logistical problems.
HIKKADUWA VILLAGE, SRI LANKA — Pawadamasari fished for 35 years from a harbor where a sign reads, "Welcome to Tourist Paradise." He rarely mixed with the mostly German tourists other than to sell his catch.
He lived quietly with wife and daughters in a straw hut that is now gone. A son-in-law is missing and presumed dead. Now a refugee in a crowded Buddhist temple, Pawadamasari seems unaccustomed to speaking with strangers. But he wants to anyway.
"I am here. I am waking up. But I can't think," he says, pointing to his white bristled hair. "I can't think through anything. I can't think what will happen next."
Despite what officials are describing as a new "postemergency phase" of the tsunami that laid waste to 700 miles of Sri Lankan coastline, locals here say the central issue is still a paralyzing mentality of fear. On the street, rumors of another tsunami are rife, and there is little official information broadcast to counter it. Speculation swirls about outbreaks of disease, and mixes with newly confirmed reports of scattered riots and banditry. There is no community spirit yet of picking up the pieces and getting on with life. Instead, some 1.5 million displaced persons are heading inland in a coastal exodus that is creating new logistical problems.
"If you talk about the real crisis now, it is the rumors and fears running in the people's minds," says Atula Hewawitharana, the harbor master in Galle. "People are still scared, and will not show up to help."
Three days ago a radio station in Tamil Nadu, India, broadcast a report that an aftershock had created another tsunami. Some 200 villagers employed by Mr. Hewawitharana, who were helping with salvage operations, ran away and did not come back. On Saturday, a similar rumor caused a panic for several hours on the east coast.
Fish is a staple for most Sri Lankans, but Sunday seafood prices plunged as many people feared that the fish had fed on human flesh and would be contaminated. But health officials said that was untrue. "Scientifically, there's nothing to prove that fish caught after the tsunami cannot be consumed," Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva told The Associated Press. "It's only a psychological myth that I'm sure will pass with time."
Galle's local health ministry chief, Plyasena Samarakoon, says, "We need people to go home. That is a prerequisite for any return to normalcy. A lot of people still have livable houses or relatives they can stay with. But people aren't ready for that. They are staying away."
Aid to Sri Lanka is now flooding into the national airport 24 hours a day on wide-bodied jets; the number of volunteer doctors from around the globe are so numerous that the Sri Lankan government has asked that no more be sent.
Yet here in Galle - Sri Lanka's second city, with its stucco resorts, Dutch colonial fortress, and famed cricket grounds (now destroyed) - people continue to stand all day outside homes, many experiencing what relief workers say is a profound disorientation. The fishing and tourist industry, 80 percent of the south coast economy, has been wiped out. Many people describe a fear of the ocean, and well as a fear of looting at night - two jails were washed out, and about 200 prisoners escaped.
Disaster relief is usually described in terms of cycles or phases of the crisis - first aid, stabilization of refugees, and eventually rebuilding. Yet the severity of the tsunami that claimed nearly 30,000 people here was unexpected, experts say. And as international aid groups discuss the second and third phases, the question of the mentality of victims should not become something abstract, they say.
"I am a professional who thinks about these kinds of disasters night and day," says Daniel Glinz of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who is based in southern Sri Lanka. "Even I've been having trouble figuring out a strategy for this. So I can sympathize with the kind of trauma people here feel. And I think trauma is the right word. People here don't let you see what they are feeling. But it is serious."
Several elements contribute to the picture of a more profound trauma. For one thing, the physical infrastructure in southern Sri Lanka is old, with no recent history of redevelopment. Most of the shops, municipal buildings, and the estimated 70,000 houses that have been destroyed were built slowly over generations. Many people have trouble imagining how it will be rebuilt anytime soon - and how they will return to work.
"We don't have professional carpenters and we don't have good materials easily available," says Douglas Liyanage, who retired two years ago from Sri Lanka's People's Bank. "This is a five-year job at least, and I think that causes great worry among the ordinary people."
"People are only starting now to let themselves think about the future, and they know there is a minimum six to 12 months when they won't have a salary," says Hewawitharana, the harbor master. "No one knows how that will be dealt with yet."
The destruction on Sri Lanka's southeast coast, where the waves hit more directly, is far more extensive. Here, in the southwest, the waves hit the coast line in such a way that rock outcroppings and small peninsulas made all the difference, and on the upper west coast there are tiny pockets of land that are unscathed. Corpses are still being removed from some beaches. Heavy rains are slowing progress everywhere.
With destroyed bridges and damage to the coastal roads that oriented traffic for generations, alleys and side streets flanked with banana trees are suddenly main thoroughfares. People and children stand dumfounded outside as huge convoys of food, military trucks, aid workers, and streams of ordinary people walk past their living rooms. With no immediate prospects, some are going inland hoping to get a jump on new jobs and space for homes before other refugees arrive.
"Some of these people, those with relatives elsewhere, are now leaving for four years," says Mr. Liyanage. "I am feeling our tragedy is something like Hiroshima. But like Hiroshima, maybe we can use it to rebuild everything in a new way, and we can get past our old politics and ethnic troubles. I'm an optimist, as you can see."