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Helping others comes naturally for Sri Lanka Red Cross volunteers

19-01-2005 Feature

For the scores of volunteers of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society in Jaffna and the northeast, helping people in difficulties comes as second nature. For years they have been assisting civilians caught up in the country's conflict. Today, they are giving a service of another kind.

   
©ICRC/Jessica Barry 
 
  The welfare centres are mostly in schools and very crowded.    
       
©ICRC/Jessica Barry 
 
  Jayaseelan Vijayakumari (right) with friends in the first aid tent at Puttalai Maha Vidiyalayam school.    
      

Since the first day of the tsunami disaster, teams of SLRCS volunteers have been supporting the relief effort. First they took part in the search and rescue work, scouring the beaches along the north-east coast for dead bodies, giving first aid, and evacuating the injured to hospitals in Point Pedro and Jaffna. Then they participated in locating missing persons through the ICRC's tracing service.

In shelters set up in schools, temples and churches to accommodate thousands of displaced families all over the northeast, the volunteers established first aid posts, in agreement with camp managers and the local authorities. There they helped to treat the sick, and people with minor injuries. Three SLRCS mobile health teams were also busy visiting the welfare centres, and travelling from Point Pedro to remote areas of the peninsula.

" At first we were really busy in the first aid posts, " recalls Jayaseelan Vijayakumari, a 38-year-old mother of two children and a Red Cross volunteer for eight years. " But now, over two weeks on, it has calmed down. "  Luckily, no major health problems broke out in the camps during the first few, critical days. "

The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds. But many are from poor families who are living on the earnings of a single breadwinner, or on money sent back by close relatives working abroad.

Some of them were, themselves, caught up in the disaster. Stella Nicolas Maria's parents and two sisters, as well as her brother's family, are all living in the camp where she is stationed as a first-aid volunteer. " The water came into our house and we were up to our necks in water, " she says. " My sister carried our two nieces to safety. "

For all their differences in age and experience, there is one thing that unites all the volunteers – their desire to help in times of need. " I take this as a priority, " says Thangeswaren, who, when not on duty doing first aid, works in a cobbler's shop and teaches Karate, " and I tell my friends that this is not the time to think about ourselves, but about others. "