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After the Wave, A Native returns to Help

By Scott Goldberg, KARE 11 News, Feb 23, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The city of Kandy, Sri Lanka ? a holy place for Buddhists ? is located miles from the country's devastated coast. Thousands of worshippers flock here from around the world. When you visit, you expect to see large crowds. But you don't necessarily expect to run into a monk who came here from Chanhassen.

<< Bhante Sathi

"After the tsunami happened, right away I wanted to come back," he said.

Bhante Sathi, 30, is a monk who was born in Kandy but left to teach meditation classes in Minnesota. He flew back to his native country, and to the monastery where he was trained, in January after the tsunami ravaged his homeland.

"When I first (saw) it, I felt a little sad," Sathi said standing on a hill overlooking the monastery. His temple had fallen into bad shape, because the monks and villagers who normally paint the temple at the beginning of each year were gone.

They, like so many others, had gone to the coast after the tsunami left nearly 40,000 Sri Lankans dead.

Sathi's monastery is sponsoring two housing projects along the southern coast, where more than 500,000 are now homeless.

"Now they are living in refugee camps," Sathi said. "They don't have life in refugee camps."

Refugee camps are congested cities made of tents, or shacks, where sanitation often is poor. In one camp near the devastated town of Hambantota, 200 tents were housing more than 1,000 people. A woman there said, "The biggest problem is money. We need money for our houses."

Money for new houses wouldn't necessarily seem like a problem ? when a home for one family only costs about $4,000 ? and when millions of dollars have poured into Sri Lanka since the tsunami hit. But around this country, where three government officials were suspended this month for mishandling aid, there are many complaints that the donated aid is not reaching the people who need it.

"So far, (we) are not getting anything from the government or any other organization," said a taxi driver whose home along the coast in Galle was destroyed. He painted a sign next to the one wall of his house that is still standing. The sign begs for a "permanent solution" to Sri Lanka's housing problem. "The government authorities, they come to these places, and are just filling (out) the papers," he said. "That's all."

Aid's Slow Arrival
There's also a big difference between aid that's been promised and aid that actually has been delivered. The U.S. government, for example, pledged $350 million to countries hit by the tsunami. But not including money spent by the military, less than $123 million of those dollars actually have been committed to specific projects.

And, of the money that's been committed, the government hasn't yet tallied what's actually been spent.

"First of all, the bureaucracy ? I think everybody knows ? moves relatively slowly," explained Hugh Parmer, president of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee.

Parmer has traveled the world responding to disasters, working for private groups as well as the government.

"Some of that money is already on the scene," he said. "But a lot of that money is still in the pipeline. So it's not a quick process."

Outside of the government money, individual Americans have donated some $800 million to private groups like his since the tsunami. "One of the reasons private money is so important in disaster relief is: You can get it there quicker," Parmer said.

That's not to say important money is not being spent in Sri Lanka. A ripped up highway around the coast has been repaired. The train is running again, after the ocean washed it away and killed more than 1,000 passengers. And water is running again in some refugee camps.

One of those camps, in the town of Kirinda, is a success story in itself. The Sri Lankan government built homes there for 51 families, within three days of the disaster. But even in places like Kirinda, the small success stories don't hide other very serious needs.

In the Kirinda camp, a group of Minnesota grief counselors escorted by Bhante Sathi noticed children's emotions were shattered. Those can take much longer to rebuild. "Those mothers were telling me that their kids aren't eating," said Susan Johnson, a grief counselor from the Twin Cities. She said part of the problem was that the mothers were not eating.

"So the kids are watching their mothers," she said. As she told one mother, "He won't eat if you don't eat. And you need to take care of yourself."
In nearby Hambantota, there was similar evidence that emotions will not be easy to rebuild. There, the government quickly rebuilt a telecommunications tower. But the tower stood over the village, where 4,500 died, like a giant exclamation point, reminding survivors that everything that mattered to them is lost.

The old tower came crashing down next to A.D. Palangasinghe's house. He was at the market when the water came in. When he came home, he found the bodies of his two children.

"They were playing there last 26 (of) December," Palanagasinghe said through tears. He saw his children earlier that day just before the tsunami hit. When he came home, his house was gone. Palangasinghe said it will be too painful for his family to build another house in this town, where he was born. His wife said she sometimes wishes she would have died, too. "I can't think about anything," she said.

This week in Sri Lanka, former president Bill Clinton said he saw "a lot of emotional damage that's not visible to the eye" when he visited children there. They drew pictures of bodies floating in the water, much like they did when KARE-11 visited a refugee camp earlier this month.

And it's all a little too much to see, even for a Buddhist monk whose religion teaches that life is suffering. Sathi says the children's stories sadden him. And that's why he came back to his homeland to comfort children and adults who lost so much. But he also says you can't change the past. "You can change future by living in the moment," he said.

In Sri Lanka, for so many people, the moment is all they have.

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