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Improvising to Save Lives in Sri Lanka

Village Official Typifies Those Who Shouldered Burden in First Crucial Days

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 22, 2005; Page A10

SARVODAYAPURAM, Sri Lanka -- Never mind that the waves had just destroyed his home and office, left much of his village in ruins and killed 13 relatives, including his mother and sister. As a government employee, Ahamed Razak said, his first obligation was to the living. So he called a supervisor on a cell phone to ask for instructions and help.

The supervisor could provide neither.

Razak speaks with displaced people at a camp he set up near his village. He criticized relief groups such as the one that gave him a soccer ball instead of the generator he sought: "This is the requirement that we have? A football?" (Photos John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)

"I'm standing on the roof," the distraught man told Razak from his flooded home on the morning of Dec. 26, adding, in effect, what do you expect me to do?

It was an important lesson for Razak, 34, who said he quickly grasped that he would have to shoulder the primary burden of running relief efforts -- particularly at the outset -- for the 430 families he serves as chief administrator in Sarvodayapuram, an isolated fishing village and tourist haven on Sri Lanka's hard-hit southeastern coast.

"I'm holding a job with a lot of responsibility," said Razak, a bearded, weary-looking man in flip-flops, gray slacks and a short-sleeve button-down shirt. "My sister and my mother, they had already died, so I had to look after the people who were living."

Working out of a relative's home, getting around on a borrowed bicycle, the diminutive civil servant -- he stands barely five feet tall -- makes an unlikely disaster relief coordinator. He has scant training in emergency preparedness, is prone to emotional outbursts and is deeply suspicious of foreign aid groups, which he accuses, in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary, of insensitivity to local needs.

By most accounts, however, Razak has put in an admirable performance -- stopping an outbreak of looting on the first night, slaughtering a cow to feed hungry survivors and flogging sluggish bureaucracies to provide more help to displaced families, to the point of leading a protest march on a government office.

In that regard, his story shows how individual officials, with abundant if not always well-coordinated international aid, are in many cases improvising effective local responses to the tsunami, helping to avert the outbreaks of disease and hunger that health experts had feared might follow the initial disaster. The tsunami killed more than 30,000 people and displaced nearly 900,000 others in this island nation of 19 million people.

Taken as a whole, the Sri Lankan government's response has had some obvious shortcomings. Although the situation has improved since a crisis center was established under the office of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, aid officials say the relief effort has been plagued by poor coordination that in many cases has resulted in too much aid reaching one community while not enough gets to another.

In part, such problems reflect the damage that was inflicted on the institutions of government itself. While the capital, Colombo, was largely spared, the waves played havoc with government facilities along hundreds of miles of coast, wrecking courthouses, schools and other public buildings, to say nothing of the administrative records inside. In some areas, key civil servants were killed or their homes and offices destroyed.

Particularly at the outset, the result was a kind of paralysis, as many surviving local administrators understandably looked to their families' needs before turning their attention to relief operations, aid officials said.

In the Pottuvil administrative division, which includes Razak's village, the tsunami's towering waves killed 411 people, destroyed 2,200 homes and displaced almost half of the 29,000 residents, according to Azmi Adamlebbe, 31, the assistant divisional secretary. Also destroyed were 10 government buildings, including the division headquarters, telecommunications office, post office, bus depot and irrigation department.

Some Pottuvil officials had narrow escapes. Assistant financial officer Musharrath Noor Mohammed, 35, was riding a bus to an English class when the sea swept across the coastal highway, rolling the vehicle three or four times before it came to rest upside down, he recalled. He crawled out a submerged window, helped pull out several other passengers and then trudged home, a gash on his leg and his pockets filled with sand. Most of those on board died, he said.

But Mohammed and other local functionaries seem to have recovered their equilibrium quickly. By the next morning, he said, he and his colleagues had prevailed on store owners to open their shops -- those that had survived -- which the officials then swept clean of groceries and other emergency supplies that were needed for the relief effort. They relocated the division headquarters to Mohammed's sister's house.

"For the time being, everyone is doing everything," Mohammed said last week as he stood outside the temporary office, where colleagues worked by candlelight and salvaged administrative documents dried on the trunk of a felled palm tree.

The tsunami inflicted its worst damage on Sarvodayapuram and two adjacent villages on Arugam Bay, less than a mile to the south of Pottuvil and about 150 miles east of Colombo. The waves killed about 250 people, including four foreign tourists, and reduced guesthouses, hotels, restaurants and private homes to heaps of bricks.

Fringed by a long, curving beach lined with tall palm trees, Arugam Bay is known for an abundance of sea life, which supported a thriving fishing industry, and picture-perfect waves, which draw surfers from around the world. Since a cease-fire between government forces and ethnic Tamil rebels in early 2002, the area has undergone something of a tourist boom, attracting many Europeans and other foreigners.

Like many people along this stretch of coast, Razak is an observant Muslim who welcomes the income that tourists bring but frets about bars and nude sunbathers. A fisherman's son with a high-school education, he has served his community for seven years as gramma niladari -- village officer -- an appointed position roughly akin to a town manager.

On the morning of Dec. 26, Razak said, he was catching up on paperwork in his office -- his wife was visiting relatives in Pottuvil -- when the first of several waves washed through the village. He tried to escape on his government-issue motorcycle, then abandoned it to climb a palm tree when the rising waters flooded the engine.

After the initial surge receded, Razak said, he ran to his neighborhood, where he found the bodies of his mother, sister and grandmother lying in a tangle of flood debris. But Razak had no time to grieve. Racing through the village, he shouted at survivors, urging them to take refuge on the higher ground of the local medical clinic, he recalled. More than a thousand had gathered there by the time several more waves rolled through the three villages.

Within a few hours, Razak had turned to the task of collecting and burying the dead, working through the night and into the next day. "Everywhere there were bodies," including those of many of his own relatives, he said. Along the way, Razak found time to gather firewood, as well as slaughtering the cow so he could feed survivors on the grounds of the medical clinic, which doubled as a temporary morgue.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, Razak joined forces with a local Muslim charity to organize and equip a relief camp for 150 displaced families. He then had his first run-in with his own bureaucracy: An official in Pottuvil refused his request for tin sheets to serve as roofing material for temporary huts, asserting that the sheets had been designated for an anti-poverty program and could not be released without authorization from higher-ups, Razak said.

Razak then led 20 villagers in a noisy protest outside the man's office, at which point the official relented, according to Razak and another villager who took part in the demonstration.

Several foreign aid groups have arrived in the area recently to provide assistance, but Razak accused them of failing to coordinate their efforts with him, and in some cases ignoring his specific pleas for help.

Some of the problems involved missed cues and misunderstandings. Razak has had problems, for example, with Mercy Corps, an Oregon-based nonprofit that is working in the area. One day this month, two Mercy Corps workers showed up at the relief camp with an offer to distribute stuffed animals to the children; Razak informed them that the Red Cross had provided stuffed animals the day before, at which point the volunteers said they would provide a soccer ball instead.

After they left, Razak was scornful: "What were they giving? A football! I asked them to give a generator. They said no. This is the requirement that we have? A football?"

In a subsequent telephone interview, one of the Mercy Corps volunteers, Lyn Robinson, said the group was also repairing wells contaminated by seawater, providing cooking utensils and school supplies and paying for repairs to fishing boats that will enable 420 people to go back to work, among other things. She said the group consults regularly with Razak, whom she described as "a little excitable" but possessed of a "generous spirit."

In any case, Razak perseveres. One afternoon last week, he looked on a bit forlornly as a brand-new four-wheel-drive vehicle, filled with French aid workers, rolled past on its way to the relief camp that is his primary responsibility. Razak had business at the camp, too, but he has had no means of transportation since the tsunami claimed his motorcycle.

Eventually he found someone to lend him a bicycle and pedaled off through the rice paddies in the direction of the displaced families.

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