By Latheef Farook –
It is a decade since devastating Tsunami struck the country on 26 December 2004.
Billions of dollars poured into the country from all over the world to help the unfortunate victims. However a decade later today many Muslim victims continue to live in huts while 500 houses built by Saudi government for Tsunami victims continue to dilapidate in the growing jungle as they were prevented from occupying.
Muslim population in the Ampara district were the worst affected. However the plight of most Muslim victims remains unchanged ignored by the government and others. Their main problem is lack of housing. With their appeals for housing facilities falling in deaf ears of all they continue to live in misery in temporary huts where they find it extremely difficult to live with grown up children.
Some estimated the death toll to be around 40,000 while others put the number much higher. No one knows for sure how many perished. According to some reports a total of 35,322 people belonging to 14 districts were killed, while 516,150 people were displaced, 65,275 houses completely damaged and 38,561 houses partially damaged. The total estimated damage stood at US$ 1.5 billion.
Muslims in the south, south east and the east coast were the worst affected and, according to some estimates, the Muslim community lost one percent of their total population in the island. They, too, lost their loved ones and some of them even saw their kith and kin snatched and tossed by killer waves into the mighty ocean never to be seen again. They also saw how their homes, lifetime earnings and belongings were destroyed and even the source of their livelihood shattered within minutes. Muslims in the east complained that they were discriminated and ignored in the distribution of tsunami aid from the very beginning by the government, donors, NGOs and all others involved.
The traumatized and frustrated survivors in the east were angry with the government, state agencies, politicians and even foreign donors for their indifference towards their unprecedented sufferings.
Even top government officials admitted that only around 30 to 35 percent of the relief items were utilized while victims continued to languish in refugee camps forcing Japanese special envoy Yasushi Akashi to emphasize the need to distribute aid in an equitable, transparent and accountable manner without any corruption or inefficiency.
While tsunami victims were suffering in appalling conditions in inhospitable temporary shelters all over the island, there began to emerge report after report of corruption highlighting to what extent human beings could descend to in exploiting even human misery and sufferings for their own benefit.
According to a report by the Auditor-General, S.C. Mayadunne, “government officials misspent or misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tsunami aid after failing to follow instructions. Officials gave millions of rupees in tsunami assistance to thousands of families who were not directly affected while others displaced by the tsunami did not even get the rations they were entitled to”.
Citing an example a report “On flaws in post-tsunami aid distribution and accounting” presented to parliament by S.C. Mayadunne stated that “though only 599 families were directly affected, around 16,000 families were paid 73.395 million rupees ($723,460) worth of aid in the divisional secretariat of Negombo which was relatively unscathed by the tsunami. Hundreds of millions of rupees worth of aid collected locally by government agencies was still sitting in bank accounts even around July 2005, and in some cases, had been invested in fixed deposits”.
Mayadunne’s report which provided details of corruption, including the disappearance materials, pointed out that even seven months after the tsunami, only a fraction of pledged foreign aid was spent on intended key sectors.
Some other reports pointed out that Sri Lanka received 3.2 billion dollars in foreign aid pledges but how much of that was received is not known.
In the absence of proper account-keeping, many believe that only a fraction of the aid actually went to the real victims and it was impossible to track down what happened to the cash.
“God only knows whether the money was spent on tsunami victims or anybody else! The government accused non-governmental organizations for the slow progress and it is like the pot calling the kettle black, and there has been large-scale corruption in delivering aid,” said a top TEFREN executive who pointed out that local and international charities, numbering nearly 400, were flooded with donations and overwhelmed by the unprecedented funding while many NGOs wasted the money.
“Some who were not even affected by the tsunami got houses. Some got two or three boats while others did not get any. They put too much emphasis on urgency and did not adhere to accounting standards.
Under the headline “Merry times for tsunami racketeers” this is what a report by Shamindra Ferdinando in the “Island” said, “Even years after the tsunami, the government is yet to punish State officials accountable for waste, corruption and negligence in the aftermath of the unprecedented natural disaster.
“Inquiries reveal that the government has failed to initiate action against them despite clear evidence of wasteful expenditure on a large scale. Politicians have connived with officials to help their supporters play out funds and in some cases, further the interests of their associates. They have profited from crooked deals involving crooked means, hiring of vehicles and compensation for damaged and destroyed houses.
“The ruling coalition has ignored an interim report by the Auditor General’s Department, which details a series of irregularities. The report has dealt with questionable transactions between December 26, 2004 and June 30, 2005. It is critical of lapses on the part of the General Treasury, Central Bank and the Customs. Under a section titled Limitation on Procuring Information for Audit, the Auditor General (AG) has said that the Central Bank ignored a call to provide information on tsunami funds. The AG’s Department has been particularly harsh on several Divisional Secretariats in the East and South. This report is gathering dust. The report called for an in-depth police investigation. Unfortunately, the government ignored that call, and thereby allowed a group of corrupt officials and their political masters to go scot free.”
According to a survey conducted by the Muslim Reconstruction and Resettlement Organization (MRRO) which visited each and every family in the tsunami-affected Muslim areas in the Eastern Province to assess the damages to houses, 8,000 tsunami survivors have complained to the Disaster Relief Monitoring Unit (DRMU) of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka about the delay and the violation of their rights.
The often-raised question is, “Will the government and the bureaucracy which failed to distribute aid to tsunami-affected Muslims ever share the island’s resources with them?”. The answer is that they do not appear to care “a damn” about the Muslims.
Many who were awaiting aid said that they didn’t know where the aid money went but they were still living in single room wooden houses. According to one report, money was feverishly transferred not only to government establishments, but also to accounts of individuals, companies and charity organisations; so much so that a report by The Tsunami Evaluation coalition (TEC), under former US President Bill Clinton, suggested that Sri Lanka was over-aided and the island should be the best and the most efficiently reconstructed.
Sri Lanka’s deputy executive director of the anti-graft organisation Rukshana Nanayakkara said: “it was almost impossible to find out what happened to the cash. According to an initial government audit only 13 percent of the aid was spent during the first year of reconstruction, but since then there has been no formal examination of accounts.” Hundreds of tsunami survivors had complained to the graft buster against local and international aid agencies. He added that, “there has been no proper accounts maintained on the aid money and we believe that only a fraction of the aid trickled down to the real victims”.
Summing up the situation, a compassionate person from the majority community had this to state in his column in a local daily:
“It is true that we did rise to the occasion, but sadly it is also true that we folded up even faster than it took us to stand tall. This is why at 9.30 a.m. on December 26, if we mourn anything, we should mourn the tragic fact that we could not respond adequately as citizens, as fellow human beings.
“Perhaps we should all go to the beach, if not to show gratitude, to lament. Let us, when we do this, or whatever else we find ourselves doing at that most inauspicious time, reflect on the fact that in this Buddhist country there is a thing called karma pala, that while some things are bad, among the worst is the intent to prey on misery, and that such transgressions have a way of constructing appropriate punishments. I suggest, humbly, that we recognise in our blood streams, in our heartbeats and our sinews the sad truth that we have failed and hope that this recognition generates in all of us the first seeds of resolve that allows us to do better. Let us resolve to rectify our errors and truly emerge as a people worthy of a nation, simply by developing the faculty of sympathy and gathering the strength to move forward, not alone but with each and everyone left behind by the tsunami waves.”