Student pins Sri Lanka’s hopes on generous aid

Wearing a donated red T-shirt, pale green pleated skirt and rubber thongs, Waruni Delpagodage, 18, ponders her future in the refugee camp her destitute family has fled to in the tsunami aftermath.

"A year. I think my parents will have to stay here for about a year, that’s how long it’s going to take to rebuild our house," she said, standing erect with her hair tied back neatly in a long ponytail.

Delpagodage is one of Sri Lanka’s lucky survivors. Her father, who works in a betting shop, and her mother, a hospital employee, also lived through the horror of the giant waves that smashed into Sri Lanka on December 26.

But she and her 14-year-old brother Vijantha watched as the parents were ferociously ripped away from them in the Asian quake disaster that has killed at least 30,196 Sri Lankans.

"We were so afraid," she said.

The teenagers spent two hours hunting for them, not knowing whether the parents had survived the wave that destroyed their home, their belongings, and for Delpagodage, her most prized possessions: her certificates and her two flutes.

"I feel so sorrowful. I lost my certificates, I had 25, and 10 of them were all-island (national) certificates," she said. One was for second place in a national flute competition.

Lacking water, food and anywhere to sleep, her family and their neighbours — all 85 of them, as two plainclothes police have meticulously recorded in a ledger — camped out in a provincial government office on high ground.

Delpagodage is pinning her hopes on the Sri Lankan government delivering on its promises of help — and on generous international aid.

"The government has a responsibility to rebuild houses for all of us. The president (Chandrika Kumaratunga) said they will take steps to build houses quickly. We think she will do it," she said.

"But I don’t think the government is able to help everyone. A lot of people’s homes were destroyed, so NGOs should help as well, and international help is needed. I think people will help us."

World leaders are due to meet Thursday in Jakarta for a summit to help coordinate global relief efforts for the Asian tsunami victims. More than two billion dollars in international pledges have been made to help deal with the crisis.

Concrete plans for rebuilding seem a long way off however as Sri Lanka grapples with its biggest disaster in living memory. For today, just getting enough food is this camp’s top priority.

An old man, stick-thin, walks up the stairs with a plate of fragrant fish curry. But that is lunch, and the people say they have now run out of dry food: rice, lentils, canned fish. They are not sure who is bringing more, or when.

Sri Lanka’s extensive network of temples, mosques and churches has been tapped to help give an estimated million refugees temporary shelter and to hand out food.

But other camps such as this one have spontaneously sprung up and officials are grappling with keeping track of who needs what, while the threat of deadly diseases breaking out looms large.

"Two toilets and one bathroom for 85 people — it’s not enough," Delpagodage said. One is a 50 metre (yard) walk up a narrow dirt path, the other is a 200 metre hike away.

Although her school is on vacation until January 10, the student — who hopes to be a doctor if her grades are good enough and someone helps pay her tuition — has been trying to keep up with her studies.

But it is noisy, there are no desks, and trying to sleep in a room on a floor with 84 other people is difficult. And then there are the nightmares.

"I hear bad noises in my dreams. I hear people shouting and the sound of the wave: ‘shoooooooo!’," she says.

Her brother Vijantha won’t say whether he dreams about the day the sea gulped down his village: "I’m trying to forget it."

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