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.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Hey! I am glad to see that you have decided to post from Sri Lanka. I was wondering if you would.
Bob R.