BALAPITIYA, Sri Lanka – Weeks after the Asian tsunami destroyed their homes and livelihoods, tens of thousands of hungry Sri Lankans are still pleading for help, accusing government officials of looting international aid and demanding bribes to deliver it.
The giant waves of Dec. 26 destroyed fisherman Kristi Nishantha's house and boat, but he says he has yet to receive any government assistance. He and his family, displaced twice since the disaster, now live in a Buddhist (search) temple in Balapitiya, a town 45 miles south of the capital, Colombo.
"We survived so long on relief provided by the temple and well-wishers," he said, carrying his 3-year-old son, Sanan, who is getting by on plain tea instead of milk.
In a stunning revelation last week, the government said only 30 percent of those affected by the tsunami had received aid, and set a target of Feb. 10-15 to complete delivery.
Many still await the rice, sugar, noodles, milk powder and biscuits stacked in warehouses. The government has blamed bureaucratic bungling and incompetence. Survivors blame corruption.
In Balapitiya, two local officials have been suspended over accusations of misusing aid, and another for being drunk on duty. Others were being investigated, including some who reportedly demanded bribes from survivors for death certificates for their loved ones.
Frustration is growing.
At the Amaraseeha Abivanaramaya temple in the southern village of Brakmanawatte, scores of survivors gathered Monday to collect weekly ration coupons. Each card fetches small amounts of rice, sugar, vegetable oil and lentils, plus $2 in cash.
Village official K. Thakshana called out recipients' names from a handwritten list -- and tempers quickly flared when some found their names weren't on it.
"How can you say I'm not on the list?" demanded Athula de Silva. "I have lost everything and not got any help."
Many others echoed his complaint.
Thakshana's predecessor, Manori de Silva, was suspended last week over claims she was giving state food supplies to friends and relatives unaffected by the tsunami.
"She refused to give a milk packet for my baby even through there was enough stock," said T.W. Dulawathi, tears welling in her eyes.
In Kalurata, 25 miles south of Colombo, dozens of survivors demonstrated outside the home of a village officer, accusing him of giving food and cash aid only to his supporters.
"Sack the rogue village officer," read a sign held by one protester. "President! Please ensure equality," read another.
Leelawathie Mendis, who lives with a relative after her home was damaged by the tsunami, said she has received no food or other aid from the government.
"If you give (the village officer) a bottle of 'arrack' you will get state relief," she said. Arrack is a popular alcoholic drink.
Millions of dollars worth of relief from around the world has poured into Sri Lanka since the tsunami. The central government distributes it to administrators, who then channel it through divisional bureaucrats to village officials, who are supposed to deliver it to the displaced.
But investigations have uncovered abuse, mainly in the final delivery stages.
"I have tried my best to put things right," Thakshana said. "It's a thankless job. Sometimes however much you give people, they still complain."
For some officials, the frustration was too much.
In Ambalangoda town, north of Balapitiya, 53-year-old village official Siril Rupasinghe hanged himself amid constant protests and claims he had misused aid.
"He never took a pin from anyone," sobbed his sister, Namali Renuka said, clutching a photo of Rupasinghe -- a public servant for 26 years.
She said police searched his house for food rations but found none.
The chief government administrator of tsunami-ravaged Galle district, G. Hewavitharana, said investigations would take time due to lack of personnel.
"Most have received aid, but a minority haven't and we are looking into it," he said.
The government says it will cost about $103 million to compensate survivors and feed them for the next six months.
The tsunami killed more than 30,000 people and left a million homeless in Sri Lanka, one of 11 countries hit. The total death toll ranges from 162,000 to 178,000 people, according to official estimates.
Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse (search) said Tuesday he will set up a "special complaint unit" so survivors can record their grievances.
Meanwhile, the World Food Program (search), a key food aid provider, will send more monitors, said Dawit Getachew, a coordinator for the group in the southern district.
"Of course there are some bottlenecks, because in such a large operation there will always be bottlenecks," said WFP spokesman Jean-Yves Lequime. "But we are here to address them, and if we learn any village didn't get aid food by government we will react immediately and take action."