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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.

"They are doing good work," said Sundararajah, 54. "That's why I joined them."

Area of Devastation

Flanked by the ocean and a lagoon, shaded by graceful, curving coconut palms, Komari is a place of captivating beauty that occupies a narrow strip of sandy soil about 130 miles east of Colombo, the capital.

Even before the tsunami, it was also a place of considerable poverty. In contrast to the other side of this island nation, which in recent decades has experienced a boom in tourism and other industries, the east coast has borne the brunt of the suffering during the 20-year civil war between Sri Lankan government forces and rebels from the country's ethnic Tamil minority.

The death toll from the tsunami in Komari was far lower than it might have been. The catastrophe killed about 31,000 people nationwide. In this town, only an estimated 75 of 3,500 residents died, thanks in part to the quick thinking of paramilitary troops who evacuated the village before it was completely flooded. But the physical damage here was staggering, with most structures reduced to heaps of bricks or perhaps a single room or wall.

As elsewhere in Sri Lanka, international aid organizations rushed to provide food and other assistance to displaced families, most of whom still live in two large refugee camps that bracket Komari. But in what remains of the village, much of the recovery work has been carried out by the small team of freelancers that Byock recently left.

The team owes its existence to Darrin Coldiron, 35, a brash, stocky firefighter from Spokane, Wash., who flew to Sri Lanka with a colleague in early January. Other members included Lean, the nurse, and Andy Ashton, a primary school teacher, who were living together in Darwin. They initially tried to volunteer with established aid groups; finding no takers, they quit their jobs anyway, flew to Sri Lanka at their own expense and came to Komari.

Defining a Mission

Byock had experienced a similar awakening. After graduating from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., in 2004, she drifted from place to place. She was staying with her grandmother in San Diego, and "99 percent of the way through 'Anna Karenina,' " the classic Leo Tolstoy novel, when the tsunami struck.

She hooked up with a tsunami relief group in her home town of Missoula, helped raise money and learned about Komari from her local newspaper. An aunt bought her a plane ticket to Colombo, where she landed on Feb. 19.

The money Byock brought with her from Missoula, along with funds raised elsewhere, swelled the team's coffers to about $40,000. The group acquired a name, Northwest Firefighter Disaster Recovery, and a purpose. With larger organizations devoting most of their resources to semi-permanent housing and sanitation in the camps, the team decided to focus its energies on the village.

To that end, they tried to set an example by moving into a grubby, tile-roofed bungalow that is one of Komari's few intact dwellings. Thrown together like contestants on "Survivor," they shared the hardships of hauling water from a well and showering under a plastic container warmed by the sun.

As a first step toward making the village habitable, the volunteers began an effort to clean wells that had been flooded with seawater, acquiring pumps and a $450 salinity tester and consulting foreign experts by phone and e-mail. Hiring local workers for $5 a day, they also went to work on the school, knocking down classroom buildings that Coldiron deemed unsafe and fixing others.

The volunteers have encountered many unforeseen roadblocks. In particular, they have clashed with local officials over the interpretation of a new rule meant to discourage people from living within about 200 yards of the sea, a policy that has effectively placed much of Komari off-limits to rebuilding. They have also had problems with workers from professional aid agencies.

"The predominant line was, 'We're so-and-so, and we're the ones who are in charge, and if you want to do anything, you should do it through us,'" Coldiron recalled.

Against that backdrop, Byock said, the energy and enthusiasm she felt when she arrived in Komari soon dissipated.

During her first weeks here, she worked on an employment initiative that paid village women to weave roof panels out of palm fronds for temporary housing. But the initiative fizzled, Byock said, when the women decided they were better off collecting handouts while "sitting in camp."

Moreover, Byock said, whenever she tried to suggest alternatives, "Darrin's catchphrase was, 'We tried that and it didn't work.' It was a very scary situation."

To add to her troubles, she ran afoul of a local police official, who found her at home by herself one afternoon and made what she regarded as "inappropriate" overtures. Word of the episode got back to the man's superiors, who reprimanded him, Byock said. The official then turned hostile, demanding repeatedly to see her passport -- which she feared was a prelude to deportation -- and interfering with her work.

Signs of Progress

By late April, when a reporter visited, Komari still resembled a ghost town. Coldiron had returned to his firefighting job, and the three remaining volunteers were showing signs of strain. Unwinding after a long day's work, Lean, the nurse, wearily described how a 90-minute argument with a local lumber supplier over the terms of a delivery had reduced her to tears.

"At the moment I feel pretty burned out," said Lean, an intense woman with a warm smile that appears infrequently. "There are just too many barriers."

Lean expressed particular dismay at the tepid reaction of residents to the group's housing initiative. The team had offered to build simple wooden homes for refugees who wished to return to the village, provided they demonstrated their seriousness by contributing $50 -- in cash or labor -- of the $350 cost. Most preferred to remain in the crowded camps.

The missing teachers were another cause of frustration. Riding a borrowed motorcycle through the village, Ashton, the teacher, nodded in the direction of a temporary, open-air classroom, where children in white uniforms sat patiently. Their teacher was nowhere in sight.

"That just makes me sick seeing that," Ashton said.

But the freelancers could also point to signs of progress. After several months of effort, the team and its local laborers had pumped out most of the village's 450 wells. While contamination problems remained, the salinity in some wells had been reduced to the point where Ashton could mark them as "clean" in a color-coded computer spreadsheet.

Byock also was beginning to see the fruits of her efforts, which for most of April focused on helping landowners restore their gardens and croplands to productive use. Walking through Komari on her morning rounds, she watched approvingly as a villager and one of the team's paid workers strung barbed wire around a small plot that would soon be planted with donated mango and lime-tree seedlings.

"The way to start agriculture now is with trees, because they're much easier to watch, and water," Byock said before moving on to another part of the village, where she exhorted farmers to move quickly on a plan to form a new farmers' society.

Byock's troubles with the police official, however, were not over. During a meeting that week with the man's superior, she and her colleagues learned that the officer was due to be transferred as a consequence of her complaint about his behavior. Fearing retribution by the officer or one of his friends, all three decided it would be best if Byock left the country as soon as possible.

In a hotel lobby in Colombo shortly before her departure, Byock was philosophical as she reflected on her nine weeks in Komari. She expressed confidence that the work she started would continue, tempered with regret that she would not be around to see it. And far from being disillusioned by the experience, she said she would like to return to Sri Lanka, albeit as a paid development specialist.

"I don't feel like I failed," she said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company