Anyone arriving in Sri Lanka is captivated by its charm – the charm of smiling faces. Never in my life have I seen so many! People smile whenever and wherever they meet, whether they are acquaintances or strangers, whether the other person is a foreigner or a fellow Sri Lankan, a man or a woman.
It is sometimes difficult to remind oneself that this country is living through a political and constitutional conflict that has been raging for decades between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an organisation which is listed as terrorist and which completely controls large swathes of the country in the north-east. The consequences of this conflict are disastrous. I visited three schools destroyed by the tsunami in the east of the country, a Tamil region under government control. This area was the hardest hit by the natural disaster, accounting as it does for over one-third of reported fatalities (10,436). Eighteen months after the tsunami, numerous NGOs are active in this area, where they are helping to rebuild homes, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure. But everything is more difficult here. The army is everywhere. The first school I visited in this region is located in Krukalnadam, in the Batticaloa district. In the Kalaivani Mahavidyalayam Tamil School, classes are held in shelters built by UNICEF. No rebuilding has commenced yet. Vimialiswaran, a parent and leading member of the school’s reconstruction committee, voiced his impatience. “Money isn’t the problem,” he said. “Nor is security, since we are in a government-controlled area. So why can’t they get the works started? The future of our children is at stake. Education is very important for us. We want our children to receive a good education. But we are poor, we can’t afford to send our kids to school in another town. This is why we must rebuild the school here immediately!” The President of the Ceylon Tamil Teachers’ Union, Ganesharaja, who heads the Sri Lankan Teachers Joint Tsunami Relief Committee, is doing everything in his power to speed up the reconstruction work, but there are still major obstacles to be overcome. Thus, for example, because of bureaucratic delays and red tape, it took over a year for Education International to receive official recognition as an NGO from the Sri Lankan Government so that the funds provided by EI could be used to rebuild the schools. “We were unable to access the bank account. The funds were frozen,” Ganesharaja explained. “By the time the funds were finally made available, the truce reached between the Tamil Tigers and the government following the tsunami had been broken. The attacks started again and the army set up checkpoints all over the place. So there are no engineers or architects who are prepared to come to the Tamil areas to supervise the reconstruction projects, not even in areas controlled by the government. Everything is blocked, and the pupils and teachers have to suffer the consequences of this situation.” Luc Allaire July 2006 Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ)