Shivanthi Sathanandan, a 24-year-old St. Paul woman who returned recently from four weeks in Sri Lanka and India, said that especially in the non-government-controlled north, people told her they hadn't eaten for two days.
Her supplies of packaged food and other relief items attracted long lines in camps. She encountered complaints from refugees that official aid is bypassing them.
"The north said they're not seeing a lot of aid. The south said they're not seeing a lot of aid. Each side thinks the other side is getting stuff," Sathanandan said. "I told them: Trust me, we've been to both places, and nobody is getting anything."
She used her visit to distribute supplies bought with $35,000 raised by the Tamil Association of Minnesota.
After seeing the needs, Sathanandan has decided to stay active in helping Sri Lanka's recovery. She has formed a charity organization, Kids Aid USA, that is focused on meeting Sri Lankan children's long-term needs.
She doesn't know why aid is slow in reaching people. Sri Lankans alternately blamed the ethnic Sinhalese-dominated government and its nemesis, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers are an ethnic separatist group that rules parts of the island. Fewer than 20 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Tamils.
Her concern over misdirected aid is shared by a variety of sources, even within the Sri Lankan government.
The leader of the government's relief efforts, Thilak Ranavirajah, complained at a Feb. 2 news conference that "our public servants have failed to deliver" aid to more than 30 percent of people in distress.
Next month, according to its Web site, Transparency International is expected to hold a meeting in Indonesia on how to combat corruption in tsunami relief work. The Web site of the Berlin, Germany-based organization (http://www.transparency.org/) provides other information on the subject.
Regardless of fault, Sathanandan said, having aid stuck in the pipeline underscores the need for private efforts organized by people willing to donate directly.
Sathanandan has traveled regularly to Sri Lanka since she was 16. Her parents, Myles and Rose, grew up as part of the ethnic Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. They left in the late 1960s and lived in London before settling in Minnesota in the early 1980s.
They accompanied their daughter on the trip, paying personal travel expenses so all the locally raised donations could be spent on tsunami survivors.
The final leg of the family's Sri Lankan journey took them to areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers, which waged a 19-year civil war against the government. Three years after a cease-fire, Sathanandan said, trust remains low between the government and Tamil rebels. Recent violence, including the Feb. 7 assassination of a rebel leader and four associates, has exacerbated tensions.
Sathanandan found that both sides are pursuing parallel reconstruction projects with separate sources of money.
"The (Tamil Tigers are) getting a lot less money than what the government is getting," she said.
To get to rebel-held areas in the north and east, the Sathanandans had to drive their convoy of aid supplies through government and rebel checkpoints. They encountered no hostility, she said, but a lot of questions, inspections and delays.
Hope is fading fast that the tsunami would be the catalyst to spark unity among the island's feuding factions.
"That's the standstill," she said. "No government wants to hand money over to that (Tamil Tigers) group. At the same time, the (Tamil Tigers are) wary of the government. (They are) suspicious that, if they let the government into the region, the government would try to take over."
The situation is not entirely bleak. She said that, as in the south, northern coastal refugees are moving into transitional housing — tents and huts — as they await construction of new permanent homes.
She found the greatest desperation in fishing villages slightly inland. Those residents didn't lose homes but lost boats, nets — and, she said, attention. "People don't know they are there," she said.
Finding those overlooked places will be the aim of the newly formed Kids Aid USA nonprofit organization. Sathanandan is planning return trips to Sri Lanka to buy and distribute supplies with the money she raises.
The tsunami has forced orphans and children from poor families into the work force, she said.
To Sathanandan, the exploitation of children is a clear warning that "if we don't pay attention to the (tsunami-) affected generation, we're going to see huge repercussions five, 10, 15, 20 years from now."
HOW TO HELP
Here is contact information for an organization started by Shivanthi Sathanandan of St. Paul. Her aim is to help tsunami-affected children in Sri Lanka.
Kids Aid USA
P.O. Box 16324
St. Paul, MN 55116-6324