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SRILANKA-CARE Jan-11-2005 (1,340 words) With photos. xxxi

After tsunamis, Sri Lankan doctor finds wounds medicine cannot heal

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

MORATUWA, Sri Lanka (CNS) -- At St. Mary's Catholic Church, they wait patiently to see the physician.

Once inside the classroom turned medical-exam room, they sit down to tell Dr. Kamal Peiris their ailments. Many bear the symptoms of having struggled to escape the tsunamis; they have lacerated limbs and sore muscles. Others have wounds no physician can heal.

Sudharmika Kumari weeps inconsolably when Peiris asks her what is wrong. "My daughter ..." she begins, then dissolves into tears.

Kumari's 2-year-old daughter, Malik, her only child, was with Kumari's sister when the tsunamis hit Dec. 26. As the water tumbled them through the streets, Kumari's sister lost her grip on Malik. The sister was injured but survived. Kumari found Malik's body two days later.

Kumari's chief problem is grief.

"We can prescribe medicines for medical problems, but we can't find a solution for the tears of these people," said Peiris, who has temporarily closed his practice in order to spend all his time voluntarily attending to the tsunami survivors who've taken refuge in this church and in other emergency shelters in this coastal town.

"We can't solve this disaster. All we can do is struggle to overcome it in whatever way we can. Yet no one can overcome it completely. Parents have lost their children. Children have lost their parents. No doctor can cure that," Peiris told Catholic News Service.

Throughout this grieving island, which lost a greater percentage of its population to the tsunamis than any other affected country, the Catholic Church opened the doors of its churches and parish centers to victims of the disaster. Religious groups of all varieties were among the first responders, making a critical difference in the first hours of the crisis.

That prompt response came in part from practice. More than two decades of civil war have given the churches and temples ample practice in hosting refugees. Yet church leaders say it also comes from a deep commitment to the most vulnerable.

"It is our calling as the church to look after the poor and needy, especially when they are in real difficulty," said Father Damian Fernando, national director of Caritas Sri Lanka.

"The church could be active because of the network we've developed over the years. As Caritas, we are present even to the very corners of Sri Lanka through our diocesan centers. Because of that, we could immediately mobilize when the tsunami hit. We knew that in some affected areas our priests and laity were helpless, victims themselves of the tsunami, but in those cases we immediately mobilized groups from nonaffected dioceses," he told CNS Jan. 8.

Father Fernando said Caritas collaborates closely with Sri Lanka's Protestant churches, which have a similar network through the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka. Yet the tsunamis brought even broader displays of interfaith cooperation, all the more remarkable given how religious tensions had deepened in recent months as Buddhist nationalists pushed legislation that would have made Sri Lanka an official Buddhist state and criminally punished conversions to Christianity.

"It is only a small extremist group that has created these problems, but it has had a big impact on society. They have a powerful voice and people are influenced. Yet the disaster changed that. In Catholic churches with camps (for the displaced), the Buddhist monks came and distributed relief supplies. They showed a lot of brotherhood and solidarity in this moment. And in some areas where Catholic refugees were in Buddhist temples, the Buddhist monks prepared a place for them to pray. This didn't happen in 100 percent of the places, but to a great extent the churches and the (Buddhist) monks are working together," Father Fernando said.

Many of the emergency shelters used for tsunami victims were set up in Sri Lankan schools, but with the new school year getting under way Jan. 10, the government has been trying to encourage the homeless to move elsewhere. Most victims are not allowed to return to the strip of land closest to the shore, however.

Father Fernando said the exact limits on where people can resettle have yet to be defined.

"The government has placed its restrictions, yet those are debatable, and civil society at this moment is trying to negotiate with the government," he said.

There is consensus, he said, that families need to move out of the emergency shelters as soon as possible.

"The people can't continue in these huge refugee camps or in tents. It destroys family togetherness and is very insecure for children and women," he said.

Father Fernando said that Caritas is waiting for the government to designate land that can be used for resettlement.

"We want the government to locate some lands and provide other facilities, including water and sanitation. We can cooperate with the government, but the government has to allocate the lands," he said.

Once that happens, Caritas is hoping to provide individual tents to families. Father Fernando said he had issued an appeal to Caritas partners abroad for help with tents.

Trauma counseling is also a priority for Caritas, and Father Fernando said staff and volunteers were undergoing training that would allow them to respond to the emotional needs of survivors.

Resettlement may take quite a while in some areas, the priest warned.

"It's impossible for everyone to return to their lands at this moment. If you go south toward Galle, you'll see that everything is totally devastated. It will take at least three months to clear the rubble away. It's not just clearing it up that's difficult, they've also got to find places to dump all the debris," he said.

Father Fernando acknowledged that re-establishing coastal communities inland will create problems.

"This is where civil society and the government should start thinking in a new way and give a new orientation to the people. In other countries, even though they are poor fishermen, they live in comfortable houses. The same mentality could apply here. But we're so used to this way of living that people can't think otherwise. It's the work of the NGOs and the government and civil society to inculcate these new ideas into the minds of the people, to say that you can have a better life with this. With the disaster, we should start thinking in a new way, thinking of a new Sri Lanka," Father Fernando said.

For more than two decades, Sri Lanka has endured a brutal ethnic war between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. In the last few weeks before the tsunamis, growing tensions endangered a 2002 cease-fire between the two sides.

Father Fernando said the church worked on both sides of the cease-fire line, between government-controlled areas and zones controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the so-called "Tamil Tigers."

"We have been from Day One looking after people, taking things to hospitals, putting up refugee camps, and we have had no problem with the LTTE. We work in the LTTE area, but we maintain our independence," said Father Fernando, who admitted that Caritas shares information about what needs exist with the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, a humanitarian group closely linked to the Tamil Tigers.

Father Fernando said he hoped that the disaster would help Sri Lanka find its way out of the seemingly intractable civil war.

"The tsunami happened to everyone. It is probably a message to everyone in Sri Lanka that in front of a disaster you are equal. That has to be understood both by the Sinhalese and the Tamils, though not so much by the ordinary people as by the leaders," he said.

"Ordinary people want to live together, sorting out the difficulties that arise in an amicable way. It is the political leadership that's creating the chaotic situation. They need to understand this message of God in the tsunami," he said.

"Whether Sinhalese or Tamil, we can cooperate together. That vision needs to be grasped by both the LTTE and the government. They should start thinking in a new way," said Father Fernando.


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