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Entrepreneur, Angel of Mercy

German Expatriate Sets Work Aside to Aid Sri Lankan Victims

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page A14

WELIGAMA, Sri Lanka, Jan. 6 -- Thomas Gerbracht steered his canary-yellow 4x4 through the ravaged streets, past the smashed buildings, heaps of rubble and the sodden grove of palm trees where, on the first day, he saw the buses filled with dead. He stopped in front of a house and hailed a young woman sitting on the verandah.

"So how are things here?" he said, asking if the well that supplied her drinking water had been contaminated by the surging sea.


Thomas Gerbracht, a German expatriate businessman in Sri Lanka, has put $65,000 of his money into emergency rations to help assist survivors of the Dec. 26 tsunami. More than 30,000 Sri Lankans died as a result of the disaster, and thousands more are homeless. (John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)

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How to Help Victims

_____ Rebuilding Weligama _____

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"No good," the woman confirmed in broken English. "I no water."

The German-born Gerbracht gave her a reassuring smile, promising to send a work crew -- firefighters from Munich airport -- to clean up the well in the morning. "They have a pump," he explained before continuing his rounds.

In normal life, Gerbracht, 47, is a successful entrepreneur whose Sri Lanka-based organic food business is one of the biggest in Asia. But the tsunami that struck this island nation on Dec. 26, killing more than 30,000 people, has thrust him into a new and unaccustomed role: angel of mercy.

So it is throughout Sri Lanka, where many vital relief operations are being carried out not by the government or humanitarian aid agencies -- although both are doing what they can -- but by businessmen and private citizens. They have put careers and personal lives on hold and, in many cases, dug deep into their own pockets to pay for food and other immediate needs.

"We have been shocked, but I said, 'Okay, we have to do something,' " said Gerbracht, who is coordinating relief operations with other expatriate and Sri Lankan businessmen along a stretch of the southwest coast. "We can't just sit there and be unhappy or angry. We have to think for the future, and we have to start immediately."

The aid offered by businesses takes many forms. The IBM office in Colombo has provided the government with software and laptop computers for tracking orphans and relief activities. People at a tire factory's canteen are preparing meals for several thousand survivors.

In the first days after the waves struck, ordinary Sri Lankans outside the coastal disaster zone swarmed into the streets with armloads of clothing and food in response to appeals broadcast over loudspeakers in privately owned trucks.

"If you went to a grocery store last Tuesday, there was nothing on the shelves," U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Lunstead said in an interview. "People weren't hoarding. They were buying it to give away. There was this incredible outpouring of emotion."

Government officials have acknowledged that they are unable to cope with the scale of the destruction on their own, and in many cases, it shows. Here in Weligama, 75 miles south of Colombo, government workers are struggling to distribute food to 10,000 people at 26 temporary shelters with four small pickup trucks; to do the job right, it would take 10 more trucks, said Bandula Abeywickramesinghe, a social services officer overseeing the main food depot at an abandoned textile mill here.

Ad hoc private efforts are helping to fill the gap. In this part of Sri Lanka, one of the most ambitious efforts is being undertaken by a handful of businessmen, including Gerbracht, a personable man whose shaggy hair and sandals hint at a bohemian past.

In Germany, Gerbracht owned bars and discotheques; he discovered Sri Lanka as a tourist. Twelve years ago, he said, he grew weary of the long hours in Germany, sold his businesses and moved here with his wife, Heike, envisioning a Robinson Crusoe-like existence of small-scale farming in a remote tropical paradise.

Out of those humble beginnings grew Target Agriculture Pvt. Ltd., a $10-million-a-year company that employs more than 300 people and buys produce from thousands of farmers throughout Sri Lanka. According to Gerbracht, the firm supplies certified-organic ingredients to companies that include Heinz and Whole Foods Market.

He and his wife live with their two children, ages 17 and 8, several miles from the ocean on a picturesque hillside estate called Tanemera. Their property is planted with rubber trees, coconut palms and mango trees; the air outside their spacious plantation house smells pleasantly of the cinnamon they spray on plants as a natural pesticide.

In the hours after the tsunami struck, Gerbracht and his wife drove up and down the coast -- the parts that were accessible -- to check on friends, including an 81-year-old German retiree whose beachfront home was all but flattened. They found him, battered but alive, in a local hospital.

By the second day, Gerbracht and other businessmen in the area had gotten over their shock and were organizing a relief effort.

For Gerbracht, that has meant spending about $65,000 of his own money on emergency food rations, much of which he stockpiled at his estate. He coordinated a shipment from a German aid agency. He arranged for the delivery of a portable water purification plant that can produce drinking water for 30,000 people a day. And he bombarded friends in Germany with e-mails appealing for food, medicine and other supplies; 170 tons of it arrived a few days ago on a chartered Boeing 747 from Munich, whose airport dispatched a team of firefighters.

Heike Gerbracht, meanwhile, mobilized the estate staff to cook fish curry and rice for 2,000 people a day. She spends part of each day overseeing deliveries to Buddhist temples where survivors have taken shelter.

"It's not possible for us to just look on," said Heike, 38, who ran a computer business in Germany. "It's our community. We know these people."

The effort has not been without hitches. Government officials initially tried to collect customs duties on donated goods arriving from abroad, then insisted that the supplies be distributed through government channels, rather than private ones. They dropped the demands after Thomas Gerbracht threatened to divert the aircraft to the sea-ravaged resort island of Phuket in Thailand.

Gerbracht is also coordinating the activities of the six German firefighters. On Thursday morning, the firefighters loaded up a truck with several portable generators and fire hoses and drove to the fishing village of Mirissa, where 15 people died in the tsunami, to pump out contaminated wells.

"I am very happy, and I thank them for their help," said Yasawathi Bodahandegea, 75, whose well was pumped out by the Germans. "They did everything for free."


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