Source: NGO latestby Alice Kociejowski in Galle
Its 8.00am and the International Federation relief team in Galle, southern Sri Lanka, has already been on the road for two hours. They are leading a convoy of trucks loaded with relief goods, heading for one of the many temporary camps that have sprung up around the coastline to accommodate the 500,000 people who lost their homes when the tsunami struck two months ago.
Meanwhile, Charles Blake, team leader of the Red Cross relief team that’s been providing emergency assistance since just days after the tsunami hit, is busy planning the week’s distributions in the “office” – a hot, dusty tent pitched in the Galle port authority warehouse
It’s here that all relief operations for this part of the country are managed. It’s here that members of the team contend with mosquitoes and regular power cuts to ensure that donations flooding in from across the world reach the people most in need.
“Its tough work, but its rewarding,” says Charles, who has been in the country since 6 January and has barely had a day’s rest since. “New visitors who come to this area are shocked by the devastation, but what I see on a day to day basis is a speedy recovery, and the fact that despite everything, the population is getting back on its feet”.
Charles’s team is made up of American Red Cross-trained emergency personnel and local staff, many of whom the tsunami affected directly.
His was one of seven Emergency Response Units (ERUs) deployed quickly to Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Each of these self-contained teams of specialist professionals and pre-packed equipment offer a life-saving service: providing clean water and sanitation or basic health care, for example. Charles’s ERU specialises in relief.
I speak with Mr Richard, 52, from Galle. He now works in the warehouse’s kitchen, which helps sustain the relief operation. But before the tsunami, he was a goldsmith, selling his handmade jewellery to tourists on a beach resort area just west of Galle.
The waves swept away everything he had, and the livelihood it had taken him 20 years to build up. Mr Richard greatly appreciates the opportunity to work with the Red Cross and feels proud to be part of the massive recovery efforts taking place.
But when I ask him about the future, he shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll have to find some other job. I don’t know how to restart my business with no money. You know, I’ve fallen down three rungs in life.”
There are thousands of people with similar stories to tell – and the Red Cross is putting in all its effort to make their road to recovery a bit easier.
Back on its feet
Back to the tent and the team is ready to set out and monitor the distributions the local branches of Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) are handling today. Charles and the relief monitors leave the warehouse staff loading the trucks for tomorrow morning’s early delivery, and head east along the coast to Unawatuna, where a distribution will take place.
We drive past ruined houses and tent cities in lush green terrain. There are clear signs of reconstruction and recycling of all salvageable materials: piles of bricks and tiles are stacked up by the side of houses where only foundations remain.
We arrive at a temple 10 kilometres down the road and a stone’s throw from what has been voted among the world’s top ten most beautiful beaches. The beach itself is serene and splendid, in sharp contrast to the devastated shops and homes that line the shore.
At the temple, families are lined up in an orderly manner and a team of Sri Lankan Red Cross volunteers is busy registering everyone and stacking kerosene stoves, sleeping mats and mosquito nets in the shade.
The people here have been identified by local authorities as especially vulnerable. They have all lost their homes, and a large number of them have lost relatives and livelihoods.
Volunteers – the backbone of the Red Cross
Mr Lokku is a Red Cross volunteer who has been with the SLRCS since floods hit Sri Lanka in 2003. He was working in a hotel on the beach when the tsunami hit, and saved many lives by directing tourists upstairs to higher floors.
He quit his job to volunteer full time and is now responsible for keeping the rest of the volunteers inspired, enthusiastic and well rested.
Mr Lokku and Charles confer on the day’s distribution plan: how many people have turned up and whether any families are present but not on the distribution lists – and if they are, how have they been affected, who will assess their current situation and how will help be provided.
The other volunteers are directing the families from one collection point to another – once they have made their way to the end of the distribution line, these families have a good sized pile of everyday goods that will improve their living conditions and take some of the pressure off the family breadwinner.
It is hot in the sun and Charles dashes off to buy a big enough supply of ice cream to keep all the volunteers cool.
“They were working 24-hour shifts at first,” he says. “They’re an invaluable part of this operation. Without these hands we would never have assisted as many people as we have. I’m just glad to be able to show my appreciation personally.”
There are no problems to report at the distribution, and Charles jumps in the Red Cross jeep to head for the next distribution location 40 km away.
Another day over
By the end of the day, over 1,000 families from tsunami affected areas have received mosquito nets, cooking equipment and other essentials to help them back on their feet.
That figure will bring the total number of people assisted by Charles and his team to over 180,000, and that does not include the countless others supported by Red Cross water, health and relief and recovery programmes that stretch along 70 per cent of this country’s coastline.
Back in the tent, the warehouse team has packed up for the day and Charles takes a few moments to contact headquarters and confirm that today’s operations have passed without a hitch.
Then he and his team head back to the hotel for a quiet evening under the stars, content in the knowledge that at the close of another day, Sri Lanka moves further along the road to recovery.
[ Any views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not of Reuters. ]"