People from many walks of life rallied round to help the tsunami victims
They went beyond the call of duty
By Apsara Kapukotuwa
December 26, 2004: Boxing Day and Unduvap full moon poya in Sri Lanka- the day the tsunami made an unexpected, destructive and deadly rendezvous with our island. In its wake, many unsung heroes came to the fore to do whatever they could for the victims, often working selflessly, far beyond the call of duty.

Dr. Uditha Herath was at home playing with his child when a call came from Ragama hospital around 9.30 a.m. asking him to report to duty, as there was an emergency situation. Channel surfing, he came across a news bulletin where the first reports of a "tidal wave" were on air.

"I usually stay at home on poya days since that's about the only time I ever get for myself. The first call was to get the Ragama hospital prepared for potential casualties. Then I was told that doctors were needed for Hambantota. There was a huge traffic jam on the way to Colombo since many people were crowded on the Kelaniya bridge watching the water level rising," Dr. Uditha said, reliving his experiences that day.

Not knowing what to pack, Dr. Uditha left home with just a change of clothes, some essential medicines and a packet of biscuits. "Four of us were airlifted to the Weerawila Air Force camp. The Air Force didn't know we were coming, but once we got there, they quickly arranged transport by land for us, warning us that the roads were severely damaged. Since we had about seven oxygen cylinders with us, it was not that easy." Three km into their journey towards the Hambantota Base Hospital by van, they couldn't get past the salterns due to the destruction around them.

"It was here that I started realising the gravity of the situation. It was around 5.30 p.m. at the time and all we could see in the darkening light were bodies, destroyed buildings, and damaged vehicles. There was no electricity and the survivors were on the road, just standing around looking dazed. The shock started setting in at this point," he remembers. Walking to the hospital, still kilometres away, carrying their oxygen cylinders with the help of the Air Force officers who were with them, they found a scene of total confusion.

"The bodies and the injured were piled up in the paediatrics ward, primary care, on the road outside- everywhere. There were a few doctors in the hospital-some were from nearby hospitals who had managed to come there earlier. Everyone was in shock. Some doctors, nurses and other staff members had no idea about their own families, and yet they remained on duty."

Dr. Uditha, who went to Hambantota along with Dr. Dhammika Pathirana, had in their team a post-graduate trainee in surgery and a senior house officer in surgery but no surgeon with them. Since transporting the injured presented a major problem due to the damaged roads and uncertain conditions, the doctors together with the few nursing staff, the lady anaesthetist, the consultant paediatrician and the minor staff left at the hospital began performing the operations.

"The phones and electricity were down and none of the mobile phones worked either. I finally managed to find a spot where a Celltell connection worked and got through to Colombo to convey our most urgent medical needs." Treating hundreds of cuts, fractures and even doing a few deliveries (including one in a van), this group of doctors survived without food for 30+ hours, totally immersed in getting the situation under control.

"One of the saddest things that day was when I had to search for a fellow doctor's little son. His wife came to the hospital to identify the body and since the bodies were piled up, Dr. Dhammika and I went from one child's body to the next, trying to find a child with missing teeth. "We didn’t find him,” says Dr. Uditha adding that his most vivid and horrific memory of that day was when a father looking for his wife, who was caught in the tsunami while shopping at the pola instead found his son's body lying in the morgue. "He didn't know that his son had accompanied his wife that day."

Many young people also volunteered to do their bit. A young school leaver, who declined to be named, along with a couple of his friends set off to Hambantota on the 27th in search of small villages that had not been reached by the "big lorries" carrying relief aid.

Speaking to The Sunday Times from Trincomalee, he said, "We have covered the south coast and the east -we couldn't go to the north because of the LTTE. Our friends and family collect food, medicine, clothes, bedding and once we finish distributing our supplies, we go back to collect some more."

In neighbouring India, Surgeon Lt. Cmdr. G. Paratha Sarathy was at home in Cochin with his wife and six-year-old daughter when he was informed that he should set sail to Sri Lanka. "I reached Sri Lanka around 5.30 p.m. on the 26th. But before I left India, I got to know that my mother's house in Chennai was completely wiped out." Dr. Sarathy's first stop was Hambantota along with the Indian Navy's pilot team.

They were the first foreign doctor and team to reach the affected areas, taking with them a planeload of medical supplies including IV fluids. "When we reached Hambantota hospital we found that there were enough doctors so we set about helping the Army's Engineering Corps to hygienically dispose of the bodies. Later on we found fresh, unused land and disposed of the bodies there-bodies are still being recovered in the salterns and lagoons."

Once the immediate problem of disposing the bodies which were piled up everywhere was sorted out, Dr. Sarathy and his team commenced a roaming medical camp for villages between Tissamaharama and Tangalle."These people are dependent on the relief supplies even for their asthma and diabetic medication. They have nowhere else to go except the places where relief supplies are distributed." Dr. Sarathy says he was quite overcome when he had to deal with the large number of children's bodies. "It was very sad. Most of the bodies were those of women and children from the crowd that had come to the market (pola) that day."

Alefiya Akbarally says the first two days after the tsunami, her friends and family members (including those from the Rotaract Club and the Round Table) helped out at Rupavahini and then decided to work together as a group. Along with two volunteer doctors from Australia, they packed lorry-loads of goods including medical equipment. "We went in search of tiny villages that needed assistance and we came across some in Weligama.

They did not have direct access to the main supplies coming into Galle. On our way back, some people tried to loot us. It took the four lorries, one van and four support vehicles which we took with us eight hours to reach Colombo after making several detours."

On the 31st, after being forced to give up the idea of doing similar relief work in Ampara due to land mine and flooding scares, they decided to go to Hambantota and Yala. "It looked much worse than Galle even though six days had elapsed by then. They were still recovering bodies. We drove about 24 hours inland to some remote villages and they too had received some supplies by then. We got together with the Grama Sevakas of the area and provided some medical attention to the people. It was obvious that the Sri Lankan public has done a fantastic job"she said.

From half way across the globe, in France, M.D. Prunet Thierry of the Civil Defence France (of the French civil defence field hospital and the Fire Brigade in Paris) had been relaxing at home with his family after Christmas when the call came for him to report for duty. He had heard the first news feeds of the destruction in Indonesia by that time. "Christmas has now come to mean tragedy for me. In 2003, December 26, I was called away on duty just after the Iran earthquake and in 2004 it was this," he says.

The team for the first mission, designated the European Civil Rescue arrived in Colombo on Monday afternoon. Secouristes sans Frontieres had two targets to achieve: their first goal was to treat all European injured in the South. The team consisted of French, Dutch, Italian, Hungarian and German personnel. "I have 20 years experience in this field, of dealing with emergency situations after earthquakes, civil war…but the first day here was really difficult," says Thierry adding that once the Europeans were sorted out, including the identification of bodies of the French tourists with the aid of the French police, his team was sent out to give medical aid to areas chosen for them by the Sri Lankan government.

Travelling as a self-sufficient team with tents, supplies and other equipment, they worked in Pottuvil and Kalmunai where they were helped by about 20 NGOs including international relief missions like the Red Cross. Another team has now arrived from France to help in the second part of their mission- the logistics of despatching the aid that has arrived in the island. Coordinating with the Sri Lankan government, they will be working towards making the roads safer in the area allocated to them and providing clean water among other measures.

One of the first media institutions to respond with its own relief efforts was the Rupavahini. By 4 p.m. on December 26, they were broadcasting their first request for food and clothing for the displaced. "We had a very good response by 6 p.m. and on the same day- about 8-10 lorries of food were sent off. Our aim was to get things started till the government machinery got their act together as it was the holiday season and transportation was at a standstill, " said Director General of Rupavahini, Nishantha Ranatunga.

The TV station's two-day project saw them sending out 300 lorries of food, medicine and clothing. "The credit should go to our viewers, staff and volunteers. Our hope was to act as the facilitator in creating awareness about the urgent need," he added.

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