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Tsunami One Year on: National Director Interview


Rebuilding homes in Komari


"We could never have dreamt of reaching so many people so quickly"

Interview with Cedric de Silva, director of SOS Children's Villages Sri Lanka

Cedric de Silva, director of SOS Children's Villages in Sri Lanka, talks about the first days after 26 December 2004, about the challenges and obstacles in the rebuilding process, about personal experiences and the long way back to normality.

How did SOS Children's Villages Sri Lanka first tackle the tsunami and how has the work developed since December last year?
SOS got into action very early on. We were lucky that we already had a base on the East coast, the social centre in Morakkatanchenai, north of Batticaloa. In fact SOS was the first NGO to start working in the area after the tsunami hit. Even after the initial devastation, the rain and floods caused considerable additional damage and many more people had to leave their homes. To house these people, we were able to use the kindergarten in Morakkatanchenai as a refugee centre. From this point on, our main focus was on the East.
Although there were no SOS coordinators in the area, the trained kindergarten teachers and a local priest were able to use existing facilities to mobilise volunteers and organise relief efforts. We also worked together with a team of Korean doctors, setting up a tent for the day to provide medical assistance for the surrounding villages.
Even before the tsunami struck, the small town of Komari, south of Batticaloa, had been chosen as the site for an additional social centre. It was therefore logical that SOS should offer special help in Komari and refugee camps were set up and basic emergency supplies were distributed here and in the surrounding areas. After the initial relief work, start-up grants were handed out, just as in the other areas where SOS was working, helping to establish the organisation and its work.
Medical staff and vehicles from SOS Children's Village Piliyandala provided assistance to inaccessible areas in the South. Here, emergency supplies we received from overseas, for example the donation of refrigerators from the Austrian government, were channelled through the Sri Lankan government to children's hospitals.
As a reaction to the tsunami, the Sri Lankan government introduced a law to create a 'buffer zone', which meant that no construction work could be undertaken within 200m of the sea in the East and 100m in the South. All current inhabitants of this zone had to be relocated and unfortunately the government took some time in finding alternative sites for the reconstruction of homes.
So, SOS has focused its efforts on rebuilding homes of those people already living outside the buffer zone. In fact, 20 houses have so far been rebuilt (in only 100 days) and another 16 or 17 repaired and handed over to the owners. The new houses are prefabs - a shell is put in place on the foundations and filled with concrete. Once the concrete has set, the roof can be added. In all a house can be built in a couple of days. Construction has now also started on the relocation sites.

What was your personal experience during the first few days after the tsunami?
Just incredible shock. It was just awesome the kind of destruction it had created. There are no words to describe what was there. It was just absolute wipe out. You can't imagine the power of that water.
Fortunately it was not just one big wave. The water drew back and exposed the reefs. Some people went to have a closer look; others ran away, fearing something strange was happening. Then the water surged forwards. This all happened a few times before the biggest waves broke. It was almost a warning. We were also lucky that it happened in the morning. If it had been during the night many, many more would have been killed.

What were the main difficulties you experienced in the period immediately after the disaster?
Surprisingly, the logistics were not too difficult. Some roads were washed away, but there were always different routes we could take. The main problem was getting around the government's bureaucracies. Everything took a great deal of time, but having said that, we were in a more fortunate position than most, as the Minister of Social Services is a close contact of SOS and supported us whenever and wherever she could. SOS was the first NGO to sign a Memorandum of Understanding for the rebuilding of a village (Komari) with the government. We also have good contact with the Minister for Muslim Affairs, which has also helped us considerably with our work in the East. We experienced no real problems with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) either. It was only in Iraalodai where problems surfaced. We had signed an MOU with the government regarding the rebuilding of the village (Iraalodai), but another organisation felt that Iraalodai should have been handed over to their guardianship, as they had been working in this area for a couple of years. As the village is within the LTTE area, the organisation complained to the LTTE, who reversed the government's decision and handed responsibility of rebuilding Iraalodai to them. Of course we respected the decision, but it seems that very little rebuilding work has so far been done in the village, which is a shame for the local people there.

Do you have any figures on the number of children orphaned as a result of the tsunami?
Unfortunately not. Accurate figures on orphans are simply not available. The Sri Lankan government has followed UNICEF's policy that children should be cared for by members of their extended family, rather than placed in any type of care establishment. I tried to explain to both the government and UNICEF that SOS is not an institution, but offers children family-based care, but their policy would not allow for this. Instead, families receive 500 Rupees (roughly $5) a month to look after the child. This is nothing. Many families will just waste this money.
In many cases the children will be neglected and abused. We could easily see young girls, orphaned as a result of the tsunami, wandering around with their own children in a year or so. Unless you're going to monitor such a policy, who's going to see what kind of care is meted out? This all means that the statistics on children are very disparate. We don't know which statistics to believe. SOS Children's Villages has not worked with any tsunami orphans at all because of this government policy, which says that it is illegal for any person or organisation to harbour these children. But perhaps in time, once they realise how these children are being treated, SOS will be allowed to care for some of these kids.

Did you form many partnerships with other NGOs?
We worked very closely with an excellent organisation called Spokane Fire Fighters. The organisation originally comes from Washington State, USA, although there were also some Australians and Brits in the team. They were doing great work in Komari rebuilding schools and cleaning out wells. We're now investigating the possibility of creating tube wells in the area.
Generally we carried out work on our own, but we are always happy to cooperate with other organisations if it is of benefit to the people.

Have you had many conflicts with other NGOs?
Apart from the difference in opinion on policy with UNICEF and the problem in Iraalodai, we've had no real conflicts with NGOs.

How is SOS Children's Villages perceived following its tsunami efforts?
We have gained considerable recognition for our work and the quality of our work, in particular our rebuilding of houses. SOS is one of the few NGOs that has maintained its presence in the affected areas in the East and this has earned us respect.

How long will it take before everything is back to normal?
What is ‘normal’ in that sense?! If it means that all the damaged buildings are cleared and there is no evidence of the tsunami then it may take several years. I don't know. But ‘normal’ in the sense of regaining livelihoods and getting people back into their homes, then it should be within the next year.
Right now, most people are back to living their ‘normal’ lives, but are doing it living in tents. Some beneficiaries, though, are now living a more comfortable life thanks to support from donors and NGOs. Before the tsunami they lived in very basic huts and now they have solid buildings, water, schools… This is quite different to what was 'normal' for them, but still, they seem to have taken the aid for granted.
The effects of the tsunami are still very evident and there have been several false alarms - 4 or 5 in Komari alone. Everyone flees and runs for cover. The first false alarm was a couple of weeks after the tsunami. I heard about the earthquake in Indonesia on the news and called our base office near Komari to warn them. It was during the night, but they evacuated all the homes along the coast just in case. Since then, whenever anyone hears about tremors, especially in Indonesia, people start to run. But generally, people have overcome their fear of the sea and can get on with their fishing as they did before, which is an important source of income for many of the coastal inhabitants.

Have the emergency relief efforts had any long-term effects on any of the existing SOS Children's Villages?
The village at Monaragala was used as a base for work in the East early on, but neither it nor any of the other villages have been affected long-term.

How will the new community centres and SOS Social Centres benefit the communities?
The new social centres are designed to act as tsunami protection centres as well. They're being built on columns, so that the main part of the building is on the first floor, with a basically open ground floor. This means that should another tsunami strike, the water will simply flow underneath the building, leaving it standing. There are also grills around the outside, so that people can climb up into the safety of the first floor. The open ground floor can be used as a class room or for meetings, and the main part of the building will house the medical centre etc. A family strengthening programme will also be affiliated to each of these new social/tsunami protection centres. This all means that SOS Children's Villages' work has erupted into areas we would never have dreamt of reaching.
Two social centres will be built in the South. One is situated slightly inland and is already in the process of being built. Another is at the design stage. Suitable sites for four centres on the East coast have been located and final negotiations are underway with the land-owners. In all a total of ten multipurpose community centres and social centres are planned, so we still have to find four more suitable locations. [Eight multi-purpose community centres which will be operated by the communities themselves and two SOS Social Centres will be built">

And the new SOS Children's Village - where will that be built?
It won't be in Batticaloa. No way! Batticaloa is right in the middle of a conflict area and I don't want to put the children, mothers or co-workers at risk. A village could be taken over by the government army or the Tamil Tigers at any time. I want to find some land further south of Batticaloa, but it's quite difficult politically and geographically. Politically it's difficult because of the on-going disputes between the government and the LTTE and geographically because of the government buffer zone and the lagoons and waterways that run along the coast just a few kilometres inland.

How has SOS Children's Villages Sri Lanka coped with the enormous increase in workload?
You might be surprised to hear, but SOS Sri Lanka only employed the additional services of one person, two pick up trucks and maybe 2 or 3 bikes. It's incredible, especially compared to UNICEF and the other UN organisations. The Red Cross is one of the few international organisations to have been active and efficient, in particular with their water purification work. Apart from the one new employee, we also recruited about ten young educated locals in Komari and Kayankerni to help us assess the needs of the beneficiaries. One other girl, who is studying in the USA, also helped on a voluntary basis, working with the traumatised children.

How do you see the future of SOS Children's Villages Sri Lanka?
The future of SOS in Sri Lanka was never in any doubt, but the tsunami work has meant there has been enormous growth in terms of facilities in remoter areas. This sudden growth in the East could only have been achieved over several, maybe 20 years. We could never have dreamt of reaching so many people so quickly.

This article is part of the tsunami one year on review.

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