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January 25, 2005

Purple Hearts of the Tsunami



by Jeevan Ariyaratne

It was nothing but destruction whereever you looked. I did not have any other option than to drive to Beruwala and look for my brother-in-law and his friends who were holidaying at a beach bungalow. Last communication with him was around 2 in the afternoon. They were still on a roof top awaiting to be rescued. Then an hour later I heard they were found and airlifted to a makeshift Refugee camp at a school in Beruwala. The rest was unknown. That was the time I decided to go to look for him. He was one of the very few who were lucky. But there were many others who were not.

No mobiles worked beyond Panadura Bridge. We managed to drive up to Payagala on the Galle road and then all the vehicles were being diverted inland. Nobody knew where we was heading to. I had only about 8 kilometers to reach Beruwala but the Galle road was impassable as a bridge had collapsed. It took almost one and a half hours to reach Beruwala through diverted routes from inland. The drive included some off-roading and jeep tracks. It was getting dark when we finally reached Beruwala D.S.Senanayake College. No one was there other than the security guard. We were told that all the people have left. Where and how they did they go….?? Nobody knew. It was getting really dark now and there was no electricity. We drove to Beruwala Police Station. They were clueless as we were. We decided to drive up to Bentota, as Bentota police knew that these boys were trapped at this place. That drive I will never forget. Only light available was my jeep’s two powerful xenon lights. It was a real eerie feeling as if driving through ground zero after a nuclear strike. Huge fishing boats were washed away on to the Galle road and beyond. Huge piles of rubble all over. Nobody talked…only observed in great pain and sorrow. What had happened…? Why us…? Why our innocent children..? Didn’t we have enough pain and destruction during last 2 decades…? No one could find an answer. We were slowly realizing the gravity of the destruction and the loss of human life. In the days that followed we realized that the catastrophe was much more severe than we had have ever imagined.

I woke up earlier than normal that morning. It was Monday the 27th. I knew there was lot of work to be done in the coming days. More than half of my wardrobe was emptied in no time to be given to the needy. Giordanos, Dockers, Levi’s, Camels and many more… It was instantaneous. Even when I reached Sarvodaya headquarters, volunteers were pouring in. Some were carrying what ever they could find in their households to be given to the needy and affected. Some were just volunteers from different fields who had come to help in whatever way possible. And that was the time I met these remarkable young medical doctors who had turned up at Sarvodaya to Volunteer.

Some of them were Sri Lankan Medical Students from different parts of the world who had come home for the New Year holidays. No more Bacardi’s, Vodka Tonics and dinner dances for them. They had realized quite well that their country needed them more than ever and they were ready to work. And myself along with some close friends were willing to provide them with necessary medicines and logistics.

First we started from Kalutara. After all there was so much to be done and we had to start from somewhere. We went straight to the Sarvodaya District Centre in Wadduwa, and along with some volunteers delegated by Mr. Upali, the co-ordinator, we visited the first camp in Maalamulla, Panadura. My dear medico brothers and sisters started their duties right away.

There were about 460 men, women and children in this camp. There was a mountain of used cloths in the centre of the main building which was useless.( This was a common sight of every refugee camp that we visited through out). Garbage was scattered and piling up everywhere. Myself and other “Non Medical” volunteers started talking to people about how important it is to keep proper sanitation in the refugee camps in order to prevent diseases and epidemics spreading. Our target group was mainly Mothers and Children. We very well knew if we could make them realize the gravity of the situation, they would force the males in their families to start the clean up operation in camps. It worked out very well. I took the initiative by starting to collect all scattered garbage to one place. In a spark, all men, women and children joined me. I achieved what I wanted. All were at work in no time. It is true that most of the people were traumatized. But, if every one did not realize the gravity of spreading diseases, the danger was much more, especially to the children. We managed to dig five big garbage pits with the few tools that were available in the temple. In no time 2 of the furthest were filled with all the waste that we’ve collected. Where ever we looked were clean and beautiful. Finally we realized that we’ve achieved our goal.

One doctor came running to me and said “Ayya… we are running out of medicines”. New lists of drugs were made quickly. And I drove straight to “Panadura Osu Sala”. Initially they refused to give any anti-biotic in huge quantities without proper prescription. But after I explained for whom these medication were and we are doing it purely on voluntary basis, not only they agreed to provide with all what we needed, but also agreed to give them at a discount as I was paying out of my own pocket…!

I realized that it was important to do an assessment on my own before I went with doctors to camps, purely to save time and resources. It was also to make sure that they haven’t got any medical attention before. It was equally important to do it personally without relying much on the villagers. Every day we used to cover about 3 to 4 camps and we were seeing more than 1000 patients. By the third day we were so exhausted and feeling unproductive if we keep on working like this. So we decided to take a day off and prepare ourselves with enough stocks of medicines and other essentials for the next round.

Within two days we were back on the saddle…! We covered around 15 camps in Kalutara and Galle districts. And we were well equipped and prepared than the first round. We knew exactly what to do and whom to treat.

Finally we realized that we’ve achieved what we wanted. There was not a single case of serious epidemics or diseases reported in the island. The services my dear brothers and sisters rendered voluntarily to our people through Sarvodaya might be a tiny drop in a huge ocean. But we can certainly be happy and proud that we did our best to our dear people of our motherland…

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.