Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sri Lanka reflections (part 2)

One of the surreal things about Sri Lanka is to visit the tourist resorts on the South West coast. We spent four days in Hikkaduwa at a really well-appointed hotel. The pool was beautiful and warm, the view from our balcony was of the breakers of the Indian Ocean rolling on to a palm-tree lined beach, the service was excellent, the sun shone...

The surreal thing was that the hotel next door was still a pile of rubble from the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Indeed as you walked around from Hikkaduwa to a temple with a little island chapel, the effects of the tsunami are still plain to see: ruined buildings, half rebuilt homes, shattered boats, even flip-flops and toothbrushes lying in the grass indicating the presence of people until catastrophe came.

Everywhere you go in Sri Lanka - and especially along the coastline - there's evidence of the tsunami and its aftermath. And yet it's hard to get your head round just how enormous it was.

There's a memorial on the road out of Hikkaduwa to the 1200 passengers who died on an express train that was hit by the wave. Opposite and across the road, the railway line has been relaid and trains rumble by pretty regularly. But all along the line, piles of rubble indicate where homes stood on either side of the tracks.

Before going to Hikkaduwa, we'd spent a day with a friend who's a pastor in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa. He'd been involved in providing immediate relief to hundreds of families left destitute and homeless by the tsunami and more recently in helping fishing communities along the coast to rebuild and get their lives back to some semblance of normal.

As he walked us around one of the redevelopments, I was struck by how basic it all was: wooden buildings, outside toilet blocks and rudimentary sanitation. Our church had helped towards the cost of all this and it was great to see families rehoused and delighted with their new homes.

But one of the frustrations that William and his team faced is that the government and local authorities refuse to run any utilities into the area because it's too near the sea. The government is insisting that all rebuilding take place getting on for a kilometre from the coast. But many of the fishing communities have lived for generations just yards from the sea from which they earn their living. They do not want to move inland. So they would rather live in new wooden houses (brick houses aren't allowed so near the shore-line) with only basic services than the brick homes being built inland.

The nonsense of the policy is that right next door to where William and his team are building wooden homes for fishermen, the Chinese government is building a huge concrete and brick port development which will include moorings for these fishermen and a fish market. Ah well!

What impressed me about William was the easy and calm way he went about undertaking the enormous task of helping these families put their lives back together. He is a model of Christian service - assessing need, listening to people's concerns, seeking their welfare and wanting them to experience the love of God in a tangible way.

It was humbling to see him in action.

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