A year later, tsunami relief efforts are just beginning


By Linda Bloom (UMNS)

It began with an undersea earthquake near the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

As news began filtering out Dec. 26, 2004, of the impossibly huge wave that swept shore after shore in that section of the ocean, as video pictures emerged and surviving residents and tourists shakily told their stories, as international news crews rushed to document incredible scenes of devastation, many hearts were touched.

In the end, what is estimated to be 232,000 people from a dozen nations were dead or missing - most of them, 169,000, from the Aceh province of northern Sumatra.

The Rev. R. Randy Day, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, believes the live coverage of the tsunami's aftermath and the timing of its fury - the day after Christmas - lent a "very personal" aspect to this disaster.

"I think it had a major emotional and spiritual impact on people, and they responded through giving," he said.

That giving, to the United Methodist Committee on Relief, would eventually amount to $41.5 million, the bulk of which was donated in the first eight months after the tsunami hit.

The total is by far the denomination's largest giving for a single disaster, according to Roland Fernandes, the board's treasurer.

By comparison, "Love in the Midst of Tragedy," used to assist those affected by 9/11, raised $21 million. Contributions to "Hurricanes 2005," which includes response to Katrina and Rita, have exceeded $24 million but are unlikely to equal the tsunami giving, he said.

In retrospect, raising the money has been the easy part of the international response to the tsunami. Relief officials say the response to the tsunami is still in the early stages, as organizations and communities work to overcome a host of obstacles.

The Rev. Paul Dirdak, UMCOR's chief executive, compares the disaster to the aftermath of a war rather than a natural phenomenon.

"When a storm is over, the local decision-making capability is still there," he noted. But in the case of the tsunami, some communities were not capable of making decisions, he said.

"It's just not obvious to me that the ordinary disaster response assumptions account as easily for the loss of civil society and for community infrastructure," Dirdak said.

Other complicating factors of tsunami recovery for some of the South Asian nations are ethnicity, religion, history and politics.

For years, the separatist Free Aceh Movement had clashed with the Indonesian government in the Aceh Province. In August, the two sides signed a peace agreement that was sparked, at least in part, by the tsunami. The agreement includes a gradual withdrawal of some military and police forces, as well as disarmament of the rebels.

Day, who had followed the regional war in Aceh, said he was pleased "the peace talks took place in the midst of all this recovery/reconstruction phase" and considers the settlement good for both Indonesia and Aceh.

He sees "promising possibilities" for more partnerships between Methodists and Muslims in Indonesia and believes such efforts can serve as examples for other parts of the world. "I embrace authentic partnerships that can be celebrated," he said.

Tension in Sri Lanka
The current conflict in Sri Lanka between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese population and rebels who want ethnic autonomy for Tamil areas in the north and east dates back to riots in 1983.

Despite a cease-fire, the conflict has had an effect on tsunami recovery, and the November election of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse as the new president of Sri Lanka raised new questions regarding prospects for a long-term peace.

Rajapakse had vowed to scrap the 2002 peace accord with the Tamil Tigers, has resisted the idea of local autonomy for the Tamils and has rejected an accord to share tsunami reconstruction money with the rebels, according to the New York Times.

The November report from UMCOR's office in Sri Lanka noted that even though there was calm immediately after the election, tensions had increased, especially during the 10-day period ending Dec. 6.

"In UMCOR operational areas, several inter-ethnic clashes resulted in a number of casualties," the report said. "People have been evacuated to safe areas and the presence of security forces has increased." One man, the report added, was shot near the UMCOR office in Batticaloa.

"We need to keep in mind the urgent need to work for a peaceful resolution of the conflict that has divided the various ethnic communities," the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka noted, in voter guidelines published just before the election.

Do it 'right'
For Day, the goal in spending the money that United Methodists raised for tsunami relief is to do so wisely - which does not necessarily mean rapidly.

"Doing it right," he noted, means consulting with leaders in those countries and deciding how the funds can make the greatest impact, particularly in the areas of housing, health care, education and conflict resolution.

He also is grateful to church members for their generosity. "It really allows us to do some extraordinary things in the vast area where the tsunami hit."