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from issue no. 09 - 2005

The missionaries and the Tsunami. Some works of charity in Sri Lanka and Thailand

Before and after the wave

Salesian missionaries and Jesuits have been present for many years in the regions hit by the tidal wave of last December. In these months they have distinguished themselves in helping the population get back to normality. Above all with concrete plans for providing homes and jobs for the survivors

by Davide Malacaria and Paolo Mattei

Entry procession to a mass of the Saint Pius X Fraternity in Ecône in Switzerland

Entry procession to a mass of the Saint Pius X Fraternity in Ecône in Switzerland

Months have passed since then. In those days the world stopped, stunned, to look at images of the murderous wave. Of that wall of water that submerged and smashed houses and people. It was the 26th of December. The day after Christmas. For days television throughout the world showed images of devastation and death. And, at the same time, the pain and desperation of the survivors. In those days the world was shaken by another anomalous wave, that of the solidarity which very quickly saw to the collection of great quantities of money for the victims and the organization of aid machinery that perhaps has no precedent. Yet, like all the things of this world, even an event as catastrophic as this now belongs to the past and soon will be shut away in the drawer of the many collective memories. The rubble and the survivors, from whom the wave took everything, remain. And some non-governments organizations that are trying, in some way, to restore that bit of the world to normality. An immense effort, in which, as is being witnessed on many sides, the missionaries present in the stricken nations (India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar) are distinguishing themselves.

The missionaries between bureaucracy and the ruins
«At the start there was a great many NGOs to help. Now few are left. Then there were those who belittled our help compared to that given by others, accusing the Salesians of giving little. In reality we immediately chose not to disperse what was collected in donations, but to invest it in effective plans and programs. Now the fruits of that choice are being seen».
The person describing the work of the sons of Don Bosco in the regions stricken by the tsunami is Don Francis Alencherry, Councillor General for the Salesian missions in the world. For Don Alencherry the tidal wave was not a remote event: he is Indian and the wave drowned a vast region of his homeland, the Tamil Nadu, causing thousands of deaths. «We have rebuilt houses and villages, distributed fishing boats and nets so that people can get back to normal working, but what we care about now, in particular, is the education of young people and their training, especially of those children who lost their parents in the tragedy. They are support activities that last ten, twelve years, and so it’s a much longer and strenuous task. A task that involves all the missionaries present in the countries involved, not only those that work in the areas directly stricken. To lodge all these children we have had to create specific structures and enlarge those already existing».
The projects set going by the Salesians in the zones overwhelmed by the tsunami number seventy, in as many different areas. Antonio Raimondo is the president of VIS, International Voluntary Workers for Development, and from the catacomb of San Callisto in Rome he co-ordinates the interventions of the seven NGOs set up by the Salesians that are working to bring relief to the victims of the catastrophe. He tells of nets, of boats and of houses built, he rattles off data: he explains that so far 5 million and 600 thousand euros have been invested in the various projects and that, by the end of the year, they expect to reach 9 million euros, a colossal sum, mostly coming from the donations of people of good will. «We haven’t built temporary dwellings, we preferred to build true and proper houses right away. An option that has distinguished us from other types of intervention. In Negombo we’re completing the construction of thirteen four-storey blocks, for a total of 204 dwellings. In practice we will rebuild the whole village. To try to find work for the lads of the place, we’ve involved them in the rebuilding. They already had some machinery for making bricks from sand: we bought some more and we bought the bricks for the blocks from them. Additionally, among the various projects, I like pointing out those for the orphans of the tsunami: the centers of day and night accommodation that we are building a bit everywhere, among which the ten family houses that we are putting up in Bangsak, in Thailand, each of which will lodge a dozen children who will be looked after by teachers.» He tells us that the houses there will be shaped like kites: that area, in fact, is famous for the children flying them; it’s a very widespread game in those parts. In his voice there is no hint of pietism. He talks in a hurry. Tersely. He speaks of the many projects and the life that, thanks also to these projects, can bloom again. He is content when we tell him that many Italian politicians and state officials, among them the Radical leader Emma Bonino and the Auditor General of Italy, Andrea Monorchio, have spoken appreciatively of the work the Salesians are doing. But he’s still more content with what has come out of SIM, the Italian Society of Monitoring, that on behalf of the Italian Civil Protection, has checked their work in depth and delivered a very positive report.
Yet it’s not simple working in these distant countries. The people we talk to agree on the fact that they are forced to deal with a suffocating bureaucracy. Furthermore, the countries stricken by the tidal wave have emanated a law forbidding construction less than a hundred meters from the sea. As Don Alencherry remarks: «It’s a rule imposed for safety reasons. Unfortunately, however, it in fact prevents the repairing of damaged houses, while the land at safety distance is mostly in private hands and the various governments do nothing to expropriate it. So we don’t know where to build. Where we have managed to do something it’s because the local authorities there have given permits, but even there we’ve encountered bureaucratic problems of various kinds. In Thailand, for example, the government wouldn’t allow us to operate at the start: the king had declared that he’d take under his wing all the orphaned children and the state would take on the expense. But, in time, our help has been accepted, also thanks to the good offices of one of our fellow-brothers, Joseph Prathan Sridarunsil, who has been Bishop of Surat Thani since 2004».
Wave effects in Sri Lanka

Wave effects in Sri Lanka

Silvia Parodi, who co-ordinates the efforts of the Italian Jesuits for development in Sri Lanka, tells of voluntary workers forced to endure endless queues to get their tourist visas renewed: an annoyance, she says, that could be resolved by an agreement between the Italian state and those involved. The first Jesuit to arrive on the island was Francis Xavier, who landed in 1544, but the stable presence of the Society dates back to 1893. After the tidal wave the Jesuits set in motion various projects that go from the rebuilding and rehabilitation of single-family and community housing to plans for the restarting of the fishing industry and other small economic sectors; from financial support through setting up a system of micro credit to operate in the school sector, including the awarding of bursaries and other activities for children. She speaks of housebuilding on which whole families collaborate. «From toddlers to grandfathers», she says, «on our building sites everybody lends a hand in transporting materials or clearing the ground. Our local partner is the JTRR [Jesuit Tsunami Relief& Rehabilitation], a body that the Jesuits of Sri Lanka created the day after the tidal wave to organize relief to the population. Since 26 December the JTRR has lodged thousands of people in buildings of the Jesuits missionaries, providing for food distribution, clothing and medicine. Apart from the MAGIS projects, the local Jesuits, through the JTRR, are going ahead with a great many initiatives. The work done by the JRS [Jesuit Refugee Service], the international body of the missionaries of the Society concerned with refugees and emergencies, is also important.» In line with the decree that forbids rebuilding near the sea, Parodi says that in the district of Galle, in the south of the country, the NGOs run by the Jesuits have rebuilt inland, less densely, on private property, in scattered fashion. Something more difficult to manage, but that has given its fruits.
It never rains but it pours
It’s fifty years since the Salesians landed in Sri Lanka. Don Gabriele Garnica has been in Negombo for 23 years and is the Salesians’ bursar on the island. He tells of the great many acts of charity, large and small, that have accompanied their work over these last months: from helping in the building of houses to the distribution of bicycles and boat engines. At the other end of the phone his voice seems to quiver with irony when he speaks of the extravagances of the bureaucracy, that the distribution of twenty-five horsepower motors is only allowed in the area controlled by the government; the Tamil can only be given motors of twelve horsepower at most.
Yes, the Tamil. For more than twenty years Sri Lanka has been racked by a bloody civil war in which the government, coming out of the Singhalese ethnic majority, has been fighting the Tamil of the LTTE [Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam]. A split that is also religious given that the Singhalese are mostly Buddhist and the Tamil mainly Hindu. Don Gabriele tells us of a conflict that broke out in 1983, from an uprising by the Tamil after suffering too much injustice. Since 2002 there has been a precarious ceasefire between the two factions, first step in a peace process that is still struggling to take off. The body count so far is 64,000. «Once the island was blooming», Don Gabriele goes on: «Now it depends on imports. Among other things the conflict has left a legacy of million of landmines the whereabouts of which are unknown because there are no maps. A severe obstacle both to mobility and agriculture. And now the wave arrives. It never rains but it pours…», and he seems to sigh, there, on the other side of the world: «Those who have lost their homes now mostly live in temporary quarters: four precarious walls of corrugated metal or perishable materials. Now the monsoon season is coming…». And he tells of the many charitable works that have flourished in these years around the Salesians. Among them, the many vocational training schools. In Negombo there are 450 students at the local school, hundreds of others scattered over the other schools. He explains that the Salesians now want to establish themselves in the areas controlled by the Tamil, in the north, where they already operate in some way. He tells feelingly of a village with an unpronounceable name, in an area controlled by the Tamil, swept completely away by the wave – more than nine hundred dead – and of the many who survived thanks to a providential delay: they were at mass on that 26 December, in an outlying church, and the service, which had started late, kept people away from their homes. Yes, because the Christians, a religious minority in the country, consist of Tamil and Singhalese.
Of course, as Don Alencherry tells us, the help the missionaries can give is little in comparison to what is required to repair the damage caused by the wave. Little, yes, but not for that little unappreciated. Don Alencherry tells of his most recent visit to Sri Lanka, to Elipitya, at the local Salesian mission. They had just finished with allotting boats when an Italian lady approached him asking for Father Anthony Humer Pinto, head of the local Salesian visiting home. The woman had found the name of Don Pinto on the internet, where he was described as a man who had done a lot for the victims of the tsunami, to the extent of being awarded national recognition, and she wanted to meet him. In short the woman told her story: she had been in the area at the moment of the tragedy. Back in Italy she had started a collection to help some orphan children who had been taken in by a government structure. On her return, she had checked that the money sent had been used. However… Well, looking at the children, in that building… It was as if something was missing. So she had come to ask Don Pinto: she wanted to know what the Salesians were doing. Don Alencherry then invited the woman to visit a reception center for orphaned children that lay close by. It was similar to the other. And yet… «The lady was very contented. She said that there the children were living with dignity…» Don Alencherry smiles while recounting the small anecdote, and doesn’t go into further explanation. There’s no need. For them, for the missionaries, it’s normal to be with those unfortunate people. They were there before the tidal wave. They stayed there and continued to do what they’ve always done. Without small-minded calculation. It’s what Silvia Parodi makes clear: «The majority of the houses built by the MAGIS are for Moslems! I think it’s a fine thing, especially in a historical period as complex as this».

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