Sri Lanka

"The church was simply the safest place to go"

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By Sonali Fernando in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Many of them had never stepped inside a church before. But for the Hindu citizens of Mahiladythievu in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka, there was one overriding reason to seek shelter in the Methodist church when the flood waters rose: it stands on the highest piece of ground for miles.

The rain started two days before the end of 2010. Most people living in Mahiladythievu, on the edge of Batticaloa’s crocodile-infested lagoon, expected it to be over by the traditional last day of the monsoon on January 10. But it didn’t stop.

Fat balls of water pelted eastern and central Sri Lanka for over three weeks. In the east, howling wind propelled water through towns, villages and open land. Roads became rivers, houses made of baked mud dissolved like sandcastles, and 100,000 cattle were wiped out in a week.

Ninety-five per cent of the paddy fields were destroyed. Three farmers committed suicide: with their land ruined, they had no means to pay off their loans.

Most people managed to wade to safety, neck-high in watery effluent as the sewers overflowed, but some were sucked down into the eddies.

“People never expected the water to enter their houses”, says Reverend SS Terrence, who runs twelve branches of the Methodist church in Batticaloa. “This is a hilly area - 15 to 20ft above sea level”, he says, standing on tip-toes to show the point on the harbour wall reached by the flood waters. When the water was at its highest, the reverend personally commandeered a number of small boats to take people to safety in the church and to bring supplies such as rice, dal, tinned fish and milk powder from across the swollen lagoon.

“It was a great challenge for us. We didn’t have the means to feed the hundreds of people who were seeking help”. But, with funds from ACT Alliance, the church was able to open its doors to 302 people and give them hot food, bedding and shelter.

“It was important to work beyond the barriers of caste and ethnicity that usually separate people from each other. The people who needed our help were devout Hindus. The flood brought them closer to us”.

Ethnic war

Mahiladytheevu has had more than its fair share of calamities. For twenty-six years, until peace was declared in May 2009, people here lived in the crossfire of Sri Lanka’s ethnic war - a war between government forces and rebels that was commonly, and simplistically, perceived as a war between the Sinhala Buddhist majority and a secessionist Tamil Hindu minority fighting for an independent state, with the country's Christians and Muslims supported both sides. The area used to be controlled by the LTTE rebel group, known popularly as the Tamil Tigers. “Most of the youngsters here were forcibly taken by the LTTE or joined them willingly", says Rev Terrence. There were battles from 1985 to 2007 between the Sri Lankan government army and the LTTE, during which many people ‘disappeared'. And then, when the LTTE was divided into two, there was a massacre between the two factions - a disaster within a disaster.”

Most families are headed by women who, until the floods, eked out a meagre living through basic agricultural work. Mahiladytheevu has the highest number of widows in all the east.

S. Vasantha, 43, used to make a living from grinding rice flour. A widow of 13 years, since her husband went missing, she built her tin-roofed clay house with the profits of her rice-pounding. She recounts how the flood swept inside. “When I got up at 4.30am I saw that everything was under water. I took what I could but had to leave everything else, even cooking utensils and food. One of my daughters was studying for an O-level exam, and all her notes were gone. I thought the church was a good place for shelter and protection. If the reverend had not been here we would have died. We were completely cut off.”

The flood subsided in the third week of January and people returned to what was left of their homes. S. Vasantha found that her tin-roofed house, earned through years of back-breaking work, had been ruined: half the clay walls and the flooring had been washed away. And then, a few days later, on February 2 2011, the rains came back with a vengeance. The second flood took away the rest of the house.

"My first thought was 'Why should I live here in this world. Should I kill myself?' But my children were crying and I knew I had to protect them". She stayed with her family in Mahiladytheevu church, which had now opened its doors to 575 new people.

“Twenty-two years of my life have been washed away”

When the floods came, K. Thevarajah, 44, took his elderly father and his children to the church: “I knew they would look after us”. Despite his gratitude, his face is bleak and depressed. “Before the flood I had a home garden - growing chilli, brinjal and okra, which I used to take to the market and sell. I had an acre of land and could support myself, my 6 children and my wife, while making a little profit. Over the years, I was able to buy a cow and some goats. They grazed near the lagoon. So when the floods came, all my animals perished. Twenty-two years of my life, washed away. All my savings were in those animals”.

The floods in Sri Lanka were barely reported in the global media as they coincided with dramatic floods in Brisbane, Australia, where a prevalence of smartphones and television cameras could feed the public’s appetite for 24/7 news with splendidly dramatic images. But in Sri Lanka, in villages where ownership of a mobile telephone or digital camera is unthinkable for most people, few images came out. The water level in Sri Lanka rose to just 8 feet, while it reached 12 feet in Australia: yet it caused far more damage. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan homes became uninhabitable; and, unlike their Australian counterparts, none were insured.

“There is no question that the floods have caused more destruction to Sri Lanka than the tsunami did”, says Brian Martin, country manager for ACT’s British member organisation Christian Aid. The 2004 tsunami killed 35,000 Sri Lankans and pulverised the southern and eastern coasts of the country: but Martin points out that, while relatively few people died as a direct result of the 2011 floods, over 1.3 million people have been forced to leave their homes or have lost their land. The knock-on effects of this natural disaster will last generations unless immediate work is done now to help people rebuild their lives, and this is where Christian Aid now plans to focus its efforts through a range of projects in the north and east of the country.

“I have to start working again. That is the only thing that will bring me comfort”, says father-of-six Thevarajah. If someone could help by giving us some seeds and some small water pumps then we could start farming again”.

The Ministry of Presence

Launching a large-scale appeal for funds this week, ACT in Sri Lanka plans to support people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds to recover from the floods and rebuild their homes and livelihoods. Reverend Ebenezer Joseph, general secretary of ACT’s local member, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, is known for his work on interreligious dialogue in a country that has been riven by sectarian hatred. His commitment to work that is deeply rooted in communities epitomises the ACT ethos:

“The church cannot, and does not, leave a community - even after the programme is over. Most NGOs will come to a place for three years and talk about facilitating the ‘community empowerment’ that enables them to leave at the end of that period. For us there is no question of withdrawing. If you talk to the communities we help, they will say ‘The church ministers stayed with us. They lived with us. They fled with us. They were the first to come back with us’. We like to think of ourselves as the Ministry of Presence”.

So has the experience of being sheltered by the church made Hindus from Mahiladythievu feel that communities with different ethnic roots and beliefs can live together in harmony? Thevarajah doesn’t answer directly: “We went to the church because we knew they were good people. We knew we’d be safe there”.

But Vasantha is perhaps more frank. “No”, she shakes her head slowly. “So many people have died and too much has happened... It is too hard for different people to live together. We are filled with grief”.

The poison of ethno-religious intolerance has corroded millions of lives in this beautiful country for three decades; it will take billions of gestures of support and solidarity to make people trust each other again. In its new appeal for Sri Lanka, ACT plans to combine peace-building strategies that bring Tamil and Sinhala communities together with initiatives designed to get people working and earning again. Once enough funds have been raised, the projects will begin. In the meantime, the sanctuary offered at Mahiladythievu church, which just happens to be on the highest patch of land for miles around, is a small but vital beginning.

ACT Alliance launches an appeal this week to raise money for people affected by floods in Sri Lanka. Projects funded by the appeal will focus on building homes and supporting people back into work or self-employment and will work with both Tamil and Sinhala people.

Sonali Fernando is Head of Communications at the ACT Alliance Secretariat in Geneva.