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A NZ Volunteer Reports On Aid Effort In Sri-Lanka

A NZ Volunteer Reports On The Aid Effort In Sri-Lanka


Jeremy Hall in Sri Lanka

I arrived in Sri Lanka on 21 January and will arrive home on 16 February.

As I considered coming over, firstly aid agencies, then the NZ-Sri Lanka friendship societies I spoke to, were lukewarm about an enthusiastic volunteer coming over. Words floated around that there were enough locals fixing things up (that's actually crap), or maybe you should just send a cheque (which doesn't ring true either if you have the time to come). My experience is that in this case coming over and getting on with it myself left any other option for dead.

However, I still nearly didn't make the trip. I thought I'd arrive and waste all my time here finding something to do, so reluctantly decided against coming. What changed it for me was a NZ Herald article around 10 January about a tour operator who set up a trip here specifically for freelancers who want to do something and don't know where to start.

So I became a part of the Helping Hands tour (see www.world-discovery.com) from 21 to 31 January (more about this later). Once the group went back home I headed south to Galle where the two weeks here is being split between Project Galle 2005 ( projectgalle2005.com) in the mornings and, in the afternoon, an orphanage that until three weeks ago was a grim horrible place straight out of Charles Dickens.

Project Galle 2005 appeals to my practical organising side. Run like an election campaign headquarters, the main office is set up at a place that in normal times is a private art gallery. We go out in teams of 4 (2 of us with a driver and an interpreter) to camps that have already been identified as needing assistance.

Firstly to find out how many families are there, how many children and infants are there, whether any other organisations have given assistance and if so what, and enter all this into a computer database. In the meantime another building attached to a hotel has been lent to us for use as a warehouse; every day stuff - food, equipment - pours in and every day it gets packaged into camp lots and sent out. This is what the government has said it will do and damn well ought to have done; so far 6 weeks on, just 30 per cent of people have received relief.

Bureaucracy and corruption is choking off the ability of this nation to heal, and it tackles the can-do attitude of individuals who put Project Galle 2005 together to get the job done. (Those individuals, by the way, are local expatriate business people). 25 people daily attend the 8.30am planning meeting to organise the day, 3 phone lines, fax line, internet - the kinda humming energy I like.

The orphanage works more to my emotional side. I was afraid of going. I knew that it was a government outfit with 60 kids run by 5 staff who didn't give a damn. The kids had no nappies and lay in urine soaked sheets. The kitchen where milk was prepared was filthy.

There were no toys. No-one was held - babies were left to lie in their cots and a bottle was placed on a pillow next to them which they had to suck from by turning their heads to one side. It was, in short, a horror story. I had no experience in childcare apart from the usual babysitting over the years and feared I would be quite out of my depth.

I went in briefly the first day and peered over a cot at a tiny wee thing that cried this cry from the depths of its soul. I picked it up and there-there-ed it and straight away I felt comfortable and at home here.

An American couple is here, determined to turn the place around - then I discovered on the day I was to go there that the guy in this couple not only was extremely difficult to work with, but he could not handle people with points-of-view other than his own and had thrown out one volunteer who did have a difference of opinion. Wonderful at getting the place straight, but with the interpersonal skills of John Banks.

My solution to all of this was to get specific with the orphanage, doing something I'm comfortable with that's outside the orbit of Mr Difficult. All I do is pick up babies, wander around with them, bottle feed them, and play with the older ones. There are usually about five of us doing that, while other people swarm in with goods, food, toys, nappies, medicines, and the five evil sisters get watched very closely indeed. They've even started to walk around with babies themselves...

In Hambantota, 120 kilometres to the east, the coast faces directly towards Sumatra from where the tsunami raced at 2 kilometres per minute. It took a fearful hammering, and one entire suburb has disappeared. On a day trip there we passed a plaintive sign written on a bed-sheet hanging by the side of the road: "Please give help for school for the orphans of this town."

I stopped and went into a small office manned by a guy who told me that (a) 487 children had been orphaned, having no school material or mums or dads, and (b) that he himself had lost his own wife and two children. So another side-project will be another shuttle back there before I come home to give that guy some concrete help. He's asked simply for materials for school, so we'll give it to him.

So, that's the edited, very edited, version of how one person's trip to give a hand has panned out. Many many people are doing this and they are all being seriously useful.

Memories are of the Helping Hands project (the hook for me to come here) where our 24-strong group built a camp for 250 people so they could move out of the school they were occupying so that school could start for the year on time... of the thousands of fisherman who have lost livelihoods with their boats smashed (the replacement cost: $150)... of wandering around the train at Hikkaduwa where, 150 metres inland, the waves pushed it, laden with 1500 people, off the tracks and drowned almost all of them. The tracks were somehow twisted into a corkscrew...

The tent camps with foreign countries flags on: Netherlands, Belgium, USA, Pakistan, Austria, Japan... Kilometre after kilometre of coastal road with buildings looking like a bomb has hit it - and places in-between where all is entirely normal... The man who told me of the phone call that held him up from going to the business appointment where the waves hit, of him holding up his wife that morning because he always paid his wife her monthly allowance that day by 7am but he hadn't that day so she was held up irritably waiting for him so she could go to the fish market that would soon be washed away - and then when the waves did strike, of his saving 22 people, telling me all this with great intensity and knowing that so so many simply want someone to talk it all out with... of the dark sides well, stories of a restauranteur on the 5th floor who gave refuge to 250 people and had $20000 of stock stolen, of bureaucrats demanding bribes before they will issue the death certificate that will enable grieving relatives to obtain the $45 the government will pay them…. of street demonstrations in a nearby town because local authorities have not disbursed the aid they were charged with doing.

There's overall a happening determined energy, mixed with exasperation with a corrupt government that's not up to the job.

The LTTE, who are in control of Tamil land in the north and east, and the government have been in various states of antagonism towards each other for years, with outright civil war from time to time. The LTTE - better known in New Zealand by its nickname of the Tamil Tigers - and the government are being forced by the disaster to be a bit more civil to each other, but the ongoing atmosphere is downright edgy. I've only been in the south and west, so am no wiser about this conflict than when I arrived. Driving to Jaffna, the capital city of the LTTE controlled area, is OK to do by day apparently and it does attract tourists.

Overall the trip has been a lot of fun. Next week I'm joined by my partner Kim who has taken a week out of her busy life to be here - her kids have been fundraising, and their school classes are doing projects related to her trip - the energy to heal just keeps on coming in so many ways to a land where thousands of peoples lives here have been shocked to the core.

And, finally, I needn't have worried - I could have simply come over. At Colombo Airport's terminal is a desk for freelancers to sign up and get matched to a local project - you can check out that operation at www.volunteersrilanka.com.

- Jeremy

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