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Tsunami Diary
(20 January 2005)
Marathumanai, just a few days after the tsunami struck the Sri Lankan coast
Media Officer Adeel Jafferi visited in Sri Lanka as part of IR's Emergency Response Team. The team is currently distributing aid to survivors of the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka.

Media Officer Adeel Jafferi visited in Sri Lanka as part of IR's Emergency Response Team. The team is currently distributing aid to survivors of the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka.

January 4, 2005

Arriving in Ampara

There is an atmosphere of eerie calm in the village of Marathumanai. In this one small village on the east coast of Sri Lanka in the Ampara District, 3,000 of its 21,000 inhabitants were swept away by the giant tsunami on the morning of the 26th December 2004.

Nearly 2 weeks later, as local NGOs deliver food donated by neighbouring villages, the remaining inhabitants form orderly queues, quietly collect their ration and walk away with astonishing dignity. In an almost catatonic state, people sift through the destroyed remains of their homes.

The debris occasionally offers up possessions like mangled bicycles or touching mementoes of a life before the horror swept through Marathumanai. All too often it yields up the decomposing remains of those who were not quick enough to escape the deluge.

Volunteers

The acrid smell of death alerts rescue workers that there is a body nearby. It's strange that no crowds gather for this grim recovery. Local volunteers - young men - prepare themselves for the grim task ahead by donning latex gloves and makeshift masks. They work efficiently and with great delicacy - they have, after all, already too much experience to be anything less than thorough.

Rescue teams

As they excavate they find the decapitated remains of a woman. By chance they see something else close by. Closer inspection reveals the remains of a child, no older than a year old.

They reverently wrap the bodies in pristine white shrouds and carry them to a nearby mosque for the ritual wash and later burial. One of the relief workers breaks down and weeps unashamedly. He sits amidst the debris and sobs uncontrollably. Another volunteer tells me that he has yet to recover the remains of his wife and child. He imagines that this is how they will be found - if they ever are. "We carry bodies away every day," the volunteer tells me, "but those young bodies are the heaviest burden."

The destruction is so complete and the people so broken that it is hard to know where to beginOne of the few international relief organisations who are making deliveries in the area is Islamic Relief. A British Non Governmental Organisation, Islamic Relief have worked in areas like this before. I was in Iran with a team from the Birmingham based agency at the same time last year and witnessed the destruction of a city and the desolation of whole communities.

It was not enough to prepare me for what I saw when I came here. The destruction is so complete and the people so broken that it is hard to know where to begin to pick up the pieces. Experienced emergency relief workers from Islamic Relief's Birmingham Headquarters, however, work side by side with local partners to assess the greatest areas of need.

The area is predominantly Muslim but there is a large proportion who are Tamil. Islamic Relief is working to help both community and this fact has not been lost on the people of Sri Lanka. Amjad Saleem is a civil engineer from London whose family are from Sri Lanka. He immediately offered his services and local knowledge to Islamic Relief because he knew he would be able to work amongst mixed communities. "The wave was indiscriminate in the lives it claimed, why should we discriminate in the way we help?" he says.

January 5, 2005

A Wounded People

After taking in the initial shock of how powerful the wave must have been to leave so much destruction, one begins to look around and take note of some of the less apparent scars - those which will take longer to heal. "Cities can be rebuilt," says Abdul Jabbar, the head of a local NGO. "It is the wounds of the heart and the mind which we must address."

survivors speak of their loss

And the wounds are deep. It is striking in all the villages one visits along this 25 mile coastal stretch at how few children there are. Parents tell stories of how they tried to hold on to their sons and daughters, but were forced to let go when the waves crashed into them.

Young bodies were tossed helplessly and washed up days later, crushed under the force of the water. "I could not hold on to him," cries one grieving father. "I should not be alive. What kind of father am I that I live while my child, who looked to me to protect him, lies buried somewhere under all of this?" He makes a sweeping gesture towards the remains of his village and then turns away and starts digging with his hands through the layer of sand which covers his former home.

"I could not hold on to him," cries one grieving father. "I should not be alive. What kind of father am I?"Elderly people also are a rare sight. They, too, were unable to run fast enough and were either swept away or crushed in their beds. Whole generations were lost. One of the first rescue workers on the scene, a young looking 22 year old called Imdad, tells of how he found the small bodies of 4 children clinging to their father underneath the rubble of their house.

He also tells of a courageous primary school teacher who tried to get his 40 charges to safety by helping them on to the roof of their school house. The wave claimed the lives of all the children. When the teacher was found he was clutching a child under each arm, unwilling to relinquish his responsibility to the children he loved even when his own life was at stake. Villagers speak of him in terms of a saint. He could have easily escaped but resolutely stood and faced death rather than abandon those he had sworn to protect.

Long Recovery

This village was once famous for its weaving and textile industry. Like other coastal towns and villages in Sri Lanka, it also had a thriving fishing community. Even now, the nets and fishing boats lie broken and abandoned up to 2 miles inland. It will take years before the communities affected by the tsunami will be able to recover.

food packs for widows

They look to outside help, but in this district it has been painfully slow in coming.

Part of the reason is the relative inaccessibility of the area due to flash floods brought on by the current rainy season. The distance from Colombo to Ampara is around 180 miles. One has to cross mountains and potholed roads in a journey which takes around 12 hours. This doesn't make the relief efforts any easier. Whatever the reasons, the people here are desperate. Most aid agencies are concentrating on the south of the country.

Islamic Relief, the assessments over, begin initial deliveries of essential supplies which are transported across country on trucks to Ampara from Colombo. Emergency kits being distributed by Islamic Relief include mosquito nets for babies, hygiene kits and clothes.

It also includes food packs for widows who, under Islamic tradition seclude themselves from the outside world during their period of mourning. Unlike the other homeless inhabitants of the area, they are unwilling to travel out of their seclusion to find food for themselves. It is, instead, delivered to them.

January 6, 2005

Aid Distributions

Immediately after the disaster, a £4 million appeal was launched by Islamic Relief and the public response was overwhelming. One small charity shop which normally receives donations of around £400 a day is currently receiving £60,000 a day. In the UK alone the charity has received over £1 million in donations and has allocated a further million from its own emergency fund. The appeal has now been increased to £10 million.

Adeel and Shihab

But the figure is not nearly enough. Essential needs are still not being met and with the threat of water borne diseases still dangerously close, the crisis is far from being over. When one remembers that in some makeshift refugee camps 500 people are reported to be sharing one toilet between them it is clear that the need is great. "The generosity of ordinary people from all walks of life, whatever their beliefs and backgrounds has truly touched our hearts," says UK fundraiser for Islamic Relief, Muhammad Imran, "but it is vital that people keep giving. We are working amongst affected communities in Sri Lanka and Indonesia and must ensure that nobody is neglected through lack of funds."

And the aid is getting through. It may seem like it has been a slow process, but it is gaining momentum. Essential needs are beginning to be met and over the coming days and weeks more will be arriving and delivered to the most vulnerable members of the community by Islamic Relief staff and local volunteers.

Long-term Aid

The worry is that when the world moves on to the next newsworthy story, donations will stop.In the coming months there will be a huge need for the relief efforts to be stepped up in this neglected area. For now the people are in shock and are surviving on the generosity and goodwill of their neighbours. But this goodwill is as exhaustible as the supplies which are needed for the refugees to live. Eventually people will have to begin looking after their own families and homes will have to be rebuilt. The worry for many people is that when the world inevitably moves on to the next newsworthy story the donations too will stop.

Desperate relatives still travel from as far away as Colombo to hear news of their loved ones. They sift through the wreckage and ask everybody they meet if they know anything. They then make their way to the schools and municipal buildings which serve as refugee camps to many of the nearly 200,000 homeless people of Ampara.

Invariably their desperate pilgrimage ends at the graves of the thousands buried in shallow graves near the local mosque. There, all that is left for grieving families is to weep and remember loved ones whose unmarked graves will haunt these communities for generations to come.

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