06 January 2005
For people who lost everything in the devastating tsunami that roared across the Sri Lankan coast last week, the emergency relief kits being put together by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) can not reach them soon enough.
The kits, which contain cups, plates, cutlery, buckets, bowls, bed sheets, soap, clothes and sleeping mats, are being assembled in the grounds of the Bambalapitiya Hindu College opposite the ICRC delegation in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
Legions of local volunteers, many of them students, have been helping to put the kits together, giving up their end-of-year holidays to do so.
"I felt so bad watching the disaster on TV," remarks 17-year-old Manishka, as she stuffs red plastic buckets into sacks. "I felt guilty not doing anything, so I am here with five or six of my friends to lend a hand."
To date, over 20,000 kits have been assembled, and distributed in welfare centres, schools, churches and other makeshift camps in the stricken areas where some 800,000 destitute people are sheltering.
"The cups are especially useful," comments Fatima Khrishnaswamy, a Montesori teacher, whose eight-year-old son, Daniel, is another helper, "because if people have nothing to drink out of they will use their dirty hands, and then they will become ill."
Mrs Khrishnaswamy, who went from house to house in the immediate aftermath of the disaster to hand out goods collected through her church, has one overriding memory of that experience.
"There was one house where only the concrete floor was left," she says. "And smashed crockery, beautiful crockery, everywhere. I wondered who the family must have been to have such lovely things, but we never found them, they had all gone."
Up to 100 volunteers at a time, working in shifts around the clock, have been making up the kits and loading them onto lorries hired by the ICRC for the long journey across country to the disaster zones.
"My friends are doing their exams," explains 20-year-old Nithila Talgaswatte, a university graduate, who works the night shift. "They study in the day, and then come here to start packing at 6.00pm."
Asked how long he thought such a punishing schedule might last, Nithila is blunt. "This is the tip of the iceberg. People will want help for a long time. They need to rebuild their lives."
If anything positive can be said to have come out of this terrible disaster, it is the manifestation of selflessness and generosity among those who have rallied to help. Six young Britons, who themselves barely escaped with their lives when the waters roared through their beach-side house in the southern village of Mirissa, were busy working alongside the students one recent morning in the Hindu College compound.
"We lost everything in the disaster," says Lisa, from Mottingham in southeast London, whilst taking a moment's rest from the heavy packing. "But you can't sit around moping, can you? So we are doing this for a few days until it is safe to go back to the south." Not only had she and her friends come to help, she had also persuaded her former employer to lend a lorry free of charge for two days to take the supplies to their destination.
And for those who are waiting, their lives in ruins, they cannot arrive too soon.
The ICRC has currently about 350 staff working in Sri Lanka and has a main office in Colombo and offices in Vabuniy, Jaffna, Mallavi, Tincomalee, Batticaloa, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Puthukkudiyirippu and Muthur. The organization is currently setting up an office in Ampara.