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Sri Lankan Ambassador Talks About Sri Lankan Disaster Relief Efforts

December 29, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Now a view from one of the hardest-hit countries: Sri Lanka. As of late today, some 22,000 or more people had been reported killed on the small island nation of roughly 20 million.

Devinda Subasinghe is Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States, and he joins us now to talk about the still-unfolding situation there. Mr. Ambassador, welcome, and first of all, our condolences on this tragedy.

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us a sense of how widespread the devastation is in your country.

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Sri Lanka is the size of West Virginia. It’s an island nation. 70 percent of the coastal area of Sri Lanka has been impacted by this tsunami and the aftermath of it. That is a line from the northern peninsula all the way down the East Coast, back up the South and the Southwest Coast.

MARGARET WARNER: How far inland did the water sweep?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: It has varied. In some instances it’s been yards. In other case it’s been a quarter of a mile to two miles, depending on what was ahead of it as it came on shore.

MARGARET WARNER: And what kind of villages and cities even were these?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: The Jaffna Peninsula is just about sea level. It’s very much at sea level. And many of those coastal areas have been impacted. The East Coast too is a relatively flat area going inland, so that is a low-lying area.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean were these fishing villages? Was the tourist trade big?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: A mix. The northern peninsula fisheries, East Coast fisheries, some tourism, but certainly the southern coast predominantly very populated, as well as the infrastructure, hotels, resorts.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how many people in addition to the 22,000 known to be dead, how many people do you think you have homeless already?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: We are estimating up to a million people are homeless that have fled their homes or have had to flee as they ran away from the water as well as the destruction.

MARGARET WARNER: So already 5 percent of your total population?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: That is correct.

MARGARET WARNER: And then what light can you shed on these reports that you’ve already had outbreaks of disease?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: The malaria component, I will defer to the WHO. This is the period right after the monsoon rains. Typically that’s when the malaria begins to grow and become a problem in the southern and the southeastern coast. It’s probably seasonal.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying you really do have malaria?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: We do have malaria seasonally at this time of year, in those parts, especially in the remote areas where water has collected and the mosquitoes are breeding. But certainly the water-borne diseases are just beginning to emerge. And that’s what we would have to mitigate.

MARGARET WARNER: How confident are you that your government even has a handle on the scope of the problem? I mean, are there areas still inaccessible either because communication lines are down or because you can’t get there?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: I think we’re beginning to get ahead of the curve on this but fortunately it’s a relatively small area, accessibility is an issue. We’ve been able to penetrate most areas. However, the search and rescue phase I don’t think is still over. Clearly, recovery is also ongoing.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, there could be many more deaths?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Either many more dead or survivors that have not yet been located, and I might add I think the balance is probably in the area of more deaths rather than finding more survivors.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you a little bit about the capacity of your government to cope with this. Andrew Natsios, who is going to appear later on this program, but he had a press conference today, and he said, unlike India and Indonesia, which are very large countries and though with considerable poverty, they do have infrastructures they do have some relief agencies in place. But Sri Lanka, I think the word he used is, he said, “I think the Sri Lankans are really overwhelmed by this” just because you are a smaller nation, you are more vulnerable. Is he right about that?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: If you look at the reports we’re getting about the landing capacity at the Colombo International Airport, the Banda Aceh International Airport, they have a big traffic jam there so to speak. Yes, we are a small country with modest means, but we do have a national disaster system in place, but yes, this is nothing like we’ve ever dealt, with not a drought, not a flood. It’s a massive wave that’s hit 70 percent of our coastal area.

MARGARET WARNER: What has your government been able to do?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: We have mobilized military as well as civilian resources; personnel, infrastructure, everything we’ve got is out there. Physicians, they are all out in the field. Everything that we have we’ve mobilized. Obviously we need supplementation of those capabilities.

MARGARET WARNER: Now I read somewhere today that you actually — as you know, there has been looting in some other countries of a fairly extensive nature, but that in Sri Lanka, you all mobilized soldiers to essentially enforce a curfew to try to prevent looting?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Yes, we have. I think there have been some instances of looting reported, but I don’t believe it’s growing beyond that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now give me a sense of what kind of international relief. You said there is a traffic jam at the airport. How much assistance has already gotten in and of what kind?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: I can speak to what I do know from sitting on my vantage point as the ambassador to the United States. There have been, as the press conference that preceded us reported, assessment teams on the ground. There are some assets that are being moved to help us with regard to surveillance of the damage.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga in her conversation with President Bush this morning did reiterate the need for the surveillance search and rescue and recovery capabilities to be supplemented. And that’s on the ground, parts are on the ground. Disaster assessment I’m sure Andrew Natsios could elaborate on this. A team has arrived and will continue to arrive over the next couple of days.

MARGARET WARNER: I also read on the wires just before we began this that the head of the U.S. Pacific Command said it’s going to establish what he calls a forward operating base right in Sri Lanka, not only I think to distribute aid to Sri Lanka, but as part of its regional aid distribution. Is that the case and do you particularly welcome that?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Yes. I mean, this is going to be the use of Pacific Command assets for a civilian disaster recovery operation. It’s not a military deployment. Yes, we welcome it. We need all the help. It will be done regionally as well to better help enhance the assistance to neighboring countries. The Maldive Islands will need some capabilities. Their airport was closed and there is limitations on operations. So, we recognize that this is a deployment of military assets for civilian purposes.

MARGARET WARNER: Have the NGO’s, non-governmental organizations, been able to get in there in major way and start distributing any aid?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Yes, America today has airlifted water purification and other important medications. I’ve was in contact with Procter & Gamble today. They’re supplementing Americare’s stocks to get in more purification tablets into Sri Lanka, and a very generous corporate executive, a Sri Lankan expatriate executive, is underwriting some of these activities as well in terms of the airlift. Critical items are getting through. Clearly we will have to clear the log logjam at the airport and beyond. That’s a challenge we will face.

MARGARET WARNER: How much of a difficulty is it then to move it out from the airport in Colombo? I think my understanding is you’ve had hundreds of miles of railroad track washed out and some of your roads are still…

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: The southern highway is badly disrupted. Certainly the southern railways is pretty much non-existent in parts. We’ll have to look at airlift capabilities and perhaps even air drop in some cases, helicopters capability. We have a modest air force that’s been supplemented thankfully from the government of India and there are military assets that have been deployed almost instantaneously to support this endeavor.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, your country, your government doesn’t control all of your country. These rebel, Tamil rebels, Tamil Tigers, as they call themselves, patrol an area in the North. How much of an obstacle is that to the deployment of relief?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Firstly, the government does control the entire island. There are areas within the north and the east that are controlled by a group that has been in conflict with the government for the past 20 years and have been negotiating, attempting to negotiate a solution.

We have been in conversation with that group. And we are confident that we will work out channels to work together because this crisis is far bigger than an ethnic crisis or a religious crisis. I think we’re very optimistic that the country, regardless of ethnic or historical origin, is going to pull together going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Rebel leaders have been quoted as a, making independent appeals for aid internationally, and b, saying your government isn’t letting aid get through to the areas they do control, even though they suffered major loss of life. What do you say to that?

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: The government is getting assistance in through governmental channels, I can assure you of that. It is going through into areas. There are some limited areas that we are still discussing with the group as to how we get access and the relative arrangements there, but by and large, we’re moving and that has been occurring over the past two-and-a-half years of the ceasefire, as well. So we’re going to continue with what we’ve been doing, perhaps expand that and bring on board a greater sense of togetherness to get these supplies in.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, good luck with that. Ambassador Subasinghe, thank you.

DEVINDA SUBASINGHE: Thank you Margaret.