Colombo Telegraph

The Recent Floods, A Catalyst For Communal Harmony

By Mass L. Usuf

Mass L. Usuf

Tragedy is like strong acid – it dissolves away all but the very gold of truth”~ D. H. Lawrence.

The common practice of humans building homes and towns near rivers and other bodies of water (i.e., within natural floodplains) has contributed to the disastrous consequences of floods. These natural floodplains are converted from fields, marshes or woodlands to roads and parking lots, it then loses its ability to absorb rainfall.

At the discussion in Parliament (25.05.2016) on the damage caused by the floods, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pointed out that about 1,000 acres of land around Parliament were identified at different locations as water retention areas. Upon an inspection, he said that he found only about 500 acres of this land remains for that purpose. The rest encroached upon or acquired and buildings constructed. His contention was that even for the regular monsoon the area gets flooded. The story in Wellampitiya – Megoda Kolonnawa, Lansiyawatte, Sedawatte, Brandiyawatte, the Kelaniya river embankment etc. is not any different.

Do Not Rape Her

Generally, and in legal parlance, storms, floods, landslides and earthquakes are often called Vis Major or Force Majeure (act of God). In the olden days man lived in harmony with nature. For him natural disasters were unpredictable and because of that such disasters were inextricably linked to various beliefs. Concomitant to a disaster was the offering of animal sacrifice or even human sacrifice, in the days of yore.

Often times natural disasters were also connected to some pantheistic deity whose wrath or sentiment is expressed in the form of a calamity. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile flooded every year because of Isis’s (a goddess from the polytheistic pantheon of Egypt) tears of sorrow for her dead husband, Osiris (god of the afterlife).

However, in today’s context, there is no doubt that there is a long list of man-made disasters. A further addition to that list is deforestation, the greenhouse effect and global warming each reckoned as contributors to the cause and effect cycle of natural disasters. For instance, in Sri Lanka the forest cover in the 1900s was in the range of 70%. Subsequent studies in 2010 have estimated the forest extent to have reduced to 20%. An alarming and steep decline of our forestry. (Forestry Sector Master Plan [FSMP], 1995; CIA World Fact Book, 2011; FAO, 2010b).

The disaster that strikes resulting from negative human interaction with nature is what may be called the sweet revenge extracted by mother nature for abusing her. If nature is raped she gets back to you with fury and vengeance.

Kumari’s nightmare

This is exactly what happened at Kittampahuwa in the Wellampitiya area during the recent floods. An area where most of the floodplains have been converted into concretised and macadamised pathways along with buildings. When the water level was steadily rising up Kumari was helplessly watching the tyres of her car gradually getting inundated. Water then began to seep through the door into the house. The inmates hurriedly transferred most of the things to the first floor of the house. Her gauge for measuring the height of water was the car. “That night was a terrible nightmare”, she recalls. She then remembered the family next door. A young couple with a six-month old baby. Kumari waded through the water to the next door to see Khadija, her husband and the baby sitting on two chairs placed on top of the bed. She immediately asked them to come to her house. The next day morning, lo and behold, Kumari was seeing the water covering her car. Rescuers on boats arrived and took all of them to a nearby shelter. Kumari and Khadija were in the same predicament like the many thousands around them. No food or water, no extra cloths and no belongings.

Nondescript

They were sitting close to each other but hardly spoke. They were aimlessly staring at the empty space. In their minds they were not Sinhala, nor Tamil, nor Muslim. Neither were they Buddhist, nor Hindu, nor Christian, nor Islam – but just refugees of disaster. Both sharing the little food and water given out by other human beings. For the aid workers too, the people were not Sinhala, nor Tamil, nor Muslim. Neither were they Buddhist, nor Hindu, nor Christian, nor Islam – just helping another human being in distress.

As much as the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims took refuge in temples, the same mix sort refuge in mosques and schools. They did not only lose their valuable belongings but they also lost track of their acquired negative attitudes and perceptions of the other communities. They even forgot the divisive racial, religious and cultural biases and prejudices. Their vulnerability and helplessness narrated the story of the universal truth of innocence. That exoteric expression of the real, undiluted and uncorrupted innate human value which dwells in everyone’s mind.

Naturally disasters are always looked at negatively and with pessimism. Since anything that harms or causes loss to human beings and property is considered a calamity. The psychological impact is such that many suffer from post trauma disorder and require counselling.

Social Bonding

In an article titled, “How the Stress of Disaster Brings People Together” in the ‘Scientific American’ (one of the oldest American popular science magazine to which famous scientists, including Albert Einstein, have contributed) states, ‘Acute stress may help remind us of a fundamental truth: our common humanity.

Understanding our shared vulnerability — life makes no promises — may be frightening, but it can inspire kindness, connection, and desire to stand together and support each other. Acute stress, as unpleasant as it may be, may also be an opportunity to experience the most beautiful aspects of life: social connection and love’. Brene Brown, Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and expert in the field of social connection, is cited explaining that vulnerability is a core ingredient of social bonding.

A True Buddhist

A disaster based true life incident comes to life in the attached video clip. A confession by a true disciple of Buddha. Some relevant abstracts from the statements of Venerable Sidinamaluwe Vajira Thera of Kolonnawa at the media conference held on 25.05.2016 are given below for those who do not understand the Sinhala language.

“All communities were affected by the floods. Not only Sinhala Buddhists. Also, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. They helped everyone without discrimination. I even do not know the name of this person (Hadjiar) but he came to the temple and asked me what service do you want from us. Please tell us anything and we will provide it. This is in contrast to the wrong perception we had at the beginning about Muslims. When we saw them with the thoppi (cap) we feared that they have come here to grab our lands. This is a good lesson for the racists and extremists.

As followers of the Buddha we greatly appreciate the service you all have rendered. These people are supplying mats, pillows, food parcels for those sheltering in the temple. I am ashamed to tell this but ninety percent of assistance came from the Mosque. Apart from the little we received from the government. Only now help is arriving from outside places. We are still using the rice which they gave us and also distributing from it to everyone. I feel there must be more mosques built. I will give the first cement bag if a new mosque is constructed. We both have a long journey forward to go together hand in hand”.

The spontaneous applause is a demonstration of the soothing effect the words of that Venerable Thera has had in the minds of the audience. These were words promoting peaceful coexistence and harmony between communities.

Media Responsibility

Today the media occupies an important cog in the wheel of happenings worldwide. It is turning out to be a noble profession. Journalists are willing to gamble with their own lives just to bring the story out to the waiting people. Contextually, we are a country that has been wounded by racial and ethno-religious carnage. The mainstream media, both the electronic and print, therefore shoulder a huge responsibility in this background. Part of it being highlighting news which would help forge unity amongst the people – even during disastrous situations. This responsibility has to be discharged fully in an impartial and fair manner in reference to race, religion and ethnicity.

If the mainstream media is ever ready only to sensationalise news which would unintentionally cause to widen the divide between communities, it will be a disservice to our country as a whole. Our local media has a noble and valuable role to play in fostering communal and religious harmony and to strengthen the bonds of fraternity amongst all the people. If it fails to fully deliver in this magnanimity, it would be failing this great profession of journalism itself.

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