Divine Word Missionaries

Tsunami in South-East Asia

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The roots that saved lives

Elena Curti -
The Tablet (UK) 08/01/2005

Religious orders with local knowledge and longstanding connections in South Asia were well-placed to respond quickly to the devastation of the tsunamis

NE week after tsunamis laid waste thousands of miles of Indian Ocean coastline, the international aid effort had still not reached the remote Indonesian island of Nias. Yet by 29 December – just three days after the earthquake – two priests had travelled by boat to the worst-hit area of the island and had begun to coordinate relief efforts. The comparative speed with which the religious congregation got help to Nias was just one example of how long-established religious orders can put local knowledge and expertise to good use following a major disaster.

In Nias, thousands of local people had been killed and many more made homeless, particularly on the south coast. The island, around 125 kilometres off Sumatra, was completely cut off. When they arrived, Fr Kris Kia of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) and Fr Venan, a Capuchin, told their superiors by phone that roads, bridges and electricity supplies had all been damaged.

The SVD in Java decided to give priority to Nias because other organisations were directing aid primarily to Banda Aceh, also badly hit but easier to reach.

A number of orders including Jesuits, Salesians, Franciscans, as well as the SVD, have played an important role in the relief effort in all the stricken countries. Across the region established networks and contacts were harnessed to target aid where it was most needed. Inevitably, it is the bigger orders that have been able to supply information about their work. It is known, for instance, that Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity are among the many religious sisters involved, but little information about their activities has yet emerged.

By contrast, the Salesians have been able to report back in some detail, saying they have 600 members from 93 communities working on the ground in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India. They are receiving money from the Don Bosco Network which is based in Rome and is an umbrella organisation comprising seven European Salesian-based NGOs. The first funding – 50,000 euros (£35,300) – was sent on Monday. Members of the Salesian Volunteer Organisation are also working in the affected areas. It is a pattern that is being repeated by other orders.


Fr Norbert Betan SVD reported from Jakarta on 29 December that in Banda Aceh, Meulaboh and other towns the dead bodies were piling up and the survivors were too weak and desperate to help themselves.

“There is a lot of emergency aid coming from all sides, but we are struggling to reach suffering people in the remote disaster areas,” he wrote.

However, by the next day, another priest, Fr Willi Reidel SVD, wrote that the diocese of Medan had established a relief commission with an SVD priest as its coordinator. It is organising volunteers, including doctors, and distributing money and goods raised by the SVD parishes of north Sumatra.

Jesuits have been prominent in the relief effort in Indonesia. Within days of the disaster unfolding in Aceh and northern Sumatra, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) was assessing what was needed. The JRS began work with volunteers and through a crisis centre launched by the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference. The Jesuit Provincial in Indonesia, Fr A. Priyono Marwan SJ, said Jesuits and volunteers had been “untiring in their efforts”.

Four Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ) based in Yogyakarta were yesterday due to travel to the stricken area of north Sumatra. Two are psychologists and the group will be working with the JRS who are desperate for women volunteers, drivers, social workers and administrators. FCJ sisters remaining in Yogyakarta are raising funds, including help for several hundred Acehnese students living locally who see no hope for their future as many of their families have been left destitute or killed.


Superiors of the religious congregations in Tamil Nadu met on Thursday last week to coordinate their response to the disaster with local bishops. The director of the Pontifical Missionary Society in India, Fr Ignatius Siluvai, based in Bangalore, told The Tablet that the orders had prioritised the delivery of food, shelter and clothing for those left homeless by the disaster.

“The next stage will be to raise funds to buy nets and boats for the fishing communities so that they can return to work. It will begin in a small way as it is very costly,” he said, putting the total cost of reconstruction in his diocese alone at 7m. euros to 9m. euros.

The Franciscan OFM, based in Bangalore, is working in partnership with the Pontifical Missionary Society in Germany. The OFMs have received the first sums of money from their partners and have begun distributing aid.

Jesuit students have joined the relief effort in Tamil Nadu. The Provincial in Madurai province has appointed a committee of Jesuits to coordinate the relief effort with Caritas and the Red Cross.

Claretian missionaries from their province of Chennai have sent teams to distribute food, clothes and medicine to Tamil Nadu. “Since the amount of damage is so high, we have yet to come to grips with the reality. The situation is too grim and the damage is devastating,” writes Fr M. Winner.

A Claretian project in Bangalore, the Sumanahalli Society, which usually cares for lepers and people with HIV, sent a team to Tamil Nadu two days after the tsunamis struck. The society’s team included doctors, social workers and volunteers who brought with them food, medicines and clothes. Initial funding came from the 80 staff who each contributed one day’s salary.

The SVD said on 31 December that it had sent eight of their Religious to help with the relief work in Tamil Nadu. “In five villages the bodies are not recovered. Our confrères are with the parish priest helping him to unearth the bodies,” reported the SVD Provincial from Hyderabad province, Fr Lazar. The SVD also has local religious sisters distributing items including rice, sheets, saris, towels, utensils and kerosene.

The Rosminians’ regional superior in India, Fr Anthony Meredith IC, sent an email to The Tablet when he returned to Tamil Nadu from England on Monday that told of a young fellow Rosminian who went back to his family home in a village on the southern tip of India near Kanyakumari. “Currently his family home is housing 14 families, sharing space, food and clothing, and many families are doing the same. Many of them are fishing folk. Their boats and tackle are destroyed. The sea has been their great friend and provider, but now it is regarded with suspicion and fear,” wrote Fr Meredith, who was travelling to the area later in the week to see what his order could do to help.


Jesuits are working in six areas affected by the earthquake. They have formulated a fully costed reconstruction plan, beginning with the building of 600 houses in each area and the purchase of water pumps. Next they will prepare a budget for the second stage, in which they will buy fishing boats, nets and other equipment to enable fishing communities to get back to work.

The first funding has come in the form of a donation of 1 million rupees (£12,000) from the Jesuit Refugee Service. Much of the Jesuit activity is in the villages at Batticaloa, where there are 100 relief camps each inhabited by several thousand refugees. It is reported that more than 3,000 homeless people are sheltering at the Jesuit Residence and St Michael’s College.

In the Trincomalee district, Fr Veeresan Yogeswaran SJ reports that sanitary conditions are deteriorating, and there is a fear of epidemics in the camps and a shortage of medical supplies. Fr Yogeswaran is also deeply concerned about the mental state of survivors. “Depression is setting in among the victims as some have attempted suicide after losing everyone and everything in the family,” he writes.

The Salesians report a desperate situation from the order’s recently established vice- province of Sri Lanka. “In the south, about 100 kilometres from our houses, hundreds of bodies are out in the open unclaimed. There are hundreds of orphan children and thousands of parents who cannot find their children because they are dead or have got lost,” the superior, Fr Anthony Humer Pinto, told the Fides news agency, adding that the danger of epidemics was on a “knife-edge”.

But for all the priests and Religious working in the disaster region, ministering to the bereaved is the biggest challenge.

“We are speechless. We can’t find the words to console them. By our mere presence, the Church is showing solidarity,” said Fr Ignatius Siluvai, the PMS director in Bangalore, India.


Priests and Religious are involved in the relief effort in the areas affected by the disaster. Fides quotes a Jesuit missionary in Bangkok as saying the country is united in the aid effort. Jesuits have answered the call for interpreters for non-Thai survivors in hospital. The Jesuit superior in Bangkok, Fr Martin Suhartono SJ, is among those acting as interpreter and counselling patients.

Teams of religious sisters have been working at makeshift relief centres at Krabi, 400 miles south-west of Bangkok. Many survivors have been evacuated there from Thailand’s main disaster area on the south-west coast. A Presentation sister, Petra Darunee Likhittam, told the Catholic News Service they had been listening to the stories of survivors’ personal tragedies and helping them to fill out government assistance forms.

CNS also report that Immaculate Heart sisters have visited Thailand’s hardest-hit province, Phangnga, where more than 3,000 bodies have been found. Sr Supha Suphathongamphai said they were “overwhelmed” by what they had seen and heard.