Living in limbo with nowhere to go | Daily News

Living in limbo with nowhere to go

Plight of landslide victims of Morawaka:

With the heavy rainfall reported in the South of the country recently, many areas experienced severe flooding and landslides. Many of the areas including Deniyaya, Morawaka, Werella, Akuressa, Kamburupitiya, Deiyandara, Pallegama and Makandura were the most severely affected.

The Daily News visited the Morawaka area recently to inquire into the post disaster measures that have been taken to resettle those displaced and assistance given to recommence their lives.

Several of the affected residents of Morawaka recollected their dreaded ordeal in which they had lost many of their loved ones and lamented about their uncertain future.

“A tree fell on my house around 11 PM, so I rushed to my friend’s house nearby. I thought the tree fell because of the strong winds. I came back the next morning to check the damage, but my house was gone. There was no trace of it. Around 50-60 acres of land were covered in mud and debris. My son and his family lived next door, and the landslide had also swept away their house. I returned to my friend’s place, but my wife was so sick and anxious that I did not want to tell her that our son and grandchildren were dead. But, I had to tell her,” said an elderly displaced man from Morawaka town.

After days of non-stop rain and intermittent floods in the Matara district, a hillside just north-east of Morawaka collapsed around midnight on May 25th. The landslide devastated an area of over a kilometre, swallowing everything in its path, destroying 27 homes, killing 24 people and displacing over 400 others.

Only nine bodies have been recovered thus far, while the rest remain lost beneath tons of mud and wreckage. The government has suspended its efforts to find the other bodies. Flooding also ruined four other homes, bringing the full tally to 31 ruined dwellings.

Still displaced

Almost a month has passed since the disaster, but about 50 displaced people from seventeen families are being housed in a building at the Morawaka Primary School, a structure in which many have been living since late May. Many of them have lost several family members, their houses, most or all of their personal property and any hope for a prosperous future.

There were more people living at the school in the days after the landslide, but many have since moved back into their damaged houses after receiving clearance from the National Building Research Organization (NBRO).

The lion’s share of the displaced are still dealing with the affects of the twin traumas of losing several family members and their homes at once. “There are many people here who have lost five, six or more relatives. Luckily, I escaped into the jungle before the landslide buried my house, but it killed my son, his wife and their two children. We have nothing now,” said a elderly woman. Needless to say, those who witnessed the flooding and landslide remain traumatized, as most of their family support structures have ceased to function. Neighbours and other community members have, however, taken in friends and relatives who lost their homes, lessening the strain on the government’s relief efforts.

But those who remain in the school building must contend with the pain of losing loved ones while living in cramped, unpleasant conditions. They remain in limbo, with no past to return to nor future to look towards.

Dire living conditions

The structure itself is made up four rooms, one of which serves as the kitchen. But, the people prepare the communal meals in a corner, as ceiling-high stacks of broken desks, chairs, and school furniture take up most of the floor space.

The other three rooms are cramped and uncomfortable, as they serve as living, dining, and bedrooms; mattresses litter the floors, and the metal lattices that function as both walls and windows admit a constant stream of mosquitoes. Only a lucky few have nets.

Residents’ patience is wearing thin, as the building’s conditions are not conducive to long term occupancy.

“We need a permanent place to stay. We cannot stay in this school for a longer period. It is not easy living here; the whole place gets wet even after a small rain and we get bombarded by mosquitoes at night,” said the woman.

The lack of living space is especially apparent, as rooms overflow with stuff. Clothes hang on makeshift lines and occupy much of the limited shelf space. Many have brought the salvaged contents of their ruined homes, but these soggy keepsakes, dreary reminder of past lives, are difficult to hide amid the clutter.

Though the scene is somewhat dismal, children do their best to entertain each other, gaily entangling themselves in the nets while their parents look vacantly on. The elderly generally spend their time inside their rooms, only occasionally going outside to eat and mingle.

It is perhaps the children who find the experience of living in the camp the least onerous, as the younger kids flit around with each other playing and joking.

Aid drying up

The displaced, though thankful for being housed, related that the level of support they enjoyed at the beginning of their ordeal was far greater than the aid they now receive.

“We have stayed in this school for almost four weeks. For the first two weeks, the Army helped us a lot, and for the first three weeks we got enough food and all necessary items. Now we sometimes don’t have enough food to eat,” the man said. The drop off in aid could possibly be attributed to the fact that many private entities and NGOs raised money and donated goods and food, especially dry rations, for the affected in the period immediately after the landslide. At the moment the District Secretariat is responsible for providing food and other necessities.

Adding to the strain is that many of those living at the school really don’t have anything to do. A good number still have not returned to work, preferring to try to sort out their affairs from the school instead. Some adults spend the days cooking, but most simply mill about talking with one another and wondering what comes next.

Many cannot leave the school to live with friends or relatives, and they are further dissuaded from going elsewhere due to the fact that they will stop receiving aid if they do so.

Government officials, however, have offered to provide each family with Rs. 7,500 per month to rent homes for three months. Many of the displaced claimed that such a move is impossible, citing that they would not be able to pay the rent after the initial period of government subsidization.

Uncertain future

The people understandably want new homes, but it is unclear how exactly these new homes would be financed. Nobody at the school reported having home insurance, and most claimed that they did not have enough savings to build new homes on the plots they own.

“We request the government to help us and provide houses for us. We have not been informed of any alternate place to live as of yet,” said the man.

Complicating their plight is that the land on which their old houses stood is, for the foreseeable future, uninhabitable.

The District Secretary is in the process of identifying land for the people, according to Morawaka Grama Niladhari (GN) K.G. Kumuduni.

“The secretariat has identified a stretch of land near a factory in Bathalawaththa, Morawaka and are in the process of acquiring these lands,” she said.

But even if the government obtains that land, it is unclear who would pay for the construction of seventeen new homes for the displaced families. The GN, for her part, said that the prospects for new homes were dim.

“The main issue the people in this camp suffer with is the fact that they have no other place to go to. There seems to be little hope of them finding permanent abodes,” she said.

Well aware of the difficulties they will likely face in acquiring new homes, most people said that they would stay in the school as long as they could despite the poor conditions.

“What else can we do? We have nowhere else to go,” said the woman. 

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