Foreigners caught in killer tsunami dig in to help Sri Lanka

Wearing shorts, rubber thongs and a pair of washing up gloves, New Zealander Scott Gardiner is standing in a sewerage drain ankle deep in sludge, joining the huge effort needed to clean up Sri Lanka.

The 29-year-old artist and his girlfriend Bianca Wilks, 27, are among scores of tourists refusing to leave this popular resort village torn apart by last Sunday’s tsunami, which killed nearly 29,000 Sri Lankans.

The couple watched the disaster unfold from their second-storey guesthouse room, with Gardiner immediately recognising that a tsunami was about to hit when big waves rolled in and then the ocean drained back hundreds of metres.

"I was on the beach screaming at people to get back," he said, before they ran for their lives to higher ground. Then they were left grappling with the horrendous destruction — and were overcome with the kindness shown to them.

"These people are the most accommodating people. They took us into their homes, they made sure we had food. And these were people who had lost everything. It was inspiring," he told AFP.

"It’s nice to help because they’ve been so helpful to us."

Wilks and Gardiner have been pitching in along with a bunch of about 60 local surfers leading the charge in Hikkaduwa, who said they have received hundreds of emails from foreigners pledging donations towards reconstruction.

One of the surfers, who gave his name as Mambo and who lost 12,000 dollars worth of stock at his surf school, has been helping coordinate the cleanup, methodically dragging the masses of debris onto the road and sweeping it up.

"The surfers and their families are helping out each other. We want to get back our Hikkaduwa again," he said, pointing out a pair of bandanna-clad Japanese women clearing gutters.

The pair, previous visitors, had booked flights to Sri Lanka as soon as they heard about the disaster.

"We have connections all over the world, and these people have come to help us. Friends are important now," Mambo said.

Frenchwoman Francoise Clottes, 42, is on her 10th trip to Sri Lanka as part of a four-month vacation from her job as a train ticket inspector and was on her way to Cambodia to volunteer as an English teacher when the tsunami hit.

"But I think they need my help here more now," she said, working up a sweat in the tropical sun, and wearing just one rubber glove as she sweeps.

So far, the clean-up here has been almost completely done by locals and volunteers, she said. No armed forces or police, who have been overwhelmed by the terrible extent of the national disaster, showed up until days afterwards.

Even now, Britons Ian and Anna Betts said locals and tourists have been paying themselves for diesel and drivers to get private earthmovers to shift the rubbish from the streets due to a dire lack of official assistance.

"All this money they say on the news is being donated, it’s not getting down here. They could use any trucks. Where are the trucks? Where’s the food?"

The couple, who have friends in hard-hit Thailand they are not sure have survived, said they saw no point leaving.

"We didn’t lose anything. We’re helping out — not leaving like the people on the package tours whose buses have come in to take them out again. We don’t mind because we’re travelling for a long time," Ian said.

New Zealanders John and Linda Hutton also saw no point joining the mass exodus of tourists out of Sri Lanka when they were unscathed.

"We thought once things settle down, we can help. Plus from a selfish perspective, the weather is glorious, the beach is still beautiful, and it’s probably raining in the interior," John said.

"People are devastated and we are so privileged, so why not help?"

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