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Snags Hamper Mission of Mercy

Gaithersburg Man Encounters Delays, Bureaucracy in Sri Lanka

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; Page A01

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Rizwan Mowlana hadn't expected that doing his part to save a half-drowned country would involve finding four cows to be sacrificed.

But here was the Gaithersburg man -- who had gathered more than $1 million in cash and donated goods for his devastated homeland -- chasing through rural southern Sri Lanka in a rented Toyota Land Cruiser, in search of the local cattle broker.

Mowlana hands 3,000 rupees (about $30) to an injured vendor who cannot support her family. God bless, she replied. (Jacqueline L. Salmon -- The Washington Post)

"You think collecting money is hard?" he said. "Giving it away is even more difficult."

The challenge of rushing aid to a region so thoroughly laid to waste has been daunting even for the big international agencies that specialize in emergency relief. For a freelance operator such as Mowlana, who counted on his passion to trump his inexperience, coping with ponderous bureaucracies and corrupt officials has been downright exasperating.

So Mowlana had promised to achieve something quite simple: purchase four cows for local Muslim fishermen who were crushed by the tsunami, losing homes, belongings and -- most of all -- their children.

About 150 were living in tents amid their smashed community along the sea in downtown Hambantota, cooking on one fly-covered hot plate. When Mowlana had stopped by, they had gathered around him in the hot sun, shouting. They were running out of food and water, they said. The government was doing nothing to help.

But Mowlana didn't have much to offer. The 1,000 pounds of donated food and medical supplies that he'd brought was still stuck at the airport, despite the fact that he'd paid thousands of dollars in bribes. Other supplies he'd collected were still at sea.

So Mowlana had offered to purchase four cows they could sacrifice at a festival to mark the end of the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The fishermen could feed the meat to their families.

But after a half-hour ride to the cattle broker's house, Mowlana found that the man was away.

Mowlana slumped back in this seat, his normal buoyancy ebbing away.

"What a waste of time," he said grimly. He forced out a weak laugh. Another hard lesson had been learned.

The quest to do good had led Mowlana -- a 47-year-old Sri Lankan native who has lived in the United States with his wife, Naz, for the past two decades -- from Gaithersburg to a cow broker's home in Sri Lanka.

More than 40 of his relatives died in the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 in Sri Lanka. Naz lost 50 family members.

Within hours of getting the dreadful news, Mowlana launched an energetic one-man campaign to help his homeland, forming a nonprofit organization he called Asia Relief.

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