Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka

One of the saddest sights (certainly not the saddest) around Batticaloa is the plethora of thinning, wounded, sad-looking dogs and cats. Some of these animals, especially the dogs, patiently, futilely mope around the ruined foundations of destroyed houses, sniffing at the half-buried saris and shoes. Others wait outside restaurants and snack shops for discarded scraps of food. Some of these were clearly well-loved pets, and others little more than strays, but their presence around the town emphasizes the sadness and death. There was a little cat at the hotel I was staying in. She was an adorable calico, starved and begging. She looked like a little fallen princess, bright collar and all, once loved and comfortable, now begging for her dinner. There was also a rather unlikely pair that wandered the streets together, a cute tan dog with a limp and a marmalade cat. They went everywhere together, and sometimes you would even find them sleeping all curled up with one another. It made me really sad.

Sadness is really under the surface everywhere in this country right now. I know that I keep saying that it isn’t as bad as it seemed, but that’s not to say that this still isn’t a horrible, historic tragedy from which it will take a long time to recover. I left Batticaloa yesterday morning, and along the road to Colombo, white and black mourning flags flew quietly. White flags are a symbol of mourning for Buddhists, and black flags for Christians. Even far from the coasts, the flags were stuck in rice paddies, affixed to street lamp poles, hanging from windows. In such a small country, everyone was touched with grief from this disaster.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

We went to yet another coordination meeting this morning, this one for non-food item household kits at the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) office. This one was better than the last one, because people were talking about how they are already doing things, and what they were going to do this week. Most organizations had done assessments to find out what items were needed, and apparently the local government is gathering the names and information on all the beneficiaries. That is a bit of a different set up than what we had in the Congo. In the Congo, you would never have been able to rely on the local leadership to give you an accurate list of beneficiaries, because there are all kinds of personal relationships that come into play. They would leave off the list their political adversaries and people they didn’t like, and make up fake people so that people they do like could get multiple kits. Here, the government for the most part is working well with the relief effort, which is great.

One of the best things about working here is that it is safe, so you can move around freely. I found a great place for taking walks that starts right in front of the hotel. It takes you up by the estuary, next to a pretty neighborhood (that wasn’t affected), across a causeway, down one of the main roads of town, and then back across the bridge to the hotel. There are fishermen out in the estuary in the traditional style of boat that is like a canoe with a rectangular piece of wood on one side (not sure why, but I think it has something to do with hanging the nets). They look so peaceful out there. Supposedly, singing fish live in the estuary, and they are loudest from April to September. They say that the fishermen know they are there because when it is quiet, you can hear the humming. I haven’t heard the humming, since it isn’t very quiet along the road, but I like to believe that they are in there singing. In the air along the road, there is the pleasant salty-windy smell of the sea. It is nice, even when there is traffic.

So, as I said, it is safe here. Crime is a rare occurrence. That’s why we were all surprised when a freelance photojournalist told us that all her gear, except the cameras she had with her at the time, was stolen from her hotel room, most likely by someone who works there. She lost her laptop, external hard drive, and camera chargers, as well as all the photos she had taken here and in Indonesia for two assignments. None of it was insured, and the police were no help at all. It is easy to say, “well, the person who stole it is probably poor and desperate, and while this is a set back for her, it isn’t the end of her life.” However, anyone who has a job at a hotel, especially here and now, is not hurting, and meanwhile they may have ruined her reputation with the two magazines, because they aren’t going to get the best quality photos from her. We were all shocked. Thankfully, it wasn’t at the hotel I’m staying at, but you never know I guess.

One of the random responsibilities that has just been assigned to me is “staff care”. Not sure yet how serious this is, but I think that I’d like to do that kind of thing. Today I went out and bought stuff for the house, and I will be spending the rest of the week shopping! Not so bad, really, but admittedly I’m a bit annoyed. I didn’t get a master’s degree to go shopping.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Three days have gone by, and, needless to say, much has changed. The Jesuits and I have finally finished their proposal for their project that we are funding, which was hard won. They do exciting work, and are very good at it, but it was hard to wring this proposal out of them because they are very fluid, and kept changing their ideas. Finally we banged it out, but not after a short moment of tension, when it looked like they were about to start some activities that would have short-circuited the coordination that was going on in the shelter group.

I’ll be headed back to Colombo this weekend, which I’m glad about. I’m very homesick, and could use more frequent access to the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, Batticaloa is a nice town and the people are great. It is just that I’m tired of the work, and am ready to go home. I’m not really needed here that badly (as one can tell by my recent shopping assignment). Colombo isn’t bad, so I’ll enjoy some time there, maybe take a day trip to Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth, and then I’m out of here on the 8th of February, or earlier if I can make that happen. The boss told me that I’d be doing some writing and orienting two new staff members (frankly, I’m not sure why the need any more staff here), but I can’t imagine that taking up too much of my time, certainly not two whole weeks. Besides, he is likely to change his mind yet again.

The little daughters of my fiancĂ©’s boss gave me three of their dolls to give to children here. It was so sweet that they were so concerned about other kids so far away. Those dolls were with me in my backpack for days. I had the hardest time figuring out what to do with them. If I went over to the camp across the street and picked three children out at random, I would have been the pied piper, with kids following me forever asking for dolls. I didn’t find an opportunity to give them to kids who were on their own anywhere, since that is rare here. Nevertheless, I really wanted to give the dolls away, to help the girls make the connection they wanted to make. Yesterday, I gave them to the Jesuit in charge of the relief programs here, so he could take them to the orphanage and give them to the kids there. Then the dolls were in his bag. We went together to a coordination meeting for the education sector, and the whole time I was hard pressed not to laugh, since all three of the dolls had their heads poking out of his bag next to the table, as if they, too, were attending the meeting.

I just finished some shopping. I know I complained about being assigned so low a task, but I have to admit that I enjoyed it. I love talking to the shopkeepers, and seeing all the interesting things they have. Here, the relationship between the storeowner and the client is very friendly, even when they are trying to make you pay more than the normal price! Instead of being able to browse through everything, you just tell them what you want, and the employees run around showing you everything that they have that might suit you. In some places, you can even sit down and have tea while this happens! I wish that I could shop, or be shopped for, like this in the US.

In addition to the things I got for the Caritas house here, such as towels and sheets and pillows, I also bought some beautiful ribbon and a sarong. The 1.5” wide silk sari border ribbon with embroidery all along it that I bought cost me only $2.00 for 10 meters. A roll of ½” satin ribbon was only 50 cents! Traditional Sri Lankan men, especially outside of Colombo and the cities, wear sarongs. These are pieces of fabric sewn into a tube and hemmed that they gather and tuck around their waists. A lot of men in Batticaloa wear them. I guess it must be more comfortable for them, and cooler. Most are in relatively understated patterns, like simple solids, stripes, and plaids in blue, white, dark green, and black. Some of the fancier ones have border ribbon sewn onto the bottom. I bought a plain green one in a nice fabric for my fiancĂ© – I figured he could wear it around the house, since a man in a skirt would look a bit funny in the States.

The stores sell all kinds of things. The fabric store, for example, sells not only fabric, but also some clothing, pillows, sheets, towels, beading, ribbon, etc. The place where I got the knives and silverware sells yarn, ribbon, toys, Hindu idols, Buddha statuettes, knickknacks galore, pots and pans, and big brass stands that you put candles and flowers on for the prayer room in your house. It can be a little confusing at first, but when you realize that you don’t have to look through it all to find what you want because someone else will do that for you, it becomes a surprisingly pleasant experience. Unlike most shopping experiences, the price is also a pleasure, because things are so cheap here.

I’m wondering if any of you who read this are disappointed because I’m not talking more about the disaster and the people. I’m sorry that I can’t give you more about that, but it just isn’t what I’m seeing. I think that is one of the parts of humanitarian work that many people don’t understand. As outsiders, we don’t really get all the way out to the beneficiaries that often. Usually, the local organizations we support do that end of the work. Sometimes we get to go to see building sites for the shelter, oversee emergency distributions, or talk to the local leaders, but those visits are shallow and short. This is especially true in a country like Sri Lanka, which has a lot of local capacity to carry out projects. Plus, my time here is short and focused on administrative issues. Those who are here longer get a better picture of things, and also have more time to work in the beneficiary communities. So, I apologize if all this isn’t terribly interesting, but it is what it is.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

I finally arrived in Colombo too early Monday morning after a horrid series of flights from Baltimore. In addition to the innumerable delays, I had a long layover in Bangkok. I had expected this layover to be a chance to get a shower and some rest, and maybe do some shopping, but that was not to be. There were no day rooms to be had, so I ended up in a rather dim guesthouse taking a shower in a shared bathroom and trying to keep myself awake all day by eating, doing email, and getting a rather nice Thai massage. I had forgotten how bad Bangkok smells, or maybe it had just gotten worse since the last time I was there.

So, exhausted and jet lagged and dirty, I dropped into Colombo, Sri Lanka at 1 something in the morning on Monday, and got to the hotel and a bed at about 3:30am. Some of the staff, including myself, were put up at the Taj Samudra hotel, which is nice and, if one were there on vacation, very well located. I spent most of Monday in our makeshift office in the library of our local partner, Caritas Sri Lanka/SEDEC.

One of the odd things about the non-profit industry is that it is competitive, with agencies competing not only for the money of private donors, but also for the recognition from public donors. To this end, representation in the media is rather important, and CRS doesn’t do too much of it. The CRS philosophy in the field is that the partners should get the credit for the work, since they do most of it, and we only give them the resources and the support to do it. However, CRS also should bet some of the credit, and to that end, headquarters sent me over with a load of navy-blue T-shirts with CRS in white on front and back. When I got them to the office, no one really wanted to wear them, and we decided that we would don them dutifully for the CBS news guys who were going to film us bustling about the “office” that day, but not in the field. That way, CRS would get some airtime, but when it really counted, the partner would be front and center. I’m not sure which side of the fence I stand on regarding this issue. CRS does do a lot of the work to make a project happen, and I see no reason that we shouldn’t get credit for that. More than one agency can share the applause at a job well done, no? So why can’t the partner and CRS both get the credit? But then on the other hand, people may assume that CRS really did all the work and just let the partner do some symbolic parts, when really there was hard work on both sides. CRS can pay for publicity, but local partners need to get theirs, well deserved, as cheaply as possible without being overshadowed by a bigger sister.

Anyway, Colombo seems to be a nice enough and livable city. There are many historic sites, and it is open and on the sea and has some pretty spots, despite the oversized confetti of colorful signs posted everywhere and anywhere. The shopping appears to be great here – you can get authentic brand name clothing for very cheap in stores in Colombo because the clothes are made in factories on the island. Not to mention that the national arts and crafts are interesting and well developed.

I didn’t get to stay in Colombo long, though. CRS originally sent me out here to write proposals to get more money from the US government for our programs. However, it turns out that the effort here is flush with cash, and is having a hard time programming what it already has. One of my coworkers here said it well, “none of the important things are expensive”. Psychosocial trauma counseling doesn’t cost a lot to implement. Nor do many of the other things that CRS is doing here and is good at. So, I was “repurposed”, and sent to the field with a mandate to help set up the office in Kalamunai in Ampara district.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
The drive across the country was an absolute pleasure. Sri Lanka is beautiful and interesting, with some really nice historic places and good hotels. I highly recommend a trip here – it would not only help with the national recovery from the disaster, but would also be fun and interesting. We spend the night in Habarana, in huge hotel called the Village. It was great, but empty. We were some of the five or so people there, and the bored staff hovered around us, waiting on us hand and foot. The rooms were clean and comfortable, and the place is really well kept.

After arriving at Batticaloa, I was again redeployed, this time to stay in the town and work with one of the partners, Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), which was going to implement some trauma counseling and other types of activities with CRS funds. Batticaloa is a town of some size, with stores and churches and mosques and temples all over the place. I like it. Sri Lankans are very friendly people, even the police and the military, and so it is easy to get along with everyone.

On Thursday, Cardinal McCarrick from Washington, DC and Ken Hackett, the president of CRS visited Batti. We drove out en masse, a junket of priests and nuns and aid workers, to one of the areas that was hit by the wave. It was stunningly awful. Whole blocks of what were once middle-class (for Sri Lanka) homes were decimated. Chunks of painted brick, broken tiles, and piles of debris wound up with saris and other clothing are everywhere. There are still some houses standing or half-standing, and you can see that the neighborhood, called Dutch Bar, was once almost prosperous. We drove past St. Ignatius School – or at least where the school once was. It is now a blank sand flat.

While the dignitaries were show the barely-damaged church by the slightly over-zealous parish priest, I wandered off to look at the real damage. I have to admit that I was struck at first by the thought that these people weren’t really poor, so they weren’t that badly off, but then I felt guilty for feeling that way, because it doesn’t really matter who you are, if you lose your house and family, you are poor and alone and sad. Looking at a half-destroyed house, the exposed interior walls bright yellow and still decorated with a small painting of a Hindu god, I saw a shoe in the debris. Shoes show up in photos of all disasters, probably because they are so evocative and so symbolic; in a way, this makes the shoe image a bit trite. However, at that moment, I was overwhelmed with an involuntary imagining of a family in the yellow room doing what families do and suddenly the water hits the house and screams in the windows and rushes down on them. They shout and drop everything and run to the door but even the traitorous house comes crashing down on them as the malicious furniture blocks their escape. It was too much, and I lost it. I cried and cried, a lame, useless, too-little-too-late crying.

Yes, the situation here is terrible. Worse than anything I’ve ever seen. Yet it is true that there is too much money, too many aid agencies, and too little work. What needs to be done is construction and reconstruction, but Tower-of-Babel meetings of logo-wearing foreigners from all over the world discuss with local bureaucrats the fate of the people currently languishing in the “welfare” camps. These stupid meetings go on and on, discussing semantics, specifics, methodologies, and sensitivities. Meanwhile, those who lost their homes live in tents or on the floors of schools; they live with relatives in crowded houses and wait for someone to tell them where to go. Some people want to go back to their old places, but most don’t want to be anywhere they can even hear the sea. Some go down each day to clean their home sites, spending their whole day there but returning to the camps at night, even if their homes are standing. I don’t think anyone but the journalists has asked them what they want – we are all talking about theories: keeping neighbors together, 150 square meters for a family of five, the finer points of tin roofs. How noble and how completely useless. I know that these things take time, but we really should be coordinating with the actual survivors. It only makes sense.

Perhaps I am a bit too jaded. It does take a long time to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that agencies aren’t duplicating effort and that everyone is being served by someone. It is necessary to get the buy in from local bureaucrats. But more than anything else, we need to consider the people we are doing this for, and what their needs and hopes are.

JRS, the partner I’m working with, is a pretty good organization that works with refugees in many countries around the world, particularly in education. They have been working here with people displaced by the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers in the north and east of the country. With this emergency, JRS is working with their previous beneficiaries in the displaced camps as well as the people who have taken refuge from the tsunami in the schools and churches of the Jesuits. The priest in charge in Batticaloa for JRS is the regional director of the agency from Dehli, Fr. Amal. Fr. Amal is definitely a dedicated, humble, energetic visionary, but the man cannot think rationally or practically to save his soul. He has us so confused we literally have no idea what he wants to do at any given moment. Working with him to get a formal agreement on what we are going to pay for so his organization can do their activities is maddening.