COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, JAN. 10, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Sri Lanka was among the countries hard hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami, and the Catholic Church here has been toiling to bring aid and relief to the country’s afflicted areas.
Last week, Archbishop Oswald Gomis of Colombo launched a worldwide appeal for aid, encouraging donations to the “Archbishop’s Tidal Wave Relief Fund.”
Archbishop Gomis told ZENIT that the disaster is almost beyond the scope of human comprehension.
Q: What was your first action after discovering that the tsunami had struck?
Archbishop Gomis: As soon as the news came, I went out and visited the southern regions and saw the disaster for myself. Some places were just impossible, like Berula, on that first day, but we went up anyway to witness the tragedy.
We, in the archdiocese, being the largest one in the country with approximately half the Catholic population of the island here, organized a special emergency team of nine priests and other laymen to help them.
Among these nine priests, there are three from each region — the south, the center and the north. Those subcommittees are responsible to report all the cases that they can find in consolidation with the local parishes.
Q: So would you say that really understanding the root of the situation is vital when it comes to giving aid?
Archbishop Gomis: Absolutely. The devastation varies from place to place …
Q: And is it getting more difficult to distribute aid to certain areas where there is rain and flash flooding?
Archbishop Gomis: I also visited the eastern province, where the Catholic concentration is, and I must say that there is great devastation there which is, as you refer to, getting worse, with this being the rainy season. There are heavy rains pouring down and many just can’t get past the floods, which can be bad enough without a tsunami.
The south is very badly affected by this mixture. Whole motor cars and buses have been completely thrown off the roads and all the people have disappeared. Naturally, in this case, it’s a very difficult task to attempt to resume this waterlogged bodies in all these conditions.
Q: In your appeal you say that people are still in the clothes that they were in on that fateful day and have not eaten or drunk properly at all since then. What are you doing about this?
Archbishop Gomis: There is a strategy. The first stage is that we have organized a large camping property in St. Vincent’s Home, run by the Church and every need is looked after in that camp.
Then, we are planning to get homes for these people as they don’t have any now. We have to supply them with some shelter such as tents, so they can go and begin to pick up their fishing industry or other employment so that they can sustain their families.
Besides that, we will have to help the planned construction program of houses. This is a very serious concern and the second stage.
Now, the government has already decided not to permit these people to settle back in those highly hostile areas — the seashore — and are trying to plan housing projects.
We will have a strong role coordinating with the government just how best to do this.
I’m also happy to note that the youth from the parishes which have not been affected, and other organizations, have come forward to go and work to clean up the debris and the places and help these people to resettle in their own lands.
The Catholic organizations around have been very generous when it comes to supplying the essential food items that they urgently required, so now it is a matter of looking forward and planning the other stages well, so as to assist in getting people back to normal life.
I know that this is not an easy process but a very difficult one, for which we need much assistance.
Q: Forty percent of your dead there, are children. And for as many children gone, there are those who survived but are orphaned. What is specifically being done for them?
Archbishop Gomis: We will need quite a lot of support and care for these children, and right now we are trying to gather some of the statistics and find out exactly how many of these children are there.
This is a task we have placed in the hands of Mother Teresa’s groups who are looking for them and harboring them for now in emergency camps.
However, later we will aim to restore them both psychologically, spiritually as well as materially. … We are trying to organize mental health-care specialists.
Q: Pope John Paul II has pointed out that children seem the worse-off among the victims of this tragedy. There are even those, it seems, who are using the opportunity to prey on children — taking advantage of the situation. What would you say in the light of such horrifying reports?
Archbishop Gomis: You know, we are at this moment seeing the best of humanity and the worst of it.
Now, the government is trying to be strict on these people who exploit such situations and plunder. But as you know, there are always people who are of this nature and do terrible, mean things.
Yet, we must also appreciate the good will and the contribution made by a whole lot of good people too.
Q: Do you think that your people there feel supported enough by the world around them? And do any see a glimmer of hope in the wake of such catastrophe?
Archbishop Gomis: There is, today, a common feeling that this time has not considered any of the human limitations of people — namely human segregations. The people feel that the disaster has not considered wealth nor poverty, caste nor creed, but has treated everyone in the same way.
So people are feeling that all of us are equally helpless in a situation like this and that just gives a strong message that we should all unite to rehabilitate, restore and reunite our country.