IТm nearing the end of my first two week stretch in Batticaloa. The last few days have been heartbreaking, humbling, and frustrating, all at the same time.
In the last week, I have visited some of the beneficiaries of HHRТs post-tsunami reconstruction work: students in a sewing school that HHR established to help employ displaced women, a tailor for whom HHR replaced a sewing machine she lost in the tsunami, and two dhobies (people who wash clothes) who received buckets and bicycles to continue their trade.
I have collected some brief but horrific stories during my visits. Between the war and the tsunami, these people have survived tragedies I can scarcely imagine. One lady interrupted her sewing to show me pictures of relatives she lost to the war before she lost her home to the tsunami. A dhobie told me about his harrowing escape from the giant wave, his story punctuated by quivering hands and moist, reddened eyes. Another told me of the three months he spent after the tsunami, living on handouts until he could work again.
This was before Sanathani, the soft-spoken administrator from HHR headquarters who had been my interpreter, returned to Colombo. I am now just a language barrier away from the fascinating stories that surround me. Mr. Mariathasan, head of the local office, is the only staff member fluent in English, and he is unable to accompany me to the field because of tsunami-related injuries.
Without a translator, I am incapacitated. There are scores of people I have yet to meet and stories I have yet to hear. Many people I have met have not yet opened up enough to tell me about their experiences. Batticaloa is full of heroic tales of survival that I and the world need to hear about. But without a translator, I am only as useful as the monosyllabic sentences and wild but meaningless gesticulation my communication with the locals is limited to.
In the last week, HHR beneficiaries have given me brief glimpses into their private epics of conquest over adversity, for which they have my untellable gratitude. But my journalistic ambitions are stalled for the moment. Until I find an interpreter, I am confined to the only contribution I can make Ц ironing out bureaucratic wrinkles in streams of HHR paperwork.
Posted By Sarosh Syed (Sri Lanka)
Posted Jun 15th, 2005