After we finished the tour with Rex, Arlene and I left David and Bob in Negombo to run their federalism course for a large group of public servants, journalists and academics through the auspices of their Ottawa-based organization, the Forum of Federations. Arlene and I talked our guide, Rex Samarawira, into taking us to Galle, a popular beachfront town south of Colombo, to see for ourselves what the tsunami had wrought.
We had already enjoyed our wonderful holiday in the central and northern part of the country but we were uneasy – everwhere we went, the hotels, shops and restaurants were desperate for tourists. Although their areas had not been touched, tourists were staying away from Sri Lanka and the tsunami’s economic tragedy had now spread across the entire country.
Arlene and I believed that our view of this extraordinary country – where we had fallen in love with the people, where the historic sites were among the most interesting we’d ever seen, where the food and hospitality were wonderful – had to include the tragedy here too and the places where so many people died on December 26, 2004.
So we went to Galle.
At one time this old town, about 45 miles south of Colombo and centred by a massive Dutch Fort on the sea, must have been a delightful place for a holiday. There are many fine hotels stretched along the beachfront – at least there were. Most of the ones we saw have been badly damaged and are closed. Few seemed to be under repair. The hotel we found had only thirteen young British engineers staying there; they had come for two weeks as volunteers to help build some temporary balsa wood houses for homeless families.
We found the local people as friendly and hospitable as their northern countryfolk, but they did not hesitate to pour out their anger and grief. Their government has done nothing for them, they say; if it had not been for the NGOs rolling in with clean water, food, shelter and clothing they would not have survived. What has happened to the millions of dollars sent to Sri Lanka from other countries, they ask.
Why hasn’t the government helped them to start rebuilding their permanent houses?
On April 11, at least 1,000 local people attended a Communist Party rally to protest the government’s inaction. They demanded answers to their questions about international donations: Where was the money? Why were they still living in tents so many months after the disaster?
Many refuse to move into the balsa wood huts going up now to replace tents that are collapsing under monsoon rains. The reasoning is that the government will postpone building permanent homes for them if it looks as if the balsa wood ones will do. But they won’t do. Sanitation here is shocking, but clean water from the Red Cross, pumped into black plastic barrels, is keeping disease down.
The government’s feeble response is that they want a buffer zone of 100 meters from the sea and no buildings can go up in that zone. Given that so many homes, shops, hotels and other buildings were once right in this buffer zone, thousands of people and businesses are displaced and there is no where for them to go. And whose land will they take when they are settled? No one seems to know.
As this blog shows, I am fond of cats – especially strays – and Galle has become a city of homeless cats. Starving cats, their hip bones sticking out like pins, their eyes staring out in hope, prowl under the tables inthe outdoor restaurants. The restaurant owners tell us most of them are in fact domestic animals that survived the tidal wave when their owners did not. Everyone, including the waiters, feeds them scraps from the table. Hearing these wasted little creatures starting to purr and allowing themselves to be stroked nearly broke my heart.