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Meeriyabedda...:

The agony continues

At precisely 7.15 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 October 2014, life in the estate hamlet of Meeriyabedda, in the Badulla District, literally got interred in tons of mud and rubble, in what is now known as one of the worst earthslips in Sri Lanka. Two square kilometres of land shifted axis in a matter of seconds, burying the entirety of the Meeriyabedda Estate.

More than a 100 people were believed to have lost their lives in the early morning devastation. However, days later, the toll was computed at 38 dead, over 1,200 displaced, and widespread destruction to property. Among the dead were three children.

Among the buildings completely destroyed were seven line rows (quarters), a temple, a community centre, several milk collecting centres, a telecommunication centre, three estate bungalows, and several houses and boutiques.


Families cramped for space in a classroom

Close to 500 of the displaced were provided shelter at two schools – the Shri Ganesha Tamil Vidyalaya in Meeriyabedda and the First Tamil School and the rest in several makeshift welfare camps in the adjoining areas.

The displaced families, many of them with small children were not expected to remain in the temporary shelter for long. And many have found alternate accommodation. But many still continue to be displaced five months on, losing hope of the promised relocation and a home to call their own.

Continuing nightmare

Devoid of the safety and familiarity of home, life for the displaced, especially displaced in a harrowing manner, can be a continuing nightmare. And forced to remain in temporary shelters for indefinite periods, often cramped for space, sometimes devoid of even the basic amenities, life can become misery uninterrupted. And utterly miserable it is for displaced families still sheltered at Shri Ganesha Maha Vidyalaya.

Cramped into a single classroom are eight families, with ragged saris hung across ropes providing the only privacy. More squalor than sanctuary, it is a heart- wrenching sight giving one an indication the agony life continues to be for these families, who escaped with their lives only to fall down a rabbit hole and into a life of utter wretchedness.

The stark sense of despair ... the wretchedness... is all too evidenced in the face of two frail, old people huddled together near a makeshift toilet. Letchimi and Yogaraj, two of the displaced whose combined work experience in the Meeriyabedda estate totals a grand 78 years (Letchimi 33 and Yogaraj 45), can’t quite comprehend why fate has been so cruel to them. Warned not to return to the land they are familiar with because of its susceptibility to future slips, they have been in the temporary shelter wondering when their lives will take a turn for the better or whether it ever will.

“Our diet contains dhal and soya-meat. Water is scarce,” they claim as a matter of fact, concerned more with the worry that their lives have been in limbo since the earth slip occurred nearly five months ago.

“What we really need is a permanent abode for us to live in,” plead Letchimi and Yogaraj. Their plea finds resonance with Velu and Kathiravel, two other long term estate workers and neighbours in misery.

The condition these displaced are forced to live in is cause for concern. But the local PHIs Ravindra Piyaratne, while admitting there are 64 displaced estate workers provided shelter at the school, claims that the squalid conditions they live in are the fault of the displaced.

“They seem to be rather indifferent to primary health care and are always non-cooperative with the health authorities,” he alleged, adding that fortunately no infectious disease has broken out as yet. Even under normal circumstances Shri Ganesha Maha Vidyalaya is poorly equipped and lacks most of the basic facilities.

But converting it into a makeshift shelter has not only strained its facilities, it has also deprived the children of a school, compelling the parents to either keep the children at home or spend money they can hardly afford to send them to schools in adjoining villages.

Students deprived

Palani Ariyandi Saradadevi, a mother forced to spend at least Rs 50 extra to send her children to another school, urges the authorities to vacate the school of the displaced and reopen it for the students. “I can’t continue like this and I don’t have the money,” she says.

But vacating the school of the displaced is not easy, as the hills they lived in still remain unstable and they have nowhere else to go. The land is not stable, there can be another earth slip anytime, says Thalaiver Subramaniam.

Another estate worker explains that although they have been given land with newly-built houses, they have been warned of potential landslides and urged to stay away.


Statue of Hindu deity Mahamuni among the debris

At the site where 37 people were buried alive, debris of the disaster has surfaced in several places, a stark reminder of the tragedy that engulfed an entire village. The disaster is beyond comprehension, but giving into superstitious believes, some view it as the wrath of god brought about by the people’s failure to make the proper sacrifice.

Gods must be angry

In fact among the debris that has surfaced in the partially destroyed statue of a Hindu deity, brought from India long years ago. The deity looks lost and forlorn, staring impotently at a dead tree that aptly depicts the devastation the land suffered.

The displaced living in the Punagala factory camp are luckier than their counterparts at Meeriyabedda. Several of them have been provided with new houses by the estate management; although Rs. 2,500 is deducted from their monthly wages towards the cost of construction. They are also provided with electricity and water.

The displaced here are full of praise for the Security Forces that were there for them in their hour of need. However, they are still angry at the manner in which officials of the previous government treated them, hoarding the relief sent by the people, rather than distribute the food and other essentials needed by the people.

They were warned

“Three lorry-loads of food were condemned as unfit for consumption. Others remain intact without being distributed among the needy. It is rumoured that about 1,588 lorry loads had arrived. This is sufficient to feed even the entire village” many point out, adding that if the aid received had been properly distributed, each of the displaced would have received Rs.20 a day.

The National Buildings Research Organisation had conducted research and warned of possible landslides the Meeriyabedda estate locality.

The Grama Niladhari with Disaster Management officials had also held a workshop at the Ganesha Tamil School with 275 participants and had raised awareness among them of the impending disaster, instructing them how to cope up with it.

However, as is human nature, the people of Meeriyabedda had chosen to ignore the warning, convinced it was a ploy to acquire their lands.

Hindsight being 20-20 many estate workers now believe their lives could have been different had they heeded the warning and got the estate management to relocate them to a safe area.

However, the Superintendent of the Ampitikanda Estate pleads ignorance about any landslide warnings, and claims that in the awareness programs he had taken part in there had been no proposal at all to evacuate the people from the area.

Written by a Staff Reporter with input from Aruni Muthumali

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