Going back in history remembering the humanitarian work of Caritas Sri Lanka – SEDEC over the past 50 years, as the social arm of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka many achievements can be highlighted. One among the many, is its Tsunami response. The 26th of December 2004, the day after Christmas was a poya day and a Sunday. Christian and Buddhist devotees were either participating or preparing to observe religious ceremonies. Families were visiting friends and relatives or travelling out of the city to enjoy the holiday.
The 9.0 magnitude quake which occurred under the Indian Ocean near the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, displaced enormous amount of water creating one of nature’s most deadly phenomena: the Tsunami. Within hours, killer waves from the earthquake zone slammed into the coastlines of 11 Indian Ocean countries, snatching people out to sea, drowning others in their homes or on beaches and sweeping away everything in sight. It was the worst natural disaster that Sri Lanka had experienced Over 35,000 people lost their lives, as many as 500,000 people were displaced and nearly 90,000 houses were destroyed or damaged.
Caritas Diocesan Centres in Anuradhapura, Chilaw, Kandy, Kurunegala and Ratnapura responded by collecting 450 metric tonnes of emergency relief goods that were sent to the affected areas. Diocesan Centres headed by Catholic priests, by their action exhibited the compassion and inherent unity taught by the major religions and as evident in the vision of Caritas Sri Lanka. Under the leadership of the then National Director, Rev. Fr. Damian Fernando, the Caritas Sri Lanka Emergency Relief Programme along with partner representatives carried out a rapid assessments in the affected areas and prepared an emergency appeal known as Special Operation Appeal (SOA) to Caritas Internationalis in Rome. Caritas Internationalis along with members of the Caritas Confederation garnered the financial and human resources and supported the rebuilding mission of Caritas Sri Lanka.
The Southern Diocese of Galle covering the Districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota, had been very badly affected by the disaster. Bishop Elmo Perera who was in charge of the Diocese was sick and unable to attend to these duties. In order to create an atmosphere of acceptance of Caritas’ relief and rehabilitation measures required a dynamic and understanding Bishop to establish rapport with government as well as with the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities. Rome decided that Bishop Harold Anthony Perera with his dynamic enthusiasm and compassionate understanding would be best suited to take over the challenge.
Realizing the magnitude of assistance needed, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) decided to appoint a Tsunami Task Force comprised of three Bishops (Bishop Harold Anthony Perera, Bishop Kingsley Swampillai and Bishop Raymond Peiris) along with a few dedicated professionals including a retired Supreme Court judge, responsible for supervising and monitoring the tsunami reconstructions and rehabilitation programme ensuring accountability, transparency and coordination of all funds received. The Task Force was entrusted to draw up guidelines and to ensure that international agencies operated according to the decisions of the Task Force that followed the regulations set out by the Government.
Results of the Tsunami response by the Caritas Network was the construction of 10,713 permanent houses; 12, 216 shelters; livelihood assistance provided to fisheries sector (26,967 beneficiaries) and agriculture sector (34,163 beneficiaries). In addition, livelihood enhancement training was given to 46,984 persons.
Caritas Sri Lanka had to face numerous challenges due to the prevailing situation such as internally displaced persons moving from conflict areas, security restrictions, checkpoints and economic uncertainties caused by global recession, price increase of consumer essentials, construction materials and finding alternative relocation sites for those who lived within the buffer zone and coastal belt.
Amidst all odds, Caritas Sri Lanka successfully implemented and completed the Tsunami Rehabilitation & Reconstruction Project from 2005 to 2009 and was well appreciated by the Government of Sri Lanka for complementing and supplementing its efforts, and also for the quality of work. In fact, the former President Her Excellency Chandrika Kumaranatunga presented Caritas Sri Lanka with an award for the timely construction of high number of quality transitional shelters in the tsunami affected districts. The expectations of the beneficiaries were overwhelmingly satisfied. The total expenditure was US$100.8 million
Caritas Sri Lanka has certainly achieved the goals it set, yet its work is going on. As said: “the work of the Church never ends, its love and compassion encompasses the vulnerable, the destitute and the marginalized.”