Tsunami Relief, Sri Lanka, 2005

Dr. Jamieson’s Story

Dr Sue came on the journey to Sri Lanka and helped in administering vaccinations to local people. It was organized by local residents and lawyers, with the backing of the local health authority. This is her story…

Susan Jamieson

The three girls – myself, Kate Evans and Billie Gladwin, disembarked and collected our vaccinations in Colombo airport at midnight. We literally carried as much as three people could – loaded onto 6 trolleys. It wasn’t a typical holiday/backpacker scene there but rather desperate groups of anxious people with supplies: saffron robed Buddhist monks mingling with assorted westerners like ourselves, all picking up cardboard boxes full of aid from baggage. We were SO worried about having our kit confiscated by he government, like so many before us, however organization was impeccable. The Harrison family, residents of 22 years who had organized relief around their villa (7 km from Galle but unable to travel there until 3 days ago)had their local lawyer present at customs to smooth away problems. He was a charming man called Bindu Wickramasekara, director of the Galle based charity “Friends of the South”.

Arrived to their Villa in Illuketia at 4am, ready to vaccinate at 10am.
Vaccination progress in Sri Lanka

The past couple of days have been really intense! Having got off to a bad start at 10 am Wednesday, told by a Sri Lankan health official who was a ‘WHO consultant’ that the Government Health Authority did not approve of anyone on the Island being given hepatitis or typhoid vaccines, we were dispirited and confused (this had all been organized and approved of the prior week). However moving onto a neighboring village, we found that because of our local contacts, the health officer there was actually personally willing to assist us vaccinating. Many happy pictures were taken of both of us vaccinating babies!

Wednesday lunchtime, we linked with expatriate group ‘Project Galle’, led by Alex, a resident, and Maze, an Irish lady who had been on holiday. They are trying to set up a database in Galle through which relief group can co-ordinate their efforts. This had become necessary as it was realized that there was a Japanese team doing something in one area; A Danish group dropping off machinery for pumping wells in another; a roving Hungarian medical team and some French policemen wandering about! This also turned out to be an opportunity to vaccinate this group of about 30 spontaneously formed aid workers.

Myself, Nikki and Bob Harrison, their daughter Jennie who’d just flown in from University England and a charming Sri Lankan lawyer called Bindu Wickramasekara who was a director of the local charity ‘Friends of the South”, then moved to the previously trendy but particularly hard hit beach resort of Unawatuna.

Bindu had targeted this area as being one in which people were staying around the remaining pieces of their homes, reluctant to abandon their few remaining possessions to looters. No longer with running water, and the wells contaminated, disease appeared to be only a matter of time.

The scene was extraordinary : children scrabbling round in the rubble; washing hanging out on lines over the now defunct main Galle railway line, and a row of toilets which in a previous life had been attached to the back of the largest restaurant, now standing sentinel on the beach, each one with the doors missing!

2nd Day in Sri Lanka

In Unawatuna, just South of Galle, we came across a small clearing in the rubble in which sat a motley group of Sri Lankan and expatriate owners of now demolished hotels and bars, discussing priorities and action to be taken. Dirty, with assorted bruises and cuts around the feet from clearing debris, they found us a table on which to work, on the edge of the dirty road. We soon led an efficient vaccination processing line: Nikki took them out of packaging, Jennie removed air in the syringe and halved the dose for children, and Bob passed them to me with cotton wool and alcohol swab. There, Nikki received the great news that JP Morgan were sending a team of men with equipment to clean wells!

Looking for assistance in giving two vaccines to five hundred people, I asked the assembled group if anyone had any experience in giving intramuscular injections. A young Sri Lankan claimed he had done it in the army, then got scared and ran off! (These people were very traumatized!) I was rescued by a lovely but rather tired looking man called Reto Cloetta, owner of the now non existent Neptune Bay Hotel. We were finished by dark.

Rather exhausted but wired up, I stayed up till midnight, chatting to assorted guests staying at the very glamorous and beautiful ‘ Villa Illuketia’ run by the Harrisons. This, well back from the beach, had been the temporary refuge of numerous Tsunami victims, including the family of Kate Evans, who had asked what was the most needed in the area that wasn’t provided, and had been told ‘vaccines’.

There were still temporary residents there, including the famous opera singer Barbara Segal, and also Fortune journalist Eric Ellis. They owned property in the area, and were motivated to help in any way possible.

The next morning ‘the team’ finished off with the Unawatuna village in the morning. We then moved to an area near Martara, 30km South. The talk in the landrover was of the President’s decree that no new or rebuilding could take place 350 meters from the beach. How extraordinary! How were people going to rebuild their homes? To make matters worse, planning permission had been switched from local to Central government, a move that might cost (people who had lost everything) more, and would definitely take longer.

An hour and a half later we reached our destination: Medihah Temple Village. These people had raced in a panic from the beaches to the hills and the temples which were well organized by the Buddhist monks. These were called ‘camps’ and were noticeably more calm and orderly.

As usual, every twenty minutes I’d be approached by someone wanting medical advice. This was inevitably a foot injury from clearing rubble and requiring antibiotic treatment.

At this one, the JVP, local communist coalition party were assisting us. I persuaded the young, tall JVP officer, affecting a Che Guevera look, to help take vaccinations out of the boxes!

Interestingly, in all the time I was there and the places I visited, I never saw one medical aid worker from any group, which I couldn’t understand. I decided that perhaps they were at a local hospital.

That night, people were rather tried and frayed at the edges. After a few drinks, dinner was served at 9 -10pm, as is common in most hot countries, A fitting end to another intense and draining day, there were a few dramas and tears shed around the dining table.

The next morning we only just managed to get the landrover up a boulder strewn path leading to a couple of ‘temple villages’ in the only hill in Galle called Roomasala. Luckily, Bob had done a 4-wheel drive course! A lot of people had taken their children and ran up this hill when the waves hit, so there were many displaced families. This hill was famous for having some wonderfully healing Ayurvedic herbs, which couldn’t be found anywhere else in Sri Lanka. According to myth, when one of the Gods needed some special plants in a hurry, he simply scooped up the earth and placed in a different country.

The incredibly sweet, very ascetic looking monks insisted on serving me tea with Jacob’s cream crackers. We were on such a tight schedule, not having had a tea or lunch break in three days – however it meant so much to them I decided to make the time.

Friday lunchtime, time to leave. Bindu had rushed off, expecting a large shipment of paint and building material to come in from the UK. He’d just heard that the government have an embargo on any foreign aids entering Colombo airport, unless accompanied by official letter from at least two Sri Lankan authorities. He was presently trying to get audience with an official in order to get one signed quickly.

This time in the afternoon, traffic was terrible the journey to Colombo took four hours.

Time, however, to absorb the coastal damage; the most surreal being rows of ships sitting on land, at various angles on their keels, besides the road and railway. Also, Galle cricket ground was covered in rubbish, with a small yacht in the middle.

Over ten thousand people had been killed (within a 2-mile radius) of Galle.

When I got to Colombo, it was with a sense of relief at being back in normality.