Much remains to be done to rebuild broken lives


Tsunami Diary: I am at the end of my two-week stint with Global Crossroads and I cannot believe how fast the time has flown here. Already, people from the new group are arriving at the hotel, and we are able to offer them advice on the construction work, the locals and the price of tuk-tuks etc. It seems like just yesterday that we all sat listening to the previous group offering us the same advice.

As someone who had no previous volunteer experience, I was excited but quite apprehensive about coming over to Sri Lanka and getting involved in the reconstruction project. A volunteer who has worked on numerous projects of a similar nature told me on the first day that after this experience I'd either never get involved in volunteer work again or continue doing it for the rest of my life. At the end of two weeks, I can safely say that the latter applies.

Never before have I met such wonderful individuals from all corners of the world in the same place at the same time. Some, like myself, are on leave from work, some are taking career breaks to help. One of the volunteers is only 18 and came by himself.

As different as we all are, we came with one objective - to help those affected by the tragic events of December 26th to get back on their feet.

In the time we have been here, we have seen two houses fully completed, and many others are nearing completion. We have achieved peace of mind, knowing that we helped to ensure that any new houses being built, as part of the GC programme, will have tiled roofs rather than asbestos ones.

We have donated our time and efforts to numerous relief camps and orphanages. I will especially remember the Sambodi house for the mentally and physically disabled, where Jenny and Cliff (from Ireland and the US) work tirelessly every day, improving the facilities and the services one bit at a time. Before the tsunami, this orphanage was not receiving much aid, so the disaster was a blessing in disguise. Now they are receiving toys and educational gifts for the children and fresh vegetables are often brought in by volunteers.

Despite our gruelling work, we have barely touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of structural and emotional reparation. To this day, along the coast of Galle, boats lie torn in half, debris from houses and businesses is visible up to 1½km from the shore, and hundreds of tents housing the unfortunates who have lost their homes are scattered everywhere. At the rate we are building houses, we will only cater for about 5 per cent of the people in Galle before the monsoons arrive in late April. The tents will most definitely not withstand the rains and there is a risk of flooding.

As uplifting as it is to see a family which has faced such hardship move into their new home, it is impossible to ignore the faces of those whom we cannot help. Some, in particular, stick out in my mind, and their faces will haunt my dreams forever. As well as GC's programme, some other projects on temporary housing are under way, but this is just a short-term fix for a long-term problem.

As I mentioned previously, those affected by the tsunami are currently surviving on government provisions of 375 rupees (€2.92) per tent, per week. While people do need this support now, I fear that they may become used to handouts and fall into the habit of getting something for nothing. The tuk-tuk driver I spoke to on Friday, Janaka Nishastha Silva, expressed the same concern. He is afraid that Sri Lanka will turn into "another Ethiopia" if people do not soon begin to become independent again.

Unfortunately, the majority of those affected by the tsunami did not have savings of any kind, so they are literally starting from scratch. And of course there are those who are trying to jump on the poverty bandwagon, making it impossible to know whether the person asking you for money on the street is genuine or fake. Too many times in the last two weeks we have heard the words "I am tsunami . . . my family gone . . . you give me money?"

The people of Sri Lanka are warm, welcoming and extremely friendly. Families have opened their doors and their hearts to us. Having us around for dinner to share a Sri Lankan experience has made the past fortnight even more enjoyable. We bought a table fan for one family at the Dadalla site and the gratitude we were shown was immeasurable.

I was very sad leaving Galle yesterday in the knowledge that the people of Sri Lanka face a bleak future for many years to come. I felt almost guilty knowing that I was going back to a comfortable home, to a steady job and to my friends and family. As a society, these people are coping well at the moment due to their uplifting spirit and their will to survive. Despite having lost many family members, neighbours and friends, they continue to smile and to share what little they have.

This trip has restored my faith in human nature, but there is a lot more work to be done.

Fiona O'Connor (24) is from Dublin and opted out of her IT job to do voluntary tsunami relief work for a fortnight near Galle in Sri Lanka.