Nepali Times
Here And There
The world moves on


GALLE, Sri Lanka - Enroute from the horror of it all, a pause to reflect on how quickly the world moves on. For a week or so after 26 December 2004, it seemed as if tsunamis and their devastation were all we knew. Vicariously, through television and tragically, through first hand experience, the world's people came to fear their planet and its wrath.

Drawn to disaster and needing to earn a living, I flew from the far side of the globe to join the gabble of puzzled, shocked and horrified media voices. Safely ensconced in business class and nibbling on smoked salmon or some such luxury, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. If getting the information out about suffering and loss was useful or mere voyeurism.

But on the ground, no time for such thoughts. There was work to do. Huge amounts of it. The heroic efforts of humanitarians shone at first and the stunned government agencies eventually got their acts together. Communities that had lost almost everything nevertheless found reserves of strength.

In Galle, Sri Lanka, a jeweller whose entire stock had disappeared when the waves crashed through his shop was feeding villagers who'd lost even more. His house was open to visiting doctors. Muslim mullahs, Buddhist monks and Christian nuns ran ecumenical relief centres, all were welcome. Villagers whose houses still stood helped devastated neighbours clear debris and bury the dead. An Israeli psychiatrist lead Sri Lankan students in trauma counselling camps, encouraging survivors to rebuild their networks of community, faith and commerce. Austrian soldiers ferried children to clinics, British sailors rebuilt fishing boats.

India's aid effort was more indigenous but equally energetic. The middle classes from outside the affected areas were generous, sometimes overly so, but always willing to lend a hand or send whatever was needed. Schools skipped spending money on new uniforms or excursions to send rupees to the Indian Red Cross. A few politicians, not many but a few, gave up a day's salary, as did India's president. All in a good cause, a great cause, an irresistible cause.

But now, nearly three weeks on, we're getting on with life, in the hardhit coastal areas and elsewhere. America is back to politics as usual. The Canadians are debating a stolen ice hockey jersey. The British prime minister and his finance minister are feuding, as before. Germany is deep in angst about its waning economic miracle and the French are, well, doing whatever it is they do.

It's not that the forces of good within those countries aren't still helping tsunami survivors and beleaguered South Asian governments. They are. Debt relief has been promised and aid continues to flow. Never mind that neither promise has been lived up to in past humanitarian disasters. Let's hope the media holds good intentions to account this time.

But even in the affected countries, people are moving on. Schools are reopened, television chat shows are back to blathering about local celebrities and various daily ephemera is filling the public spaces of the nation.

Meanwhile, at the fringes of fading consciousness, a million or more devastated lives recede into the shadows. For once, tragedy united denizens of wealthy countries with the world's subsistence majority. Tourists and holiday makers perished and were blighted by the waves, just as the fisher folk were. It must be devastating for the bereaved and the traumatised to see compassion fade into context, then slip away to be held in reserve for the next tragedy.

But it's the only way we can cope.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)