Refugee Babies: The Lasting Effects of Tsunami Aid in Sri Lanka
The author with two Sri Lankan children.

Refugee Babies: The Lasting Effects of Tsunami Aid in Sri Lanka

UCLA graduate student Nimmi Gowrinathan, just back from serving in the relief effort in Sri Lanka, writes of how political and economic problems there will affect children for years to come.

The true idealist and the apolitical pacifists of the world often convince themselves that the corrupt world of politics exists in a vacuum detached from pure humanitarian work. Despite their attempts to stave off impure intrusions, the politics of Sri Lanka pervade every action and interaction, are entrenched in every perception and prejudice, and are inextricably linked to the Tsunami relief efforts now underway in every part of the island. Residual political tensions of the past taint the current aid efforts, government bureaucracy and corruption inhibits the dispersion of funds, and international actors find their arms tied by U.S. imposed directives and stereotypes. While all this seems status quo in Colombo, the impact of this reality will be felt most poignantly by the surviving rural children, who have been left to overcome far greater obstacles than a 30-foot wave.

A child swings from a sari strung in between 2 makeshift tents. Pieces of metal, bark, palm leaves create shelter for thousands of tsunami victims along the North Eastern shores of Sri Lanka. To call these shelters temporary would be misleading. There is no indication that these people will be resettled in the weeks and months to come.

Walking through rows of tents what is striking is not the living conditions which seem to lie on the border of some human rights violation. Rather, it is the similarity between these camps and those that existed last February, and the February before. In the North East of Sri Lanka the post-tsunami issues are not the tsunami orphans, rather the tens of thousands of war orphans now left homeless. It is not the helplessness of refugees crowded into makeshift shelters, it is their disorientation at having their prior camp of 8 years washed away and trying to regroup in a shelter further from the water, and closer to possible land mine areas.

There are some key differences on this island nation after December 26th. Some apply to immediate relief efforts and their impact will subside along with international attention. Others will permanently alter the already volatile political environment in Sri Lanka.

A five-year-old child now knows the term NGO. According to ministry officials, NGOs are the fastest growing industry in the region, with 2-3 new groups registering daily. Disaster relief efforts, while predominantly well-intentioned, tend to overlap, lack cohesive coordination and often times step on culturally sensitive “landmines”. Villagers complain of flashy SUV’s roaring through town with a logo or organization name plastered all over the vehicle and it passengers-leaving behind nothing but refugees wary of survey questions and empty promises.
Large sums of money flow freely into post-tsunami Sri Lanka. These same funds which are the life blood of relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation efforts are accessed to sustain arms build ups, military development, and continued violence. The Sri Lankan government may have been war weary in early 2002 when it conceded to a bilateral ceasefire, but it was also bankrupt, with a skyrocketing rupee value. It had neither the funds to continue the armed combat, nor to reconstruct damaged areas and serve their constituencies.

In the last month the Sri Lankan Government has secured US $500 million from the World Bank and Asian Development fund, a promise of approximately US $300 million from the U.S. government, US $10 million credit extended by the Pakistani government ,and large offers from donors such as the Government of Japan. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt has been forgiven for three years, providing the government with an additional 550 million US dollars a year. Inflated state bank accounts with minimal regulations have permanently altered the incentive structure for the government to engage in and remain committed to a peaceful solution to three decades of conflict.

In Trincomalee today, relief workers receive an unintended brief respite from the scorching heat of the camps teeming with refugees. The “kharatal” (day of protest/mourning for the killing of an LTTE leader ) reveals to those on the outside that when working in Sri Lanka, humanitarian efforts and expectations of universal compassion will always be marred by the unnecessary bloodshed of political violence.

Working with child trauma therapists in the Eastern camps, it is difficult for anyone to reconcile the innocence of children with the corruption and inefficiency which has left the eyesight of a 7-year-old girl failing from severe vitamin deficiency, or a diminutive 13-year-old boy easily mistaken for a preschooler. How does one assess the trauma of these children? Some fear the sight of a soldier- on either side. Some fear the ocean. Some fear loud sounds. Others call for Amma at night. She occupies their dreams and is missing from their reality because she was swept away. It may have been a towering wave, it may have been the recurring waves of violence crashing indiscriminately down upon a hapless civilian population.

Questions left unanswered hang in the stale air throughout the refugee camps. They seem questions which are critical, but for which nobody is accountable.

The head of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Commission recently stood up in Parliament and asked the question on everyone’s mind. If those homes close to the water are required to be 100m from the water, yet the homes 100m away from the water are standing and unaffected -- where are the refugees to go and who will donate the land?

What is to happen to all the widower fathers who have never participated in childcare, and to the children in their care? If significantly more women than men lost their lives as a result of the first wave snatching their saris, leaving them naked and hesitant to run towards town-is there a lesson to be learned about the stringent gender rules of Sri Lankan society? What effect will the massive influx of foreigners and aid workers have on the North Eastern Tamil culture, which has adamantly resisted the infusion of a “western ideals”? Can we criticize a population for never learning to be self-sufficient when their government happily forgoes principles of national sovereignty for the convenience of foreign wire transfers?

These questions will not be answered in the lifetimes of many of the older generation, and their answers will come to determine the lifetimes of all the children now sitting on the floor of one-room schoolhouses.

Though these are complex questions to be grappled with…what is most jarring after spending these past weeks in the North East of Sri Lanka, is that there is a pervading sense of acceptance amongst the refugee population. Behind melancholy faces which have come to characterize a Sri Lankan Tamil lies the belief that their life has been predestined to be as such, that there is no higher standard for their existence, that violence, death, displacement and disease are not anomalies-they are expectations.

A generation of children growing up under passive guardian figures with broken spirits, learning not to question authority, not to resist injustice, not to demand basic rights and dignities - is far more devastating to this society and its future than any tsunami might have been.

***

Nimmi Gowrinathan graduated in 2001 from Johns Hopkins University, and is now pursuing a Phd in Political Science at UCLA. She has spent the past 3 summers working in orphanages in Sri Lanka teaching english and leadership skills through the VISIONS program. She is currently the Sri Lanka Project Manager at Operation USA, and is continuing her graduate work at UCLA, concentrating on ethnic conflict. You can reach her at nimmi@opusa.org.


Published: Thursday, March 03, 2005