A Tuk Tuk Mechanic Leads Friends and Family Beyond DisasterCommunity consultation has been one of the guiding principles for the reconstruction process after the devastation of last year’s tsunami.
A US$5,000 World Bank grant to one of Sri Lanka’s leading nongovernment organizations, Lanka Jathika Sarvodaya Shramadana Sangamaya [Sarvodaya], earlier this year helped initiate talks among tsunami-affected communities in the south and the east. The result was a Sarvodaya report, titled Post-Tsunami Voice of Community Leaders.
Here’s a profile of one of the community leaders who contributed to the research – K. G. Nadeeka Dilan, a three wheeler mechanic from Galle – who suffered great losses and underwent great changes because of the tsunami.
November 21, 2005
“This was the first day I knew the meaning of fear,” says K.G. Nadeeka Dilan, a three wheeler “tuk tuk” mechanic, recalling the tsunami of December 26.
The Devata Bay in Galle in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, where Dilan lives, is calm and blue. It’s hard to imagine now the 20 foot wall of water which swept Dilan off his feet and brought death to his only daughter and 13 close relatives.
“In a matter of minutes, my precious daughter and the house I had built and furnished so proudly and my business…all rubble,” Dilan says.
But his is a story of a man who stood up courageously from tragedy to become the Camp Coordinator of the temporary shelters, guiding and helping his community through crisis and recovery.
Dilan had lived with his extended family in a compound overlooking Devata Bay. The land had belonged to the then Ceylon Government Railway, but his father-in-law had acquired possession as a long-standing tenant.
Now Dilan is farther from the shoreline, close to the main road. His three-wheeler repair shop is back in business. It’s a rectangular shack boarded with zinc sheets. And it leads to two tiny living areas. In one is a little bed surrounded by boxes of salvaged personal belongings, and, in the other, there’s a small television. A black and white photograph of Dilan’s lost daughter has pride of place on top of the television.
On the day of the tsunami, Dilan had just one glimpse of the monstrous wave: “Like the great wall of China, high as the electricity pole on the main road,” he says.
He only remembers holding his daughter’s hand and trying to run. The powerful sheets of water dragged them apart. He couldn’t see anything in the swirling mud and was carried half a mile inland, wedged against a tree when the waters ebbed.
Today Dilan points to two coconut trees where he found the lifeless mud-covered body of his daughter. “She was cold. I had to wipe the mud from her to give her artificial respiration. I pumped her chest, rubbed her hands and feet, did everything to revive her. My anger against the sea was enormous.….My mother-in-law, my sister’s five-year-old – all were gone.”
At that time last December, Dilan’s shoulder was dislocated. But there were no doctors and no time to go looking for one. He wedged a friend’s head under his armpit, and gritting his teeth, yanked his shoulder back into place. He says the pain was nothing compared to what he felt in his heart. And with his shoulder fixed, Dilan did the last thing he could do for his daughter – he carried her to the hospital morgue.
The dead were all around him. They were all relatives or close friends. And as the water ebbed, people emerged, screaming and crying in anguish. Many were naked – their garments ripped off by the water. “I did the best I could to help people,” Dilan says. “I found whatever material I could for them to cover themselves; pulled out 48 bodies from the sludge. My grief was lessened as I helped the people.”
It was a powerful reflection from a man who’d lost his pride and joy, but who sought to help others. Luckily, his son and wife were alive. His boy had run ahead of him and climbed high onto a nearby cement factory tower. His wife, who was working in a garment factory, had been safe.
Taking Charge to Help His Community
In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and the rush to help survivors and find bodies, Dilan’s relatives gathered at a nearby temple. They were 18 families in all. Each had lost everything. They had no place to stay, no money, and no possessions.
Dilan got help from the cement factory – a heavy earth-moving machine to help shift the rubble and create a space for tents. And as the tent town grew, so too did the number of families seeking shelter in the camp. There were now 63 families there.
“There were no racial or caste issues and no cases of rape in the camp,” Dilan says. “Fourteen families were Muslim, five Christian, and the rest Sinhalese.” The families unanimously appointed him the Camp Coordinator, and he formed a small committee along with two women, who he felt could best address the needs of the women in the camp.
The fact that Dilan was a good communicator and a Catholic with established links to the parish priest and the business community stood him in good stead. He consulted his now extended family to find out their needs. He prepared documents to register community members to receive aid, and he coordinated assistance from state officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
“I was beaten up by one person who thought I was not demanding enough from NGOs,” Dilan says. But he was not deterred. He kept a level head and ensured distribution of aid was fair and that people did not collect handouts just for the sake of getting something.
“This is my community, and I tried to do the best for them. I didn’t just ask for anything and everything – what I got was targeted to the needs of specific people.”
The list of recipients was long. Fifteen sewing machines were given to those who could earn a living from tailoring. The vegetable sellers and fish sellers received scales, bicycles, and other items and an initial capital of US$100 [LKR 10,000] to start their businesses. The brick maker got power tools and 10 bags of cement. The man who’d earned his living selling dress materials door to door received US$250 [LKR 25,000] to buy his initial stock and get going.
Getting Back on Their Feet
Only 10 families now remain in the camp. A few are Muslim families who did not want to locate to an area where there is no mosque. Others feel the houses which were built for them are unlucky, as the builders did not take into account the traditional accepted positions of beams and doors.
Dilan, like many others, was offered jobs by the plethora of international NGOs who arrived in Sri Lanka in the wake of the tsunami. But even the offer of a car for his use was not enough to entice Dilan. He slides from under the red three-wheeler he is repairing to say: “The garage is my business, and I want to build this up. I have my basic tools but once I get a compressor, and a few more items I can employ two more people.”
His daughter is lost forever, but Dilan thinks one way forward is to adopt an orphaned child. His smile is wide as he bids us goodbye.
By Chulie de Silva, World Bank Office in Sri Lanka