Cultural Emergency Relief after the Tsunami

March 2005 -

More than two months after the tsunami around the Indian Ocean, life in many places is still little more than trying to survive. Relief workers focus on saving lives. But how do these lives become meaningful again as soon as possible? Too often, culture is forgotten as an essential part of humanitarian emergency relief.

Immediately after the tsunami, the Indian-American writer Amitav Ghosh travelled to the Andamans and Nicobars. In his book After the tsunami, he meets the director of the malaria research institute who lost his wife, daughter and life's work. Together they start looking for the remnants of his house and workplace. The director discovers his daughter’s painting box but, to the astonishment of the writer, he does not pick it up. It is a too tangible memento of his daughter - it hurts too much. The only things the director does take are some carefully selected slides from his centre’s archive. 'For whatever reason, his mind was set on a number of objects that derived their meaning from the part of his life that he spent in thought and meditation. […] [T]he life of the spirit takes on many forms and when the day was over I understood that, by making this choice, the director had devised the most remarkable and most powerful strategy I had ever witnessed.'

Archives, works of art, prayer houses and monuments offer hope and consolation, normality and identity in times of human disaster. With that in mind, the Cultural Emergency Response (CER) has made money available for the preservation of contemporary and historical cultural heritage that is in danger of being lost after the disaster. It is not only for officially recognised cultural heritage objects, but also for informal and daily objects that are meaningful to communities.

In Sri Lanka, the historically important city of Galle was heavily hit by the tsunami. Thanks to CER, the work at the Maritime Archaeological Unit could be resumed immediately. With 25,000 euro from CER the only Sri Lankan team of underwater archaeological experts was capable of saving the collection of items that had been dived for the years before. Some team members even risked their life to save items in between two tsunami waves.

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Maritime Archaeological Unit after the tsunami, photo: Amsterdams Historisch Museum / Avondster project

In Galle, 23,000 houses were destroyed so people who are not from the city, like the team members, cannot be offered housing within the framework of the existing relief programme. However, if the team does not stay together in Galle, the future of the Maritime Archaeological Unit and of underwater archaeology in Sri Lanka is in danger. The donation by CER is not only used for housing; containers with closing lids were also purchased. In these containers, the dived for artefacts are preserved in fresh water - covered, in order to minimise health risks. Open and still fresh water are a habitat for the 'zebra mosquito' that transmits dengue.

Cultural Emergency Response is an initiative of the Prince Claus Fund.

Marlous Willemsen is Policy advisor Prins Claus Fund andExecutive Secretary of Cultural Emergency Response