Priests, volunteers keep hope alive for tsunami victims

Catholic priest Nihal Nanayakkara has not slept since Christmas. Not only is he the priest of a church in this tragedy-struck town, but also caretaker of thousands of tsunami victims taking refuge in the building.

On Boxing Day, when tsunami waves lashed the coastline of Sri Lanka, thousands of people from Galle rushed in terror to the safety of Nanayakkara’s church.

"Sometimes I rest like this," he says, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes momentarily.

"I strongly believe that God is giving us this strength."

In his white robes tied neatly with a black belt, the vicar-general has been organising relief for refugees and travelling across the worst-hit parts of the southern Sri Lankan coast to help co-ordinate the overall recovery.

In between, he has held joint burial services along with Buddhist monks and Muslim priests for some of the nearly 25,000 killed by the giant wall of water that slammed into Sri Lanka’s shore at the weekend. Most of the dead are now being piled into mass graves.

"We are also holding memorial services daily and other services to give strength to the people and offer them the confidence that they need to start a normal life again," he tells AFP.

In the church, refugees are for the moment well-supplied with water, food and medical help — many flitting between here and what’s left of their homes.

The situation in other affected parts of Sri Lanka however continues to be weak as relief measures were facing difficulties to reach the needy after a complete breakdown of infrastructure.

But Nanayakkara says the next challenge was to get people to leave his church.

"Most have lost everything. They have only the clothes they are wearing. Their main hope is to live a decent, ordinary and simple life," he says.

In a situation when death had just brushed them, small miracles are bolstering the spirits of victims.

One such is the lost and found statue of Our Lady of Matar, the revered statue for catholics in Sri Lanka’s southern region.

The statue was washed out of the church, but on Wednesday morning a Buddhist found it nearly two kilometres away at his home. He brought it back to the church.

"It is a miraculous statue. I was there. We brought the statue back in procession and rang the bells so people knew," Nanayakkara says.

This was the third time that the statue had been lost and found.

"People were crying, they were so happy. Normally they would have clapped, but this time they did not because of the tragic situation in the country," the priest adds.

Outside Nanayakkara’s church the scene continues to be one of chaos and panic.

At a makeshift medical clinic, amid the stench of burning rubbish, nursing aide Nilupul Chaminda is standing and eating his breakfast.

It is midday and he is in the middle of his third 15-hour day.

"Sometimes no meals at all," he says. Asked if he’s tired, the answer is in negative.

"A lot of Sri Lankans have died."

He and a four member team of Saint John Ambulance Brigade workers are preparing for their afternoon run Thursday to treat refugees at several Buddhist temples, packing a van with antibiotics, painkillers, antiseptic, bandages and plasters.

On the way to the first temple, amid another endless traffic snarl, panic suddenly grips people on the streets.

Fuelled by rumour that another tsunami has hit India and is about to pummel this southern coastal city again, people run helter-skelter and screams ring through the air.

Shouting at each other and asking what the other knew, a few men pick up planks of wood, while many run to higher ground. Chaminda’s team frantically makes mobile telephone calls and turns on the radio to track the fresh tsunami warning.

With no confirmed warning, the group pushes on, but the situation reminds that Sri Lankans continue to live in fear.

At the other Sugatharama temple, 129 families are sheltered and many others have arrived in the past one hour to escape the rumoured wave.

Listless women lie on mats on the cement floor — some suckling babies — while others staring blankly into space. The only sign of normalcy are children playing outside the temple.

"At the moment they have enough relief items because of all the donations. We are managing and things are calm," says J.K. Rajapakse, a teacher who has been working 18-hour days as a volunteer here.

However, the looming danger is deteriorating sanitary conditions.

"There are not enough toilets. This is going to be a problem," Rajapakse says.

"A lot of these people are used to just using the beach as they are fishing families. This place is strange for them."

The medical workers treat infected wounds of the gathered victims, hand out sanitary napkins to women and offer advice.

Then it’s off to the next temple.

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