On the spot reporting – Buried Alive & standing on his child’s grave

Sri Lanka LandslideBy Arunadale Wijeratne and thyaga srimali bandara

“Forgive us for wading in mud over the land where you were buried,” a father says. We may be standing on his child’s grave.
The heartbeat of the dead is silenced now, but the heartbeat of the living can be heard louder exposing acutely personal emotions.

Those who were killed do not hear the heartbeat of the living. The living people also do not hear the heartbeat of the dead.
A wailing mother mutters something They don’t want food, or water. They are weeping for the dead as if to send messages to the dead through the soil under which they are buried.

Death is not begged and it is not an offering given to beggars. But, death has become beggars’ offering in this country. It’s the wonder of Sri Lanka. The error is in Sri Lanka being a wonder. Death is the lapse of time between the last meal and the last breath. It includes a meaning that defines the meaning itself.

There are heartrending scenes at the camps for the displaced. The people lie along the walls, lining up next to each other, as if they have also succumbed to death like their missing loved ones. Dead are buried underground. The living seem lifeless too.
This teaches an important lesson.

In a world that is constantly changing, the only constant is death.
The scene is quite tragic. It is unfortunate, having to see them with our naked eyes. But, the eyes cannot distinguish between good and bad. Eyes only see. Politics decide if the scenes before our eyes are good or bad.

Shocking scenes
For politicians sufferings of the ordinary people bring fortunes. It happens so since the politicians look at the people’s sorrow through their fortunate eyes.

The scenes at the displaced people’s camps are shocking. People, who have lost scores of family members, are huddled together as one family. 

Life brings with it unexpected surprises. But, this unexpectedness has led to suffering. That suffering symbolizes the discrimination in Sri Lankan politics. Their suffering is the result of such discriminatory policies.
We must first heal the psychological wounds of the displaced people. They are still grief-stricken and they cannot even identify themselves. The assistance providers must first understand that these people have no other hopes except that a few of their kith and kin are still alive.

The last hope for their lives may also die unless a programme to rehabilitate them is implemented systematically.
Their urgent need is a safe environment in which they can breathe without fear. Then they will feel hungry and they will eat something. Their trust on the society must be rebuilt.

A relief worker expresses these views: “There is a problem. We can keep them like this for a few days providing them with meals and medical care. But, what will we do next? Still there is no plan for their future.”
Their problems are now being identified. The biggest problem is the scores of children who have lost both their parents and all other family members. There are also parents who have lost their children and other family members.
The children who left for school in the morning of the day that tragedy struck their community had no home to return to after school. Their homes were flattened to the ground, buried under several dozen feet of mud. There was no sign of their parents or other family members.

The mountain is still slipping. Diyagala Waththa is also on the verge of being flatten under a landslide. Hundreds of more lives are under threat.

Unheeded warnings
According to the authorities despite several warnings, the people did not move away from the landslide prone areas. The victims say that they were not made aware and no alternative places were provided from them to reside.
“If we were asked to move out we could have done so. We must be given alternative land which is suitable live on. The government can relocate people to a safe area. The authorities have not fulfilled their duty,” a victim says.
This is the second landslide to devastate Koslanda. The government did not take precautions the first time. There might be a third landslide also. Still no proper actions have been taken to relocate people. Their actions are limited only to announcements and instructions.

This problem can be resolved with one gazette notification. There are 40,000 acres of State land in this area. They are forest reserves. The National Building Research Organization (NBRO) has tested these lands as not prone to landslides. That is the main guarantee for their safety of life. If the government distributed 10 perches of land in the forest reserve to each family, the buried people may still be alive.

Another issue is the State Land Act, which dictates the way the State lands can be distributed. Accordingly, State lands must be distributed only among the low-income farmers.
The low-income group is defined as those who receive a monthly income of Rs 6,000 or less. The estate workers earn more than that. The other problem is that the estate workers are considered as labourers. These two definitions create a barrier for the estate workers to be recipients of State land.

The government can easily remove this barrier by amending the Act.
The public officials in lower ranks are involved in providing relief assistance to the victims but they do not have powers to relocate people. The Secretaries to the Ministries have the powers.
There are similar issues in other countries. The leaders act swiftly when such issues arise since they have the right policies in place. In some occasions, they have evacuated people from massive areas due to similar threats.
The exact number of people who were killed in the landslide has not been identified yet. There are several categories of families in the displaced camps. Some of them are victims of the landslide and the others are the residents of landslide prone areas.
As the first step, the people who come to the displaced persons’ camps are registered. The place they resided before they were displaced is noted. Statistics gathered that way must be matched with the former statistics. The difference must be the number of dead.

Grief-stricken
Due to the shock of having lost so much, the victims cannot give clear information about themselves. The relief workers are facing a very difficult situation in this context. Therefore, they have decided to allow the relatives of the victims to visit the camps and identify their kith and kin. The data provided by the relations were more reliable although they were not as complete as expected.

With the news of the landslide, some politicians arrived at the scene. They did not come to help but to tour the area.
There are reports that the victims were provided with alternative land. Once some plots of land were provided in another landslide prone area. The authorities did not listen to the people’s woes about those lands.
“We live on this land and we know about each inch of this land. If there is water oozing from the land, we know there is a risk. If there is earth collapsing, we know there is a risk to the people who live there. What can we do in such circumstances? If we have to stay somewhere when raining and come back after rain stops what is the meaning of life?” victims question.

So far, nobody has addressed these issues. The authorities have shirked their responsibility. Will the authorities who visit the area continue their efforts until the problem is resolved? What are the solutions given?
The landslide affected people have no tomorrow. The days pass on. Visitors come. They wade in mud, talk to the victims and express their sympathy. They wait for some time and leave. The people have to live there tomorrow as well.
At the moment, the victims have become exhibits. People look at them, sigh and move away forgetting their fate.
(Pix by J. Weerasekara)

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