After the Sea Left the Land

By Norman Boucher / May / June 2005
May 3rd, 2007

In the weeks following the December 26 tsunami that killed at least 300,000 people in almost a dozen Asian countries, the BAM asked students, faculty, alumni, and administrators what they had done to help in the subsequent relief efforts. The magazine received almost 100 e-mails describing everything from donations and fund-raisers to trips to the region by doctors, relief specialists, and men and women whose family homes were in affected countries. Fortunately, no one reported losing a close relative in this disaster of historic proportions. What follows are the stories of a few who acted.

Muhudha goda galanawa is a Singhalese phrase that means "the sea is flooding the land."

On December 26 last year, the words spread northward from town to town along the coast of Sri Lanka and quickly reached the capital city of Colombo, where Thilakshani Dias '05 was spending the winter break at home with her family. Calls to an uncle in Galle, the town on the southwestern coast where Dias's father was born, would not go through, so the family turned to CNN and the BBC. By three or four o'clock that afternoon, reporters were using the word tsunami to describe what had occurred.

Disasters are not unexpected on an exposed and politically troubled island like Sri Lanka, and so the people of Colombo swung into action, as they had years before when a military offensive against the insurgent Tamil Tigers had produced so many casualties that the army had been unable to cope. Now a radio station announced the location of a collection area in a vacant lot near the center of the city, and for the next few days people brought such necessities as lentils, sugar, water, and clothes to waiting trucks and storage containers. Schools helped their students collect supplies, and companies excused men and women from their jobs so they could help. "Colombo is a pretty unequal city," Dias, a development studies concentrator, recalls, "but the wealthiest of the wealthy and the neediest of the needy were suddenly working together beside one another. That was really inspiring to see."

Dias was determined to travel south along the Indian Ocean and then east to the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. She wanted to do something. Her parents objected. Already rumors of kidnappings and rapes taking place in the chaotic aftermath of the tragedy were reaching the capital. But by the morning of December 29, three days after the tsunami, Dias had convinced her father and a half-dozen others to join her. They left Colombo a few hours before dawn, driving down a road that soldiers and other rescue workers had managed to clear of debris.

At about 8:30 that morning they arrived at Hambantota, a fishing village on the southern coast, where the tsunami had come ashore. Soldiers were still clearing bodies from the wreckage. At the local air force base Dias and her party joined with a driver to take a truckload of supplies out into the countryside. Schoolhouses had been converted into refugee camps packed with people who had fled the coast. Dias's group stopped at a Buddhist temple, where a priest offered to lead them to needy villages deeper in the forest. They soon came to one, and in a small open area they stopped. "The minute people saw us," she recalls, "they came running and screaming." She and her friends asked about 100 people to sit in a semicircle so they could better distribute supplies. "There were older people, and grown men whose boats had been destroyed," she says. "And orphans."

Dias and her party handed out the rest of their supplies at a second village, then returned to the coast and headed back to Colombo along the ocean road. Now in daylight, Dias could glimpse the extent of the damage. At Tangalia she saw bodies stacked outside a hospital and smelled decaying human flesh. As the group drove northward, Dias over and over again saw people unable to leave the sites where their homes had stood a few days ago, irresistibly drawn back to a patch of ground, trying to salvage bricks that had not been pulverized by the force of the sea.

In the weeks after the tsunami, Dias could not shake the image of people standing amid the rubble of their homes. She learned that one Sri Lankan had donated 40,000 acres of his coconut farm for new housing. "I talked to my dad," Dias recalls, "and said we should definitely do a housing project." One day while driving south, Dias and her family stopped for breakfast at a hotel in the village of Weligama. As they discussed the destruction they had been seeing, her mother asked their waiter if he'd been affected by the tsunami. "His face became closed," Dias says. "His eyes were troubled. You could see that he had been completely traumatized." Eventually, Dias and her parents drew him into conversation and learned that he had lost his home, his father, and his sister. As she heard the man speak, Dias realized she had found her way to help her country rebuild.

Back at Brown, Dias, who is class copresident, founded the Sri Lankan Tsunami Relief Housing Project, whose goal is to rebuild houses for a half-dozen families in Sri Lanka. "It is a unique initiative," she wrote in the project's summary, "because it aims at establishing a connection between the donor and the recipient." Dias says most aid is aimed at people without jobs and those without land. Her project seeks to sidestep the long process of having the Sri Lankan government allocate land to a tsunami victim by giving money directly to someone like the waiter in the hotel - who in fact has become the first resident to receive enough money - $1,500 - to build a twenty-by-sixteen-foot house. Not only does the project rebuild a house, Dias argues, it begins rebuilding a community.

"It's really important," she says, "to pay attention to how you help. The easiest thing is for governments to build mass houses and transfer people there. This process of collecting the money and building the house can be a model for international organizations to adopt. The propensity of people to keep giving is very high if you can see where your money's going."

News of the tsunami reached Terah DeJong '06 while he was
on winter break visiting his family at their home in Bodinayakkanur, a town in the hills of the southern Indian province of Tamil Nadu. DeJong read about the devastation in the newspaper on the morning of December 27. Later that day a professor and former CNN producer he knew from American University in Washington, D.C., phoned him to say he was leaving for Sri Lanka to produce a CNN documentary about children orphaned by the tsunami. Would DeJong, who speaks Tamil, be interested in joining him as a producer and translator?

The next day, DeJong flew to Colombo, where he joined his former teacher and about forty CNN staffers. For the first day or so, the group talked to local newspaper editors, gathering information and forming a plan. They decided to follow the head of the Christian Children's Fund as he went around organizing his group's relief effort, and to videotape what they could along the way.

They traveled down the coast to a village near Kalutara. As they approached, DeJong recalls, they could see more and more rubble and debris: "Then suddenly you're in the middle of it. You could see fishing nets, boats, bricks, clothes, all mangled together. Most of the bodies had been quickly removed, but you could smell the odor of decaying flesh. Whether it was human or animal, I don't know." The group passed two train wrecks. The spaces beneath the cars had been blocked with the branches of coconut palms to keep dogs from the bodies that had not yet been recovered. (Thilakshani Dias lost a distant relative in one of these wrecks.)

For the next week, DeJong followed crews around and translated. CNN correspondents Sanjay Gupta and Christiane Amanpour arrived for a few days of taping before moving on to assignments in other countries. DeJong spoke in Tamil with a man in his forties named A. M. Rizvi, an auto-rickshaw owner from Colombo, who had been on a Sunday coastal excursion with his extended family when the tsunami first arrived. He'd grabbed onto a coconut tree and somehow survived, but the fourteen relatives with him had all perished, including his six-month-old daughter. Rizvi told DeJong he had briefly considered killing himself. "Really," he said, "I just loved my daughter." Once the CNN interview was over, DeJong asked Rizvi to write down his name and address. "We grip hands," DeJong later wrote in an essay about his experiences in Sri Lanka, "and I say in Tamil, ?It's not possible for us to understand what or why. Only God understands.' My words were inadequate, but he smiles and we part in warmth." At four the next morning, DeJong watched the report he'd helped produce on the television back at his hotel.

"Working there from the journalistic side," DeJong recalled after he'd returned to his routine at Brown, "it was a very surreal experience. You're not there to provide relief. In many ways, you're looking for misery, because that's what you're covering."

He said that back at Brown he'd found himself becoming irritable easily. He had a nightmare or two. Seeing other students collecting money for tsunami relief organizations at the post office in Faunce House left him unmoved. He'd become cynical about relief groups. In Sri Lanka, he'd seen a pile of teddy bears that had been largely untouched. "We don't need those," a tsunami victim had told him. "We need food."

DeJong carries with him vivid memories of A. M. Rizvi and the other people for whom he'd translated. "I find myself wanting to help the individuals that I met," he says.

Jeffrey Albert '92 first learned of the tsunami while
browsing the news online on December 26. A visiting scholar at the Watston Institute with a joint appointment in geological sciences and environmental studies, Albert was in Washington, D.C., where he also works as a fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Since September, the focus of Albert's research had been the best ways for people in less-developed countries to treat and store their household drinking water. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 2 million people die of water-related disease every year; other organizations have estimated that the number may be as high as 10 million. In addition, about 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to improved water supply (a tap in the home), and as many as 2 billion lack access to safe, clean drinking water.

Albert knew the aftermath of the tsunami could include a second wave of deaths from a shortage of food and potable water, so he called Greg Algood, director of Procter & Gamble's Health Sciences Institute. Albert knew that the institute, along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, had developed an inexpensive and easy-to-use powder that, when mixed with water, both clarifies and purifies it.

Algood recommended that Albert raise money for the relief group AmeriCares, which buys and distributes such supplies during emergencies. Albert then sent an e-mail asking for donations to about fifty people, who forwarded the request to their e-mail distribution lists. Soon the request had been so widely circulated that Albert had raised $100,000 - all by sending a single e-mail message into cyberspace. With this money Albert was able to finance 2.9 million packets, or sachets, of the Procter & Gamble purifier, enough to treat 29 million liters of water.

But that was still not enough. Albert wanted to go to Indonesia and assess the water quality there firsthand, and with Algood's help, in January he flew to Banda Aceh at the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, just east of the site of the undersea earthquake that triggered the tsunami. Working with international relief agencies, he helped distribute supplies, including the Procter & Gamble sachets. Even three weeks after the tsunami had passed, researchers in the area were reporting anecdotally that 30 to 50 percent of the people living in the camps that had been set up for tsunami victims suffered from diarrheal diseases. Two-thirds of the water they were drinking contained E. coli bacteria.

Albert worked in Banda Aceh for almost two weeks, then spent another two weeks in other parts of Indonesia. He now divides his time between the EPA in Washington and the Watson Institute in Providence, continuing to work with relief agencies, particularly CARE, and to monitor water-quality in the region. He remains impressed by the ease with which he was able to raise $100,000. "Part of the reason we raised the amount of money we did," he says, "is that people really trusted what it was going to be used for."

Project Hope volunteer Elizabeth McLarney '86 arrived in Banda
Aceh in early March, after a forty-six-hour trip by plane and helicopter. McLarney, an orthopedic surgeon from Brattleboro, Vermont, joined ninety-eight other Project Hope volunteers aboard the U.S. Navy ship Mercy, a converted oil tanker containing 1,000 hospital beds and twelve operating rooms. The volunteers on the Mercy represented the first time a private aid organization and the U.S. Navy had joined so closely to conduct a humanitarian mission, which was called Operation Unified Assistance. The project had a political purpose as well as a humanitarian one. Because Aceh province is home to many Muslim supporters of Osama bin Laden - locals refer to it as "the verandah of Mecca" - Operation Unified Assistance was an attempt by the U.S. government to show the country's humanitarian face to Muslims.

Most of the patients McLarney treated had broken bones during the tsunami but had had little, if any, treatment for the fractures. As a result, many of the bones had begun to heal in a deformed way, which made McLarney's work particularly challenging. During her two weeks operating aboard the Mercy and in the two hospitals in Banda Aceh, McLarney e-mailed long, vivid descriptions of her days to friends and family. "Three days ago," she wrote on March 6, "I operated on a man who broke his femur. He also injured his head. He could not eat, drink, or communicate. He was not really awake, even though his eyes were open.? Three days ago he had his leg fixed by cleaning up the fracture site, putting the bone together in the right position, and putting a big rod inside his bone with screws at either end. Yesterday he started to talk and to drink water. Today when I said, ?Salamet pagi,' which means good morning, to him, he answered, ?Pagi.' He has not just gotten better with his leg; he is now awake and talking."

The work was grueling and exhausting. One night a sheet was hung in the ship's "Casualty Receiving Area" and The Bourne Supremacy was shown. McLarney received a page halfway through the movie, and as she was leaving the area she noticed that half the volunteers in the room had fallen asleep. After returning from answering her page, she sat back down to watch the rest of the movie, but she, too, soon drifted off into sleep.

McLarney's e-mails described a patient who had broken his leg while holding onto some wooden pilings during the tsunami. The man had initially saved his son from being swept away, but the force of the water was too great and the boy could not hold on. He was never seen again. She described inducing a teenage patient to walk by using M&Ms, and how the electrical power would fail during surgery in one of the Banda Aceh hospitals, sometimes forcing her to operate by flashlight. The people she was treating were effusively grateful. She described local residents shaking her hand and then raising it to their foreheads as they said tera mikasi (thank you). Whenever the helicopter lifted off from the hospital, bringing the volunteers back to the Mercy, children would gather to wave good-bye until it was out of sight.

Slowly the routines of daily life were beginning again in Banda Aceh. "People that I met," McLarney wrote, "said the city was starting to come more alive. They said late in January there was little traffic or commotion on the streets, but now the mopeds were whizzing around and the fruit stands were open. Recovery is slow, but starting to occur."

At night McLarney would sometimes relax by wandering the deck of the ship and looking out at the sea. One night she watched dolphins leaping in the Mercy's bow wave. Her idyllic view was often interrupted by the sight of armed soldiers patroling the deck in search of boats that might be carrying suicide bombers looking to attack them.

Finally, after two weeks it was time to go. The group had performed 250 surgeries. Waiting for McLarney back in Brattleboro were her patients and colleagues and, most importantly, her husband, Gordon, her six-year-old son, Connor, and her seven-year-old daughter, Ryan. The night before McLarney had left for Indonesia, Ryan had given her an envelope decorated with words and drawings and containing photographs from her young life, all so McLarney wouldn't forget her.

Before leaving the Mercy for the last time, one of the translators asked to address the volunteers. "We see these big war machines being used to help people, to bring aid," McLarney quoted her as saying. "You were first greeted with suspicion, and then puzzlement, and then great fondness.? You've done healing of the body, but many of you might not be aware that the people you've been treating, many of them are really among the poorest people. You know, they eat chicken once a year, or maybe they get fish twice a week.? The army burns their houses and extorts them and then the separatists kidnap them and extort them and burn their houses, and they get caught in the crossfire.? They're not treated with any great respect. And then they come in here, they see you being so rich and powerful, and you treat them with so much gentleness and so much courtesy, and they feel valuable.? I don't know how we can ever thank you, and in Indonesian we say, ?terima kasih,' which literally means ?accept love.'? Please accept our love."

"It was with great sadness," McLarney wrote, "that the last patients left the ship. I helped carry my last two up on their litters to the helicopter. As they left, I cried." McLarney experienced the frustration that haunts most relief workers: If only I could do more.

"There is a story," McLarney concluded, "about a man walking on a beach. In the distance he sees a woman moving in the early morning light. He thinks how wonderful it is that she is embracing the morning by dancing on the beach. As he gets closer, he realizes she is not dancing. She is bending over and then throwing something gently back into the sea. Intrigued, he moves closer until he sees she is picking up starfish and throwing them back into the sea. When he asks her why she is doing it, she replies that the tide is going out and the starfish are stranded.? The man then says to the woman, ?There are thousands of starfish along many miles of this beach. You will never be able to save them all.'

"The woman then bent down and gently threw another starfish into the sea. She then looked up at the man and said, ?It made a difference for that one.' "

Norman Boucher is editor of the BAM.

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May / June 2005