from many walks of life rallied round to help the tsunami victims
They went beyond the call
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.