Red Cross HQ in ‘An Arugam Bay’ Hotel

Reconstruction and invisible scars

From Till Mayer for CNN
Wednesday, January 26, 2005 Posted: 0948 GMT (1748 HKT)

POTTUVIL, Sri Lanka (CNN) — Till Mayer is a journalist working for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Galle, Sri Lanka. He is writing about his experiences as part of the relief effort for

Part 1: Sunday, January 2

Part 2: Monday, January 10

Part 3: Tuesday, January 25

Tuesday, January 25

The crane is straining. The massive fishing boat swings in the air hanging meters above on steel ropes, between golden beach and blue sky.

The tsunami waves tossed heavy wooden vessels ashore on December 26 like paper boats. Now they lie scattered over the whole beach, stranded between palms.

Many of them are only wrecks. Broken wood, where rocks shattered the heavy planks. Maybe one day some of the boats can sail again. The crane starts with the clearing up.

I return to the car and continue the journey south towards Galle. To the left and right are remnants of the disaster.

Sometimes all that remains are heaps of stones, reminding me of the fishing huts that stood there one month ago. The rubble passes me by.

But there is not only destruction to see. Everywhere along the coasts of Sri Lanka people are still clearing up and sometimes even beginning to rebuild.

Fires burn beside the roads: mattresses, splintered timber and broken furniture transformed into ash.

From the debris the tsunami victims collect what is useful for reconstruction: roofing tiles, stones and corrugated sheet. Neighbors help each other.

And the aid workers of the Red Cross lend a hand. At the next stop the sun already beats down from the sky. Sweat runs down of the faces of 25 Red Cross volunteers from Bentota.

“Straight after the tsunami disaster I joined the Red Cross. Now I clear up the rubble with my friends”, says a 23-year old.

In the background a wrecked house rises up into the sky. The tidal wave shattered the timber roofs like matches, tearing away furniture, windows, doors, everything.

Red Cross workers, many young, push squeaking wheelbarrows along the affected coastline.

They provide first aid, clean salted wells, distribute humanitarian goods or transport clean drinking water.

The disaster has tapped into the humanitarian spirit and the number of Red Cross volunteers has increased, a fact Vpali Sirimanne is proud of.

Sirimanne is the honorary Red Cross chairman of the district of Bentota. He used to work as a full-time diving instructor. Before the tsunami he ran his own equipment and boat rental business. The wave destroyed everything.

Not far away a Red Cross truck stands next to the road delivering water. The pump is roaring, filling up a black plastic tank. The village inhabitants line up with cans and buckets. Clean drinking water is essential to avoid the outbreak of diseases and epidemics.

I think of my German Red Cross friends in Pottuvil. They prepare 120,000 liters of drinking water daily, supplying camps for the homeless. Then there are the two basic health care centers run by the Finnish and French Red Cross societies.

The tsunami has brought me back in touch with colleagues from other missions. Dieter Mathes is the German Red Cross ERU team leader, an aid-worker with decades of experience, and Konrad Kerpa, whom I met last year in Bam.

Then an enormous earthquake had transformed the entire Iranian city within seconds into a sea of rubble. Both disasters happened on December 26.

The city of Pottuvil looms — a particularly sad chapter in my Sri Lanka mission. The former paradise for surfers is now only a field of rubble. Thousands died here. I will never forget the sight of numerous corpses floating in the water. It was terrible.

The bridge between the city center and the former tourist area was destroyed. The German Red Cross water team managed to get water over the destroyed bridge using a 728-meter hose.

The German Red Cross is also operating a field hospital in the north of the country and is one of several National Societies working in close cooperation with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Sri Lanka Red Cross.

My journey continues. The road is hopelessly overcrowded. A railway track runs parallel to the road. Or rather, what remains of it. The waves bent the rails like play dough. Nearby an iron rail hangs over a palm trunk.

I come to the town of Tellwatte. The place looks like it a bomb site. What's left of the train station stands amid the rubble. Walls have been partly washed away. Villagers set up a Buddha statue on a broken roof, lost between the remains.

Behind the station a reddish-brown train appears. Over 1,400 people died when the wave hit the wagons, tearing the carriages apart. Heavy equipment has set the death train again on its track.

The bodies of the dead have been recovered, but still there are sad reminders. In front of the wagon lies a small doll, its legs ripped off. Its painted eyes staring into the sky. The girl, who played with the doll, is dead. The tsunami disaster claimed nearly 40,000 lives in Sri Lanka. An incomprehensible number.

Red Cross and Red Crescent planes and ships have brought tons of goods to the vulnerable. The first new houses are appearing while others are being reconstructed.

“The acute emergency phase is over, reconstruction can start”, says Axel Pawolek, the FACT team leader with the Federation.

One month after, it is still hard for me to comprehend the extent of the disaster.

If it is difficult for me as a visitor to this country, imagine how hard it is for the innocent, bewildered victims such as the children. In a few minutes the world as they knew it, was washed away. Beloved ones will never return again.

There are wounds you cannot see, and they will take a long time to heal. That is a further challenge for the Red Cross/Red Crescent.

Monday, January 10


The clean-up operation has begun in Pottuvil.

POTTUVIL, Sri Lanka — The advertising sign is lost in amid the rubble. On it is written “Tsunami Hotel” in big letters, and a giant wave is breaking over it.

A favorite place to stay for surfers from all over the world — until December 26.

Now the sign rises up in the sky like a monument. In a cruel irony, the tsunami has taken the hotel named after it.

Mohammed Ali passes by the remnants with slow steps. The disaster has made an old man out of the 52-year-old. The wave washed away his house like a sand castle, his brother-in-law will never return with his boat from fishing.

Heavy bruises cover the body of the fisherman. Every breath hurts. Deep inside there is a stronger pain. It will stay for a long time. Mohammed Ali knows it too well.

Along both sides of the road there are long rows of destroyed houses. Not long ago they were guest houses, small pubs and shops. Pottuvil was well known as a paradise for holiday makers. For Mohammed Ali that now seems a lifetime away.

“Sometimes I do not know what I should believe. That this sea of rubble is reality? Or that I am just dreaming? When I wake up, will I see again the bustling city with all the tourists and the owners of the restaurants, who are buying my fresh fish”, he says softly.

The leg of a plastic doll juts out of the rubbish that was swept up by the tsunami. Next to it lies a baby bottle. On a wall nearby a painting depicts a surfer riding a wave.

Mohammed tries to walk faster. He tries to avoid thinking about something which he is unable to find an explanation for.

A young man waves from a roof of a destroyed house. “Is everything okay with you?” he asks.

Mohammed Ali nods and the man continues to throw down the roof tiles that are still unbroken to another man who catches them cheerfully.

In Pottuvil like everywhere else alongside the coast of Sri Lanka people start to clean up, sometimes even to rebuild.

Marie Mauret, a psychologist with the French Red Cross basic health care unit in Pottuvil has been impressed with the coping mechanisms of the local community.

“People are really brave here. And there are so many volunteers to help us. Despite the sorrow everybody is working hard to cope with these terrible times. People are proactive. They do not wait until someone comes to help them, she says.

The Red Cross has erected a basic health care post in a hotel. Plastic sheeting covers holes in walls damaged by the tsunami.

Mohammed Ali takes a seat on a rickety chair. Like so many others he is waiting patiently to get treated. Word of the Red Cross health post is being spread by word of mouth. An island of safety in the sea of rubble.

The Red Cross mobile medical team has also been established to cover scattered temporary shelters south of Pottuvil to provide services to patients who would find it difficult to get to the center.

The psychological impact on the community is something that Mauret says cannot be stressed enough.

“Many of them are deeply traumatized. It is especially hard for children to understand what happened”, she says.

Children are finding it difficult to sleep and their rest is blighted by nightmares. They react by crying after the unbelievable things that happened to them and their families, like the girl who is being treated by a doctor at the center. The Red Cross-worker smiles at the girl, speaking calming words.

Where the town of Pottuvil ends, a green paradise stretches as far as the eye can see. In the sunlight lush green rice fields are shining. Between them palms and huge trees grow.

A road winds through the landscape and next to it are a couple of big blue water tanks. Here the German Red Cross emergency response unit is purifying up to 120,000 liters of drinking water a day for more than 15,000 affected people.

“Without our friends from the Sri Lanka Red Cross we would have had great trouble becoming operational. With a group of young Red Cross members we have been able to install everything fast. It is a good feeling to work in a strong team together with our local colleagues and friends”, says Dieter Matthes, the experienced German Red Cross-team leader.

Then he trudges through the mud to the water pump. Heavy rain is affecting the region. Many centers for displaced people are situated around the water-purification unit. Some of the fisher families who escaped from the beach found shelter here and receive water from the unit.

A few kilometers away there are the big white tents of the basic health care center established by the Finnish Red Cross. The unit also makes home visits and together with the center, providing vital health services to affected communities.

“In addition to delivering basic health care, we are promoting hygiene and health education which is vitally important for people who have lost everything”, says Red Cross doctor Ilkka Mikkonen.

Sunday January 2, 2005

GALLE, Sri Lanka — The waves are beating on gray stones, hiding the rubble in the sand. Between broken bricks and mud sticks a silver-colored lady's shoe. Behind it lies a piece of bent metal.

M.K. Ahula kicks a scratched teapot with his toe. Then he pushes his bicycle over the devastated area between the beach and the road, passing the remnants of a wall and a broken palm tree. This is all that is left of his house.

The wave washed everything away on December 26, together with seven members of his family, among them two babies, his mother and his eldest son.

It is hard to recover from such a disaster. Ahula gives the sea a quick glance. “I hate it,” the 34-year-old fisherman says softly.

He used to enjoy sailing in his boat, far out into the sea until the beach was only a tiny small yellow strip with the palm trees as a gray background. At night, he would see the lights of his hometown, Galle, reflected in the water.

Now, the sea has taken his boat and nets. If he still had his wooden craft, he would sell it for sure.

Ahula pushes his pedals. The rainy season has created large puddles in the bumpy street. Water splashes all around. But Ahula does not care about it. To his left and right, the street looks as if it has been bombarded.

The flood took anything that was not attached to the ground with concrete, flushing the rubble through the narrow alleys with terrible violence. Broken wooden beams and bent steel roofs are all that remain of the fishing huts along the coast.

In the center of the city. the old Portuguese fortress rises up against the sea. On the green lawn in front of it, people are gathering around a small lorry. They keep handkerchiefs against their noses and faces. When the breeze stops, the smell is unbearable.

Ahula stands against his bike. The four dead bodies are so heavenly swollen that relatives hardly recognize them. Today he will not find out anything about his three missing relatives.

The Buddhist Mahagoda temple is at a safe distance from the devastating sea. It seems like an idyllic picture for a postcard: Old walls surrounded by lush greenery. High trees protect against sun and rain. In the shadow stands an old Minor Morris.

The temple offers no clues that the city was struck by the tsunami. At first sight. nothing reminds of the death toll — believed to be 140,000 — among them about 30,000 in Sri Lanka alone.

But the harmony of the temple is misleading. Between its walls, 100 people left bereft of everything by the tsunami are looking for shelter.

A mini van rolls through the temple gate, carrying a team of young Red Cross volunteers. The pebbles crunch under their feet. Like so many other volunteers, these youngsters — aged 18 and 25 — are on the road providing first aid treatment. There are 2,500 volunteers on duty, cleaning wells, distributing goods and searching for the missing.

They also try to dispense some hope, to people like L.P. Seteen. The 72-year-old carpenter clutches his umbrella. There is no handle anymore. But it was the only thing he could get a hold on when he was running out of his house.

He describes in a soft voice to Red Cross leader Nandana Wickamanyake how he was able to save his own life.

“Thanks to God nobody of my family got killed. I am so thankful for this,” says the old man to the volunteer.

Meanwhile, some Red Cross volunteers put on bandages and disinfect wounds. Many of the homeless were injured when they escaped the wave.

Wickamanyake is proud of his group. “We have been on duty for days. Everybody is contributing all their energy. We must set an example. Now is the time for everyone to start cleaning up and rebuilding,” explains the 35-year-old.

Gradually, all traces of the destruction in Galle will disappear. In the lush green hills close to the city, the heavy sound of traffic roars among the palms and trees. Heavy Caterpillar machines are digging mass graves.

About 4,000 people have perished in the district of Galle. The last mass graves have already been filled up. Close by, Buddhist monks pray for the victims.

But the grief is touchable and will remain for a long time, long after the damage from the tsunami has been repaired.

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