In Sri Lanka, a Hard Lesson On Road of Good Intentions

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 28, 2005

KOMARI, Sri Lanka -- She was fresh out of college, bright-eyed and ambitious, an earthy, well-read physician's daughter from Missoula, Mont., with an iPod, a loving family and lots of big ideas. The only thing Satya Byock said she lacked was "a freaking plan."

The tsunami gave her one.

Two months after the Dec. 26 calamity in South Asia, equipped with high hopes and $13,000 in donated funds, Byock made her way to this remote fishing and farming community on Sri Lanka's east coast. Here, she joined forces with several other volunteers -- including a firefighter from Washington state and a young Australian couple -- in an ad hoc recovery effort.

What followed was a harsh dose of reality.

With limited resources and no experience in relief work, the freelancers have struggled in the face of obstinate bureaucracies, profiteering local businessmen, tensions with mainstream aid groups and resistance from villagers, most of whom remain too fearful of another giant wave -- or too dependent on aid donations -- to leave their refugee camps and return home.

The first-time aid workers have watched in dismay as the school they helped to rebuild has lost students because many of its teachers have failed to show up for work. They have also endured the hardships of life without electricity or running water, and moments of agonizing self-doubt.

In many ways, their story echoes those of thousands of untrained foreigners -- known derisively in professional aid circles as "tsunami tourists" -- who flocked to the region to be a part of the largest humanitarian relief effort in history and have emerged both chastened and wiser for the experience.

"There was such a sense of disappointment, and an overwhelming sense of cynicism," recalled Byock, 21, who said she preferred the term "guerrilla aid workers." "I thought about leaving a number of times."

But their efforts have not been for naught.

Despite the setbacks, the Komari volunteers have drawn strength from small triumphs, such as pumping wells clean of seawater or rebuilding the home of an elderly tsunami refugee who wanted to return here to die. Nor are they giving up. Although Byock unexpectedly left the country this month after a dispute with a local police official, the Australians remain and another American has arrived to take her place; Byock plans to keep working on behalf of the village, through awareness events and fundraising, in the United States.

"Every now and again I have a day when I think, 'What am I doing here?' " said Genevieve Lean, 29, an intensive care nurse who came here from the Australian city of Darwin and is now the team's leader. But invariably, she added, "at the end of the day something happens that makes you think, 'Okay, I can do this.' "

Villagers seem to appreciate their efforts. T. Sundararajah, for example, is a farmer and shop owner who said he began drinking heavily after he lost most of his possessions to the tsunami. But the freelance group has given him hope. He recently quit drinking, he said, and now works with the team on an initiative to restore damaged croplands.

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