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Volunteers in Sri Lanka work around the clock to prepare relief kits

05-01-2005 Feature

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 ICRC cannot reach them soon enough.

   

©ICRC/Jessica Barry ref. LK-E-00046 
 
  Volunteers helping ICRC staff to pack emergency kits and to load them on a truck bound for Batticaloa.    
     

The kits, which contain cups, plates, cutlery, buckets, bowls, bedsheets, soap, clothes and sleeping mats, are being assembled on 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, " said 17-year-old Manishka, as she stuffed red plastic bu ckets 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 distributed in welfare centres, schools, churches and makeshift camps in the stricken areas where some 800,000 destitute people are sheltering.

" The cups are especially useful, " said Fatima Khrishnaswamy, a Montessori teacher, whose eight-year-old son Daniel was among the helpers, " because if people have nothing to drink from, they will use their dirty hands and then 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 vivid memories of that experience. " There was one house where only the concrete floor was left, along with smashed crockery – beautiful crockery – everywhere, " she said. " I wondered what family might have owned such lovely things, " she said, " but we never found them, they were 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 trucks hired by the ICRC for the long journey across country to the disaster zones.

   
©ICRC/Jessica Barry 
 
  Lisa and friends getting the kits from the assembly point to the loading bay    
 
   

" My friends are doing their exams, " explained 20-year-old Nithila Talgaswatte, a university graduate working the night shift. " They study during the day and then come here to start packing at six p.m. " Asked how long he thought such a punishing schedule might last, Nithila was blunt. " This is the tip of the iceberg – people will need help for a long time, they have to rebuild their lives. "

If anything positive can be said to have come out of this terrible disaster, it is the outpouring of selflessness and generosity. Six young Britons, who themselves barely escaped with their lives when the waters engulfed 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, " said Lisa, from Mottingham in south-east London, while 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 south. " In addition to helping out, she had persuaded her former employer to lend a truck free of charge for two days to carry the supplies to their destination.

The ICRC has about 350 staff currently working from its delegation in Colombo and its sub-delegations and offices in Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mallavi, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Puthukkudiyiruppu and Mutur. It is also setting up an office in Ampara.

ICRC activities will continue to be closely coordinated with those of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and other humanitarian organizations.