Dispatches from Sri Lanka

by Jeff Greenwald, Jan 24, 2005 | Destinations: Sri Lanka / Colombo

Dispatch 5: Toy Story 2

15 January 2005

To a lot of people, the image of relief agencies in developing countries is the image of giant Toyota Land Cruisers, churning down a dirt road with the windows rolled up and four grim foreign aid workers staring out the windows. That preconception is instantly shattered by Mercy Corps' official vehicles in Arugam Bay: two three-wheeled tuk-tuks, sporting the Mercy Corps bumper sticker and emblazoned with three of Sri Lanka's religious icons: Lord Buddha, Lord Rama, and Mickey Mouse.

Lyn, Harshana and I spend the morning driving from one welfare center to another, trying to find out where our toys and sport kits would be most welcome. At each camp we meet the grama niladari, or group leader, responsible for coordinating each center's supplies. These are always men, supervising a governing committee of men and women. Sometimes the GN s are individuals who were prominent before the tsunami, sometimes not. In one camp, the GN is an older man displayed great heroism and selflessness during and after the flood.

Our first thought was that we'd deliver a load of toys to the 102 kids at the camp called Savalai. But as well pull up, the children congregating around us are clutching floppy rabbits and German shepherds. The Red Cross passed through just yesterday, emptying a truckload of used stuffed animals.

The GN of Savalai is a 48-year-old fisherman named Miran Lebe. When I first visited this camp last week, Lebe was wild-eyed and raging; I thought he was the village idiot. The fact, Harshana explains, is that he was still in shock.

"We have enough for our children" declares Lebe. "Give what you have to the other camps" Before we go, though, he corners Harshana. "We could use some kerosene lanterns," he whispers, "to keep the wild elephants away."

We'll keep our toys, but we do want to offer a sports kit, for the older kids. In this respect, we face a dilemma: which kit to deliver? We quickly work out a system. The decision will be made by a committee - of kids. A call goes out through the camp, and about two dozen children, boys and girls age 8-12, are gathered together. Prompted by Harshana, they vote with a show of hands: soccer balls, volleyballs and nets, or cricket sets? We expect soccer (or football, as it's known here) to be the runaway winner, and it is - but there's also a huge demand for the Frisbees. Who knew?

Our second stop is a camp located behind the local mosque, not far from the beach. Our gifts are welcome here, and we hand out stuffed toys and rubber balls in a gleeful but orderly ceremony. Most of the recipients are very young, and there are many babes-in-arms. The baby girls wear beautiful, dangly gold earrings, giving them a look of precocious sophistication. The wisdom of wearing jewelry suddenly seems very clear. Sometimes, the only wealth you can hang on to is what's pierced through your earlobes, and fastened around your neck.

As we prepare to leave, the GN approaches Lyn, and asks for the one item most desperately needed by the camp: cooking kits. As things stand, there are so few pots that ten families must cook their rice in shifts. It's becoming a serious problem, with obvious repercussions. "If we don't eat," the GN says dryly, "we don't play."

* * *

When the tsunami receded, one of the few structures left standing - more or less - was a popular hotel called the Siam View. During that first terrible week, after the tsunami, before the first relief shipments arrived, the owner of this place - Fred Miller, who has lived in Sri Lanka nearly 30 years - fed the entire community with provisions from their copious freezers (their generator needed only small repairs to function). Miller is keeping up the practice - providing excellent Sri Lankan curries to the scores of local and foreign relief workers. Soft drinks, ice cold, are included. It's an oasis of Heaven in a vast expanse of hell -- and the cost to all comers is zero (though donations are more than welcome). It's a terrific example of how the community has banded together, and a good place to see signs of optimism.

After lunch we leave Arugam Bay and drive north, heading through spectacular wetlands teeming with egrets, eagles, kingfishers and ibis. Oxcarts heave to the side to let us by. Our destination is the large camp called Komari, settled by refugees who came from a devastated village still further north.

We'd heard awful things about Komari -that it was ignored, impoverished, and off the radar of the relief agencies. As we approach, we begin to suspect otherwise. The tents are spacious, and set well apart; there are decent roads into the compound; and the view of the river is spectacular. As we drive in, we see about 100 kids sitting quietly under an open-air tent, watching The Lion King on television.

Clearly, there's been an intelligence problem here. This camp seems to have it all; there's fruit punch, hard candies, everything but buttered popcorn. On discussion with the GN, though, the initial reports are confirmed. The generator-operated DVD player is a special treat, provided by an expat Sri Lankan from Australia. Otherwise, the kids have virtually nothing to keep them busy: no toys, no games, no flying discs.

We have no toys for the nearly 600 children in Komari, but we will give them a sport kit. The word goes out for a children's meeting, and the response is electric. The kids leap up from The Lion King, and form two groups - boys and girls -around us. Harshana takes center stage, and conducts the poll.

"How many for cricket!" he demands.
The boys' hands fly up.
"How many for volleyball?" The girls' hands wave.
"And how many for football?" This time, every hand in the group shoots into the air. The choice seems clear - but there are hundreds of kids. Lyn, Harshana and I exchange a look, and shrug.

Ten minutes later, we witness what must be the most satisfying sight one can see in the world of disaster relief. Scores of formerly listless kids are running and shouting in an open field, their football and cricket games in full swing. Some distance away, the Sri Lankan Army's Special Task Force is helping set up the volleyball net.

We leave before the inevitable happens, and the Frisbee ends up on someone's roof.

* * *

We haven't much longer in Arugam Bay; Dwayne and I leave tomorrow, to travel up the country's hard-hit east coast. It's tough to go. There are a hundred stories here -- but there are hundreds of stories everywhere in Sri Lanka right now.

Mercy Corps is doing great work in the Pottuvil area - providing generators, helping the fishing community rebuild their boats (and reweave their nets), setting up cash-for-work programs, and distributing sport kits, school supplies, and other items. But they've got enough money, and some of the locals are more concerned about the future than the present.

Before she left Arugam Bay to return to her posting in Darfur, Susan Romanski spoke with one washed-out hotel owner. What he said to her seems strange, but I suspect it's probably true.

"If people really want to help," the man said, "Tell them not to send us money. Better they should put that money away - and use it to come back here, as tourists, next year."

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