Aid trickles in southern Sri Lanka, but more urgently needed

In the grounds of a college at this southern Sri Lankan town lashed by tsunami a week ago, giant pots of rice and lentils are being cooked over wood fires for the masses crowding into classrooms.

Workers flit around the grassy courtyard and a team of South Korean medics had set up shop in one wing, their fresh faces and cowboy hats starkly contrasting with the downcast appearance of refugees desperate for their help.

Aid is trickling through to Sri Lanka’s battered south, but at levels far below what is required. Crucial food shipments are arriving irregularly, sparking scuffles put under control by armed police.

At Rahula College in southern Sri Lanka’s Matara, 2,000 people are being fed, sheltered and given health care by medics, but as scores of more homeless arrive daily, worker Gunasena Gamage rattles off a list of items urgently required.

"We need vegetables, we have very, very few vegetables, and this is the main problem we face. And we need vegetable oil, mattresses, pillows, mats, women’s underwear, baby powder, feeding bottles, mosquito nets, cups," he said.

"And there’s not enough room. There are so many people, accommodation is really a problem."

Even as relief items started reaching Matara, though slowly, many other affected regions were without any aid thanks to flash floods which made relief work difficult, especially in districts such as Ampara on the east.

In Matara, at Kemagoda temple just outside Dickwella, a smaller settlement further east along a stretch of coastal road hammered by the tsunami and still being cleared of debris, around 1,000 people have been waiting for hours for food to arrive.

Aid worker I.W. Damitha pointed to a mountain of tangled clothes people had rushed to donate but said they had no food to distribute to the people whose homes are still standing but who remain hungry.

"All these people are hoping for something to collect… They have been waiting for five or six hours because we have nothing to give them," he said.

The atmosphere is calm, but scuffles break out when supplies arrive. The crowds are only kept in control by two armed policemen, Damitha said.

An array of soft drink bottles filled with water are kept in the locked store to hand out as well. Asked if the water is clean, a worker shrugs: "It’s somewhat safe."

The World Health Organisation said it was working against the clock to prevent outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera at the camps and voiced fears that malaria and other mosquito and fly-borne diseases could break out within a week.

"Our main objective is preventing outbreaks," WHO representative to Sri Lanka Kan Tun said during a visit back to Rahuna College.

"The main thing is (to ensure the cleaning up of) garbage. The second is getting enough toilet facilities. And the third is access to clean water."

With most of their houses completely flattened, the refugees will not be budging anytime soon, said aid worker Gamage back at the college.

"The government is planning to rebuild houses within six months, but we don’t know if that is practical. And people are afraid of going home, they are afraid of another big wave," he said.

Fisherman Sheldon Jayasvoora, 34, sitting outside a classroom nursing a bandaged arm injured as he fled the tsunami that pulverised his home, is one of those dependent on the aid getting through.

And even then, his future is uncertain — he is too frightened to return to work on the unpredictable ocean that suddenly rose up and killed thousands.

"But I want to make a living. Whatever I can do to get by, I will do."

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