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Sunday, 13 February, 2005

Tsunami victims still wait for aid in Sri Lanka

Supplies to stricken Sri Lankans are blocked by bungling and corruption (Jason Burke in Galle - Sunday February 13, 2005 - The Observer - Source: guardian.co.uk)

Thousands of tsunami victims in Sri Lanka are still without aid, despite the biggest global humanitarian effort ever launched following a natural disaster. Tens of thousands more are receiving patchy assistance, because of government bureaucracy and corruption, poor co-ordination between aid agencies and inappropriate, rather than insufficient, supplies sent from the West.
Nearly seven weeks after the tidal wave that destroyed homes, livelihoods and killed more than 30,000 in the south Asian state, The Observer found people who had yet to receive help just 15 miles south of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. Sirimal Rohita, a carpenter whose house and workshop was destroyed, was one of these.

'No one has come to find out what we need,' Rohita said. Pointing to the temple where he is living with his family, he added: 'We have shelter but nothing else. If we are given some equipment and somewhere to work we can start to rebuild our lives.'

Though authorities insist such cases are rare, in the city of Galle harassed administrators admitted to The Observer that only a quarter of those eligible for the Rs15,000 (£80) compensation for the death of a relative had received it. Some payments were held up by bureaucracy - a death certificate is essential for a claim but difficult to obtain. Other delays were caused by a lack of officials.

'There are only six or seven officers trying to run help for 125,000 people in my district,' said W Weerakoon, additional secretary in Galle. Latest statistics from Galle district show that just 15,000 of the 26,000 people owed a monthly post-tsunami hardship payment of Rs5,000 (£28) had been paid, and only two-thirds of the 25,000 households promised cooking utensils had got them. In many other areas it is worse.

There are fears that some of the aid money is being diverted by corrupt officials. In Balapitiya, north of Galle, two officials have been suspended over accusations of aid misuse. Others are being investigated for demanding bribes for death certificates. Last week's newspapers were full of a scandal involving a bank and relief cash.

Millions of pounds have flown into Sri Lankan government coffers to fund the effort. Aid agencies stress that after early chaos, co-ordination has improved and surveys of needs carried out. In the north-east, some camps are being run by the Tamil Tigers, the government and international NGOs with an unprecedented degree of co-operation, despite political strains. Tented camps have sprung up all along the coast, supplied by Western charities. Earthmoving equipment has also speeded the clear-up.

'Most of the infrastructure - transport, telecoms, water, power - is now back to normal,' said Weerakoon. The World Food Programme and the Sri Lankan government are distributing rations in most camps, he said.

But a six-hour drive south of Colombo revealed pockets of dire need, with hundreds of people packed into single temples, relying on intermittent hand-outs. Few houses have been rebuilt with thousands awaiting relocation by the government.

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