A mission of hope in desperate times | AspenTimes.com

A mission of hope in desperate times

Trent BurkholderSpecial to The Aspen Times
Refugee girl in Kokillai, a Sri Lankan town hit hard by December's tsunami. Photo by Trent Burkholder.

Editor’s note: Aspenites Trent and Preethi Burkholder recently returned from a personal aid mission to Preethi’s home country of Sri Lanka. The Burkholder’s used approximately $40,000 raised in Aspen to assist 4,000 victims of December’s tsunami who are living in devastated areas of the island nation. Below is an account of their trip written and photographed by Trent.

There were cement buildings shattered like glass, metal supports and rebar bent like twigs, and garbage everywhere. Scattered among the rubble were the remnants of people’s lives: clothes, shoes, books, family photos, chairs and children’s toys.

While the physical devastation to Sri Lanka after the late-December earthquake and tsunami was extreme, it was the human tragedy that really brought up emotions. There were many stories like those of one woman who was working in the Middle East; when she came home, her house and all 10 of her family members were gone. Some women told of having their children ripped out of their hands by the rampaging sea and swept away. There were tales of people dying trying to save others. There were so many children without parents, and so many families that lost a child. Upon hearing the news of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Asia, my first reaction was to think what I could do to help. Preethi, my wife, grew up in Sri Lanka until she was 20. She moved to the United States 12 years ago. Every year we travel back to her country for vacation and also to do small humanitarian projects. In the past three years we have helped to start an orphanage, provided school supplies to children in small village schools, and given food and clothing to refugees displaced by the 18-year civil war. The scale of this disaster, however, was far beyond anything either of us had seen.

After finding out that her family was safe and after a few days of reflection, we had an idea. We organized a slide show at the Aspen Institute to generate funds for the disaster relief. I showed images of Sri Lanka taken on several of our previous trips to the island. I focused on the people, historic sites, and natural beauty of the island once known as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.” Through our efforts and the generous donations of local people, we were able to raise more than $10,000 for the cause. Our friends Nikki and Barclay Dodge, who own Mogador restaurant, followed suit with a very successful fund-raiser of their own. They were able to raise $30,000 to contribute to our efforts. Preethi made a connection with an Arizona based nonprofit called ASAFO Global Medical Trust, and they agreed to donate medical equipment, supplies and medicine. In a country where one dollar can buy a meal for a family of five, we knew we were well on our way toward making a significant impact in people’s lives. Also, because of my wife’s knowledge of the language and local geography, we were confident we would be able to use the money very efficiently to make the largest possible difference per dollar.

After 30 hours on a flight from Denver, with stops in Los Angeles, Taipei and Singapore, we finally arrived in the capital city of Colombo at 1 a.m. The next day we organized two vans for transportation; one was filled with supplies. We bought most of the supplies in Sri Lanka, figuring that we could also help the local economy with our purchases.Our plan was to head to the northeastern part of the island, where we heard there wasn’t much aid getting through. The north and east of Sri Lanka are where most of the fighting during the civil war took place. Many of the areas we were heading for were affected by heavy conflict between the army and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE); a guerrilla separatist group at odds with the majority Sinhalese government. Because the area is largely Tamil, and because of difficulties in road conditions, we knew that the government wouldn’t be sending as much aid to this part of the country. In fact, certain areas we traveled were completely off-limits to Western aid organizations. Because of Preethi’s connection to a local nonprofit organization called the Rajarata Praja Kendraya, we were able to get permission from the army forces to travel to the northeast coast.

After a day-and-a-half drive through bumpy roads and frequent military checkpoints, we arrived in Batticaloa. Batticaloa is a large town on the east coast that suffered heavy political turmoil during the civil war. This is the first place that we actually saw the devastation the tsunami had caused.The majority of the island was untouched and seemed to be functioning the same as before. It wasn’t until we hit the coastal areas that the full impact of the damage could be seen. But amidst all the horror, there were also miraculous stories of survival. One woman put her baby in a Styrofoam box and watched it float away as she climbed a tree. Two days later she found the baby alive. Another family had their baby in a crib that floated up to the ceiling and then landed back on the floor with the baby sleeping through the whole event.

Unfortunately, the stories of destruction and death far outweighed the stories of good fortune and hope. The adults all had a bewildered look of shock and trauma on their faces. Some people may never recover emotionally or financially. Only the children seemed to be recovering, and most were back playing and doing what kids do.In Batticaloa, more than 4,000 people had died. Parts of the city were like a ghost town, with all the people gone, and the birds and stray dogs sifting through the remains looking for a free meal. It was eerie to see the damage and know that the ocean, which was peacefully lapping up on the beach, had been so violent just a few weeks prior. This initial scene gave us a stark reminder of just exactly why we were there, and it put things in perspective.Starting the next day, we visited many different refugee camps, organized by ethnicity and religious background. We didn’t play favorites and supplied Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian camps with equal supplies. We organized a local doctor to travel with us and set up a kind of mobile medical clinic in each camp we visited.

We also bought and distributed large amounts of food rations, mostly rice and lentils. A 25-pound bag of rice costs about $10, so food money can go a long way. Most of the camps were receiving adequate clean water from the army, but they needed storage containers. We purchased and delivered both 100-gallon tanks for the camps, and also one-gallon jugs for individual families. Several large boxes of used clothing we had collected over the past few years also came in handy. Other items we distributed were mosquito nets, bed sheets, cooking pots, cups and plates, and bathroom supplies like soap, combs, toothbrushes and toothpaste. An item that I wouldn’t have known about, but Preethi suggested, was a metal tool used for splitting and scraping coconuts.We had families in each camp organized into a line and we distributed the supplies one on one. It was much harder and more time consuming, but it minimized the potential for corruption. We heard stories of some aid being stolen by camp administrators in parts of the country. Army officers in each camp helped us maintain order and accountability by checking each family off a list so that no one received more supplies than anyone else. Accommodation in Batticaloa was hard to come by, and we ended up having to pay some families to stay in their homes with them.After about five days, we traveled farther north to the town of Trincomalee, after re-supplying on the way. Trincomalee is a large fishing town built right on a bay. The land is very low lying and the damage was extreme. Some refugee camps we had visited the previous year had been completely wiped out, and even large hotels were smashed to nothing. We looked for a couple of families that we knew, but we were unable to find any trace of them. After several days of work there, we continued still farther north to the towns of Pulmudai and Kokillai.

We needed special permission from the army to get through the section of the country leading to Pulmudai and Kokillai. These areas have suffered some of the heaviest fighting during the war, and many land mines were unearthed by the tsunami. Western aid organizations were barred by the government from visiting these areas because of safety concerns. We had an army escort the entire time we were there, and we were not allowed to stay overnight. This made for some long days traveling; we would leave at 3 in the morning, and return about midnight. In Kokillai we visited a fishing village on a small island, about a 10-minute boat ride off the coast. In this camp we also provided supplies to build 10 bathroom facilities, including toilet bowls, plumbing supplies, cement, and wood and metal roofing material.After a couple of days off to recuperate and re-supply, we went to the southern coast of the island. Along the Galle road, as it is known, the devastation stretched for mile after mile. The only things I have seen that I can compare it with are photographs of Europe after World War II. Building after building was reduced to rubble, and boats were smashed through the walls of houses.

On the positive side, there seemed to be a lot of aid getting through to the south. There were tent cities all along the road, and the U.S. Marines had done an amazing job clearing the road and rebuilding bridges. Without the work they did, the aid trucks would have had trouble getting through. We delivered aid to camps in Galle and Matara, and then had to leave because our time was up.We accomplished a lot in a month, but there still remains a massive amount of work to be done. We visited approximately 14 refugee camps and got supplies and food to close to 4,000 people. But it will take years before the country is back to where it was last December. The most difficult obstacle I see is coordinating all the aid from different countries and organizations so that no one is left behind and some don’t receive more aid than others. With a disaster this big, it is difficult to find all the people in need. Many people who were badly affected but are too proud to live in a refugee camp aren’t getting any aid. Other people unaffected are trying to get aid that wasn’t intended for them.

Large aid organizations are doing a lot to help, but some of the bureaucracy of filling out paperwork slows the aid getting through. Individual citizens making food and giving supplies one on one seems to be very effective. It will take a combination of all these things to help rebuild, but the initial basic steps are at least taking place and continuing to move forward. We will be going back again in April for another month of work.One thing that can really help the country is getting tourism going again. The media has covered the devastation and left a feeling that the entire place is in ruins. The simple fact is that the majority of the island is still in good shape and has some beautiful and historic places to visit.This experience has been a positive one for me and has changed the way I feel about what we can do in the world to help others. Preethi and I want to sincerely thank all the generous people and businesses here in Aspen that made doing a project like this possible. We were able to bring hope and a smile, even though brief, to many children and families in need. If nothing else, it reminds me of how lucky we are in this country and this town to have the things we do. It is also refreshing to know that so many people in the world care about each other and can come together in times of crisis. It’s hard to do a project like this without coming away from it with a huge dose of gratitude.

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