The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2005

88 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U LY- A U G U S T 2 0 0 5 R EFLECTIONS Sri Lanka Sojourn: Paradise Revisited B Y B ARBARA M. B EVER I arrived in Sri Lanka six weeks after the December 2004 tsunami struck two-thirds of the coast and killed nearly 31,000 people. Eight- een years ago, while posted to Pakistan, my family spent an idyllic spring vacation at the Triton Resort in Ahungalla on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. On hearing I was going back to Sri Lanka to help USAID with the tsunami recovery efforts, my sons, now 23 and 21, shared detailed memories of that trip: the lagoon-style pool adjacent to the open-air lobby and reaching out to the sea, the lobsters that were as big as our 3-year-old, the “treehouse” on the beach where we climbed a lad- der and ate grilled lobster, the ele- phant who came and drank from the pool, a carved cobra slithering down a banister, and an island band who sang “blue water shining nice, Sri Lanka, paradise.” Sri Lanka is also special because, when we lived in India, our beloved housekeeper originally came from this island par- adise. In a matter of hours, on Dec. 26, 2004, more than 100,000 homes were fully or partially destroyed, leaving over 400,000 people without shelter. Hardest hit were the lower-income coastal communities of fisher folk, coconut fiber spinners, and small shopkeepers and workers who sup- ported the tourism industry I found the Triton Resort, like so many resorts, just empty shells strewn upon the beach. It was a ghostly structure of damaged concrete, bro- ken glass, twisted staircases, a drained and damaged pool, trees stripped of their fragrant blossoms and foliage, soggy mattresses and splintered furni- ture heaped into mountains at the hotel entrance. Hotel employees had been paid for the first month after the disaster to clean up the debris, but are now unemployed as the owners await insurance inspectors and insurance money to begin the rebuilding. The hope at the Triton is to reopen before Christmas 2005, but skilled labor is in short supply given the extent of dam- age throughout the country. More than 100 beach hotels are in a similar state, and thousands of tourism- dependent employees are out of work. Experience has demonstrated that communities recover more quickly and completely when they are active- ly involved in rebuilding their lives immediately after a disaster. The unemployed hotel workers are among 650,000 people benefiting from USAID’s cash-for-work programs totaling more than $10.9 million over a six-month period. Community workers are being paid to repair schools and homes, build latrines, clear wells, open culverts and con- struct transitional shelters. A $10-mil- lion small loans program funded by USAID is enabling affected families to repair their boats, reopen shops, jump-start cottage industries and commence new businesses. Unfortunately, there are those who take advantage of disasters for person- al gain. I heard about a family who, when asked to identify the body of a female relative, found the woman’s two ring fingers cut off … in order to steal the rings from a swollen corpse. Though custom duties on relief com- modities were lifted in the first month following the tsunami, politicians who stood to gain from these duties slapped them back on again for the many privately-collected donations from church groups, clubs and schools around the world. Being back in South Asia was like coming home: the bright colors, intense smells and calls to prayer were all very familiar. Bright smiles and friendly faces greeted me on street corners and in shops. Just before the end of my two-week assignment, I stocked up on favorite spices — cumin, cinnamon, fennel, curry, car- damom and turmeric — and splurged on two rings in memory of the woman who lost hers. I selected one pink sapphire and one blue sapphire, for which Sri Lanka is famous. While I cherish those old memories of Sri Lanka, I am fortunate to have brought back new memories of the resilience of the human spirit — more precious than gems.  Barbara M. Bever is a USAID Foreign Service spouse currently posted to Tel Aviv, where she works as a free-lance consultant. She has also lived in Rabat, Islamabad, Jakarta, New Delhi and Fairfax, Va. During her tour in New Delhi she was USAID’s communica- tions manager. The stamp is courtesy of the AAFSW Bookfair “Stamp Corner.”