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Answering the call to action
20 June 2005

Smiling Sri Lankan child. 
(Source: BBC News)Smiling Sri Lankan child. (Source: BBC News)
It came with a mighty roar and a rumble, with waves 10 feet high.

That bright sunny day with a false blue sky betrayed us. Now six months on, I have lost count of the tears this monster caused us.

My first trip to Sri Lanka's southern coast was on 27 December. It was a ghostly drive in the dark that changed my life forever.

There were boats, houses, furniture, jet skis and people's personal belongings strewn on the road. I wanted to stop, pick them up and give them back.

People were in temples, churches and schools. They didn't know what had happened to their lives.

Walking through devastated villages, I found a family's photographs, a wedding picture, the photo of a first birthday.

I carefully picked them up and leant them against a broken wall. A child's teddy bear, bruised and battered, lay near by.

Glorious unity

Then came phone calls from friends abroad who wanted to send money. I felt uplifted. I could take action. We were not alone. Help was on its way, the world was crying with us.

Food, clothing and essential items were purchased. I gathered friends and strangers to help pack the supplies and deliver them to the needy.

For a few weeks there was glorious unity. No question of faith, race, rich or poor - we were simply together.

More money was coming in. I shopped and shopped.

More people came to pack. They talked to us about what they had seen and experienced that sunny day. It was a form of counselling for all of us.

I tried not only to give things that were necessary for survival, but small things that would put a smile on a child's face - bubbles to blow, cricket bats, drawing books and crayons.

The children in turn gave me hundreds of drawings. The awful tragedies they witnessed were put on paper - people and animals floundering in deep water, bodies. One picture had a red sun upside down in the sea. Everywhere there was the huge wave.

Worth the effort

I held an exhibition and sale of these drawings and gave the families the money.

The smiles were worth the effort. I distributed 1,000 school bags and other school supplies. School meant routine in the children's disrupted lives.

We tried to console those who had lost a child or other relatives.

At that time the words "transitional housing" were on everyone's lips. I was excited for those people who were getting a little home of their own.

We bought everything they needed for their kitchens.

A lorry was hired and help was given to everyone I knew so that they could move to those rows of wooden houses or tent camps.

But I had to hide my disappointment at how little was on offer to the people and tell them that everything would be fine.

On visits I would make myself sit inside those sauna-like rooms. When it rained the noise was unbearable. The roof was made out of metal.

I am working in several villages.

I have helped people replace lost hearing aids. We have bought sewing machines, cooking utensils for people in catering, fishing nets, and in one case material and clothes for a lady to reopen her shop.

I'm providing financial assistance to a 34-year-old woman who has cancer - she has three little girls. When she is gone they will need help.

There is the four-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. His mother is very young - she doesn't really know how to help him.

Then there is lovely six-year-old Hiruni. Her mother had four miscarriages before giving birth to Hiruni. But weighing just one kilogram, she entered this world too early.

She has Down's syndrome and a hole in the heart. Her home was flooded during the tsunami. She will be operated on this month - a gift of life for her.

Ever-present fear

Permanent housing, that's the dream. Ordinary people and private organisations are beginning to make the dream a reality.

But rebuilding has been banned in a 100-metre buffer zone from the shore. People who were living there are wondering if they will get any land to call their own.

I've also learned painful lessons from the tsunami - there will always be the ones who cheat and lie.

I expected so much to change; those first few weeks of unity gave me false hope. My own frustrations must always be contained. I must tread softly.

I have become tsunami weary, but I will not stop.

The fear of the tsunami is ever present.

I often see homes with one or two large plastic bags packed and ready outside the front doors - just in case.