Batticaloa, situated on the east coast of Sri Lanka is home to some of the most beautiful beaches and landscape on the island.
A beautiful beach in Batticaloa
However, this beauty has been almost irreparably tainted by the devastating impact of the tsunami, which left around 3000 people dead and thousands more displaced, making Batticaloa one of the worst affected areas in Sri Lanka. In one stretch of land home to some of Batticaloa’s most beautiful and untouched beaches, three and a half kilometres along the coast, almost 1000 people lost their lives.
Consequently, Sri Lanka’s biggest tsunami camp is situated in Batticaloa. Here over 1500 families are living in temporary shelters built by three organisations, with little idea if and when they will ever be given permanent housing. Despite the large amount of money available for the building of temporary shelters, this camp is home to largely low quality housing with little pre-planning and thought put into the set-up. Houses are built close together with only 1 toilet per 5 families and washing facilities which allow no privacy and space. As a result numerous social issues have arisen such as alcohol abuse among men, sexual harassment and abuse of women, cases of depression and suicides. Children find it hard to get to their schools in town, and women are unable to carry out their daily chores. Additionally, the camp is situated in marshland, which has resulted in flooding during the monsoon season, washing away further semblances of hope in the camp.
Following the tsunami, the international community and a large proportion of well-known and also many unknown aid agencies made extremely generous financial donations to victims of the tsunami across South East Asia, almost competing in their readiness to offer support. Whilst these tremendous offerings were a real blessing to so many in their hours of need, it must also be noted that such huge donations have not all been used effectively. In fact in many cases the donations, despite the good intentions, have produced detrimental effects in themselves, resulting in many beneficiaries of aid becoming increasingly reliant upon NGO hand-outs. Moreover, this degree of aid dependency on the part of the Sri Lankan people has resulted in significant decisions being devolved to foreign extra-governmental bodies, who possess insufficient knowledge of the country and populace they are assisting. The production of boats in the area is one example. It was a well known and documented fact that the fishing community were badly affected by the tsunami, with massive loss of life among fishermen themselves and also extensive damage caused to boats, nets and other equipment, However, due to poorly executed needs assessments, the boats produced have been of the wrong type, and are often given to individuals with no knowledge of how to operate them. Consequently, many lie undistributed and unused, a needless waste of funds.
The Batticaloa district consists of both densely populated Tamil and Muslim ethnic majority areas and the coastal regions which tend to be more evenly populated. Whilst in many areas the different ethnic groups live peacefully alongside one another, in other regions the atmosphere is heavily charged and problems over abductions, land occupations, personal vendettas and trade disputes have resulted in an atmosphere of tension and discord. This is an area that has not only suffered intolerably during the war, the above tensions have been exacerbated further by the tsunami. New disputes have arisen, particularly over the distribution of aid. There is much jealously and suspicion, with each group, community and area believing the other is receiving more supplies and preferential treatment.
With the apparent failures of the Government to fairly distribute and effectively control the tsunami aid, a space has been created for the INGO community to take control of the recovery operation. Although this demands a lot of work and many foreigners with the organisations show much dedication and focus, the negative impact of so many "ex-pats" living in one area, renting out local properties at much higher rates than what locals can afford, paying higher wages and generally living a separate lifestyle to the local people, cannot be ignored. Furthermore, despite the level of competition that exists between organisations, many families (most of whom fall within the gaps) remain unsupported and have been subject to hollow and undelivered promises. The locals have described the aid process and the presence of INGOs on the island as "exploitative".
Batticaloa has been and remains perhaps the most politically volatile area in Sri Lanka (a fractional split in the LTTE between the eastern and northern command in April 2004 led to a major increase in violence and tension) that even the tsunami has failed to put an end to. When the waves of the tsunami hit Sri Lankan shores in December 2005, it failed to cool the heated socio-political disputes that have been raging on the island for over twenty years; rather, it increased their scope and pitch, leading to further discord over the rightful allocation of resources between Batticaloa Tamil and Muslim communities and the majority Sinhalese. Thus, suffering and political upheaval is rife amongst the Sri Lankan population irrespective of ethnic or religious background.
Immediately after the tsunami the TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation) began distributing aid to the Tamil people. After a few days, the Sinhalese Army limited the movements of the TRO by force, as it is widely believed that the group is affiliated with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam). At that time it was suspected that the TRO were distributing weapons among the people and re-recruiting soldiers. Batticaloa is a known as a ‘cleared’ - ‘government controlled’ – area with a huge and intimidating military presence. .
The ‘El Li Lo’ housing project, and by extension Ath Welak, are acutely aware of both the sensitivities of the socio-political situation in Batticaloa and also the need to conduct work in a neutral and impartial fashion. Our mission is only to reach those at the grassroots that are most in need of help, whilst highlighting the message that every human life is important, regardless of political, religious and social affiliations and ties. Whilst at times it is difficult working within a highly militarised and at times, volatile environment, our aim to support the people and help them realise their capabilities.
Fishermen in Batticaloa
At 7.00am on Friday the 17th of February, in the area of Kallady in Batticaloa, a group of 16 fishermen huddled together, the hard soles of their feet dug into the soft sand of the beach as they pulled with all their might on the ropes of their nets. Muscles straining they heaved together to the chants of ‘El-Li-Lo’, facing the mass of water that took their families lives. Each pull heightens their anticipation as they bring closer with each strenuous tug their catch for the day. Locals gather with interest on the beach to review the outcome of that mornings fishing. The fish are then sorted by size into baskets, weighed on the scales and transported by bicycle to the town.
Sorting the nets
Dividing the fish
Weighing the fish
These fishermen, having lost four men from their initial group of twenty, were the first to return to the sea after the tsunami. On the fateful day of the tsunami most of the group were on the beach with their fishing equipment, having been out in the boat early that morning. At the sight of the approaching wave many of them ran screaming and yelling for the families to get out of their homes and run. Now many say if they had not heard those cries, they would never have been able to get away in time. The men lost all of their four boats and fishing equipment, as the force of the wave picked them up and hurled them at the villages behind. The men first returned to sea in a borrowed boat, more as an act of courage and an attempt to work through fears and return to normalcy, than as an actual income-generating activity. However, with funds donated from family and friends of Rebecca Walker, they were able to build their own traditional timber boat and start fishing again. The second boat was then built with the money donated by Ath Welak.
All of the fishermen’s houses were destroyed by the tsunami. With funds from the initial El-Li-Lo project they were able to build their own temporary shelters where their homes once proudly stood. Every member of the group lost at least one close family member (bearing in mind that many of the group are related and their families inter-married) Thamba* , one of the fishermen, lost all his family – his three young sons, his young wife and his parents. Since the tsunami he attempted to take his own life on numerous occasions
A community already crippled by civil war, Batticaloa fell victim to the very force that fuels and sustains their lives. This tragic irony is lost on very few. The tsunami destroyed the village of Kallady and with it the happiness and dignity of the community members. Today, their future is dictated by the government and international agencies, which has stripped the people of Kallady of any sense of autonomy or self-determination.
They were offered boats inappropriate for their needs, houses that came with certain conditions – such as designs by those outside and built by contractors from other parts of the country (when before the tsunami all people built their own homes)and have now become dependent on the decisions made by figures in the top levels of Kallady’s social structure, often individuals who are seen to have less than altruistic motives.
As a consequence of the lack of know-how in nautical affairs on the part of local NGOs, Ath Welak has provided these men with the tools and opportunity to construct their own boat. This ensured that all the practical specifications were exact and that funds were wisely invested on an efficient, manageable boat that not only helped the fishermen rebuild their livelihoods, but also provided a powerful symbol of self-sufficiency and vocational independence in the region.
The boat Ath Welak funded
The donation of money from Ath Welak to the ‘El Li Lo’ project was sufficient to pay for the building of their second boat, new nets and other equipment. Fishing not only provides a structure in these men’s lives, but also acts as a framework to enhance solidarity between community members; as well as providing them with regular income and allowing them to retain some independence and dignity.
Batticaloa Housing Project – "El Li Lo"
Ganesh is the Mudaleli (chief or leader) of a fisherman group of twenty, four of which were killed in the tsunami. Of the sixteen fishermen remaining, eleven do not have homes. They are living in corrugated metal temporary shelters or in the nearby refugee camp. The ‘El Li Lo’ project aims to empower people to make the changes in their own lives via democratic and informed decisions from the bottom up. The fishermen chose the design of the house themselves as one that best befitted their culture and environment, and will also play a large role in the construction process itself. The design of the house will be based on one being used by another organisation called the ‘Christian Fishing Society’, a design that the fishermen felt was most appropriate for their needs. It boasts two bedrooms, living space, kitchen and veranda, with separate toilets already having been installed. We also aim to build a water tank on top of the house not only to serve as an individual supply but also as a high and secure place that the families could climb in the event of further flooding or another tsunami. The total cost of one house is Rs600,000.00 or £3,300.00
A temporary shelter
The house that will be built
The living space
Ath Welak aim to construct two such houses for the fishermen group. The recipients of these were chosen at a group meeting with the mudalali, the fishermen and ourselves. The decision was unanimous, and most importantly made by the fishermen themselves. The fishermen decided fairly and democratically who was most in need of the houses that Ath Welak is going to provide. The first is a family of four with a physically disabled son and the second a man who lost his home, wife, three young sons and his parents.
The meeting with the fishermen on the beach
Sri Lanka a year after
The budget and billing list has been comprised of items that can be obtained locally. The framework of the building has been divided up into 7 stages. By doing this, money can be saved by buying the materials needed for each stage in bulk. Furthermore, purchasing the items step by step means that resources for the final stage do not have to be left on site, at potential risk of theft for the whole duration of the construction process.
* Please note that due to the extremely sensitive and volatile climate of the area, real names are not being used.
Plans and details of the houses which may be viewed online are as follows:
Budget Sheet - A breakdown of the seven stages of the development of a house with costings.