Tsunami Junction, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka

Tsunami Junction, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

On December 26, 2004, I was in Khajuraho, smack in the middle of India. Fortunately for me, my only contact with one of the deadliest natural disasters in history was through the TV. For weeks, confusion and tsunami-hysteria gripped South Asia, making it a strange time to be traveling in this part of the world. Every time I made a move, some well-meaning person would inform me that my destination had fallen into the ocean. I continued roaming down the west coast of India, half-expecting to stumble straight into the destruction and mayhem depicted on CNN. But the damage to Kerala was minor, and the tsunami for me remained surreal.

The former district hospital of Kinniya, Sri Lanka
The former district hospital of Kinniya, Sri Lanka
Meanwhile, a friend of mine, journalist and travel writer Jeff Greenwald, flew to ground zero as a volunteer for Mercy Corps. In neighboring Sri Lanka, the killer waves left more than 30,000 people dead and at least half a million homeless, jobless, and traumatized…this, in a country still recovering from decades of bloody civil war. While I don’t possess the contacts, skills, or balls to do what Jeff did, I followed his dispatches from the frontlines on Ethical Traveler, and when he invited me to visit him in late February, it seemed like a good idea. I harbored a desire to do something useful-something personal, however small. So, after fielding many alarmed cries of “Why? It’s all washed away!” I flew to Columbo.

On the east coast of the island, a 300-mile stretch of coastline was “fully affected”, in post-disaster parlance. Or in laymen’s terms: wiped out, washed away. Dozens of global relief organizations have set up camp in the formerly sleepy towns of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. I rode out to Trinco and tagged along with Jeff on his latest assignment to visit project sites and write up the success stories.

“Tsunami Junction – 50 meters”

Someone had tacked this homemade sign to a partially uprooted tree near Kinniya, a once-thriving fishing village that now resembles a ghost town. In the former hospital, which faces the beach, 499 of the 500 registered patients died in the tsunami. Water stains reach nine feet high on the remaining interior walls. Broken glass, contaminated syringes, and spilled medicines still litter the ground. It’s easy to understand why no one comes near the place now. It looks like the empty set of a war movie, only it’s real. Driving along the coast, we passed house after missing house, razed to the foundations by a wall of water. Some of the rubble has been spray painted with survivors’ names, number of remaining family members, and current locations – usually a refugee camp – so that relief, when it arrives, will know where to find them.

Relief is coming, although perhaps more slowly than we might hope. Millions of dollars have poured into this country since the tsunami, yet most of the refugees are still living in camps, many in primitive conditions. Amid rumors of infighting, political power plays and graft, international aid seems to be taking a long, long time to filter down to those who need it most.

“You have to remember,” said one British relief worker, a veteran of almost every war zone and major international crisis of the past ten years, “None of us have ever dealt with anything like this before. It’s the kind of scene that makes you realize we need a bigger word for ‘disaster’.” After hearing about the complicated politics that are delaying rebuilding plans on the macro scale, our visits to the small, local projects were heartening. Community NGOs (non-government organizations) were busy cleaning wells, providing play camps for refugee children, putting fishmongers back in business, and rebuilding lives one by one. As we drove from project to project, the only word I recognized from non-English conversations was “tsunami…tsunami”, spoken over and over again like an eerie chant. It has become the international ‘bigger word’ for disaster. Aside from the Mercy Corps work, Jeff was also following up on a few outside projects. One of those led us to St. Joseph’s Girl’s Home in Trincomalee.

As of Christmas Day 2004, Sister Theresilda had 35 girls in her charge, many of them war orphans supported by modest government stipends. In the week following December 26, St. Joseph’s had to make room for 20 more orphans from all over the east coast, most of whom, Sister Theresilda noted sadly, “…came here with nothing, just nothing”.

Tsunami survivors at St. Joseph's Girls Home, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
Tsunami survivors at St. Joseph’s Girls Home, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
From the orphanage’s already strapped coffers, she provided the 20 new wards with everything from toothbrushes to shoes. Then they needed school fees, books, notebooks, and pencils. The sisters raised some emergency funds for those expenses, but now must cope with the sudden, 60 percent increase in monthly maintenance costs. The tsunami orphans are temporarily housed in a decrepit dormitory that, before the emergency, had not been used in years and was slated for demolition. Even for a Third-World orphanage it’s pretty grim, but it was the only space available. Now the sisters are seeking a grant to update the old building and their equally Dickensian kitchen. The antiquated refrigerator is barely adequate for vegetables, and will not keep meat even for a few hours in the tropical heat. Marketing has to be done daily, and the food chopped and spices ground by hand, three times a day. Everyone at St. Joseph’s is working overtime.

In her spare time, Sister Theresilda is writing grant proposals for the expensive building repairs and long term funding. Meanwhile, the children sleep on old straw mattresses in clean but very cramped, hot, and buggy conditions. There are not enough mosquito nets to go around, a major worry as the spring monsoon approaches. We continued our tour in the main dormitory where the 35 original orphans sleep on double bunks and all 55 girls share one bathroom, storing personal belongings, such as they are, in a suitcase or a paper shopping bag. Although their most essential needs are somehow being met, the children have no toys, books, or games. There is simply no money for extras.

The birthday girl (lower right), surrounded by new family at St. Joseph's Girls Home, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
The birthday girl (lower right), surrounded by new family at St. Joseph’s Girls Home, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
On our second visit, one new “little sister” was celebrating her eighth birthday. A bit of cake and some handmade cards, along with the arrival of two exotic Westerners, made for an unusually exciting Saturday afternoon at St. Joseph’s. Ranging in age from seven to eighteen, the girls were polite, well-scrubbed, and remarkably upbeat considering how many lost their homes, parents, and often their entire families just two months ago. When asked what things they would wish for if they could receive a present, at first they were too shy to respond. With a little nudging, they timidly agreed more mosquito nets would be good. That got the ball rolling and soon a spontaneous, animated clamor broke out for another toilet, a cricket ball and bat, and a chess game. The smallest girl, caught up in this relative frenzy of wish-making, piped, “A doll!” and then quickly clapped her own hand over her mouth in embarrassment.

The purpose of our tour was to gather information for a Bay Area school that wanted to fund a school project in a tsunami-affected area. However, when I returned to India, I learned that St. Joseph’s did not fit the requirements and the money went somewhere else. Of course, I was very disappointed for them. I went to Sri Lanka with only a media imprint of the situation, but now disaster has a new definition and the tsunami has a face – 55 faces, in fact. And I found I couldn’t just walk away without trying to do something for them, however small. While I don’t doubt the indomitable Sister Theresilda will eventually secure the building funds and meet the other needs of her girls, not even she can produce such miracles overnight.

Of course, in the aftermath of such a wide-scale calamity there is no end to the number of worthy organizations and projects that deserve support. I’m guessing most, if not all of you, have already donated to tsunami aid through top-level organizations.

Since it first appeared online in March 2005, this story has raised more than $500 USD for St. Joseph’s Girls Home in Trincomalee. The first batch of donations, collected from friends, family, and fellow travelers all over the world, repaired the orphanage’s kitchen and installed another toilet in the dormitory. Donations are still trickling in, and the story is a finalist in the Backpack Nation grant contest. If you’d like to find out more, please contact Laurie Weed at laurieweed at hotmail dot com or go to her blog.

Laurie Weed is a freelance writer, editor, and vagabond occasionally based in San Francisco, California, USA.

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