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.

"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.

Washington area residents, and others from across the United States, responded overwhelmingly to his appeals, mostly through television news appearances. They donated money through his Web site and dropped off clothes, canned goods, Band-Aids, ibuprofen, toothpaste, cereal, diapers and toys at the Mowlanas' home.

Their driveway, garage and family room filled with donations. One man brought an armful of clothes he'd purchased at Nordstrom -- Ralph Lauren T-shirts, a suit, trousers. Others brought cases of canned goods and bottled water and stuffed animals. A neighbor lent them his garage to store the overflow.

An owner of a medical equipment company in Modesto, Calif., donated $1 million in medical supplies -- surgical equipment, an EKG machine, medications -- and said he would ship it to Sri Lanka at his cost.

Dozens of volunteers showed up to pack up the usable items for shipment, filling hundreds of boxes and loading them onto wooden pallets for air freight and into trucks that would fill two 40-foot shipping containers. They signed their names on the boxes and scrawled messages for stricken Sri Lankan tsunami refugees -- "I love you!" and "Hang in there!"

Mowlana, director of the Maryland and Virginia offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was jubilant. With all this aid, and more to come, Asia Relief could care for orphans, construct a hospital, rebuild villages. He said he and his family would load supplies into a jeep in Sri Lanka and deliver it to the refugee camps.

He flew off to Sri Lanka to distribute the aid Jan. 14, taking along his wife and two of their three children -- 22-year-old Farha and 12-year-old Tasnim -- as well as Farha's 1-year-old daughter, Sakina.

The next day, reality set in for the visitors: Giving away their donations from America wasn't going to be easy.

Just getting to the disaster zone was complicated. They had difficulty finding a reasonably priced rental Jeep and driver to take them there; other aid organizations had snapped them all up. Their Sri Lankan cell phone wasn't working. And the pallet of supplies -- bandages, gauze, antiseptic, rice and lentils -- they had shipped via air freight was still stuck at Sri Lanka's only international airport, Colombo Bandaranaike Airport.

Officials wanted 300,000 rupees in bribes -- about $3,000 -- to release it. A police inspector had shown up at Mowlana's hotel room to negotiate the deal. He had even hinted that a gift of the Canon Sure Shot camera that he'd spied in the hotel room would speed the process.

Mowlana had dodged the camera request but paid the bribe. Nonetheless, he still didn't know when he would receive the goods.

In a rented car searching for a working ATM machine in downtown Colombo later that day, Mowlana tapped the back of the car seat lightly in frustration. He wasn't an impatient man, but this was frustrating. The tsunami had made Sri Lankan's notoriously corrupt bureaucracy even more greedy, he said.

"It's unfortunate that people prey on other people's tragedies," he said. He was worried about money, too. So far, he had spent less than $3,000 of Asia Relief's money. He'd been covering most expenses -- including the bribe -- out of a $60,000 home equity loan that he and Naz had signed before leaving.

"If I'm going to dive into the money that people have given me, I want to do the right thing," he said. But the reality was that he couldn't afford to cover much more. He'd already also spent thousands of dollars of his own money to ship the supplies.

Two days later, the Mowlana family members, wearing their white Asia Relief T-shirts, were on the road to visit the disaster zone. Naz had finally located a rental car and a driver. They had hoped to bring supplies with them to give to victims, but the pallet still had not been released from the airport.

As they drove, Mowlana worked the new cell phone he'd purchased, calling the network of Sri Lankan officials that he had developed through his well-connected family and through his annual visits to the country in the past two decades.

He made some calls about land promised by a Sri Lankan provincial office on which Asia Relief could build a hospital. And he phoned a relative, a Sri Lankan member of parliament, who had told him he knew of a company in Pakistan that could quickly ship 3,500 10-person tents and had promised to get him contact information.

Mowlana had been told that family-size tents were desperately needed in the disaster zones. He had posted an appeal for tent donations on the Asia Relief Web site. Unfortunately, his eager American supporters had sent two-person pup tents -- useless for a populace that would have to live in them for weeks or months.

But the politician didn't have the Pakistani contact information yet.

Mowlana hung up and threw up his hands in disgust.

"These guys are so bloody slow, I tell you."

Along the south coast, the wreckage began to appear -- blown-out buildings, twisted coconut trees, people picking through the wreckage. There were some signs of life -- white-uniformed schoolchildren, stacks of new bricks for rebuilding. But even Mowlana, who was prepared for the devastation, was stunned. "It's like war," he said. "Like a bombing."

The car passed a rusting red train draped along the train tracks a few hundred feet from the beach, surrounded by wrecked trees. More than 800 people had died on it when the waves roared over it.

"I lost family on that train," he said. An aunt and her children.

They stopped at a rural hospital close to the ocean -- a whitewashed brick building with grimy cement floors and a goat grazing in the inner courtyard.

After the tsunami, many people who had been injured and more than 200 of the dead were brought to the facility. But the hospital staff had rushed out to check on their own families, and some of the injured died while waiting for treatment, the staff told Mowlana.

The chief medical officer told Mowlana that he was running out of medicine that he received after the tsunami. He gave Mowlana a list of medicines he needed, and Mowlana promised to return with supplies when his containers of medicine came in. He also offered to fund an emergency room needed by the hospital. The doctor gratefully accepted, and they shook hands.

In the car, Mowlana sighed with satisfaction. "The meeting was excellent," he told his wife.

The emergency room project would cost about $260,000. Mowlana said he would give the hospital $50,000 from Asia Relief funds and raise the rest himself from supporters.

"We can do it as a gift from the American people," he said.

In this shattered land, Mowlana could not resist any tale of woe.

At a stop at a farm stand for a breakfast of coconut and hoppers, the owners told Mowlana about a vegetable vendor badly injured after being caught in the waves when the tsunami consumed a marketplace in Hambantota, about 15 miles away.

She could not work and support her three children and husband, who made little money as a laborer.

Mowlana resolved to help her. After a 15-minute drive and several stops for directions, he found her in a small house at the end of a dirt road. The 41-year-old woman's broken left foot was bandaged in bright blue cloth, and her right hand swollen and twisted. The hand was badly infected. Doctors had stitched it hastily after she was found, without cleaning the wounds first.

She needed funds to survive until she could work again. And she mentioned that she would like a small shop in Hambantota.

Mowlana gave her 3,000 rupees -- about $30 -- to buy food for her family for the next several weeks and promised to build a shop for her.

The woman carefully folded her healthy hand around the bills and smiled shyly. God bless, she said.

In the car, Mowlana clapped his hand on his wife's shoulder and smiled triumphantly. "That's a project."

They would find a carpenter next week to build a shop, he said. When it was done, they would come back and hang ribbons and an Asia Relief sign, and have an opening ceremony.

Along the way, Mowlana got out his cell phone and started another round of calls. His son-in-law in Gaithersburg had left him a voice mail. He'd located tents in China that could be shipped immediately. Mowlana ordered 1,500 of them.

Things were looking up. His pallet at the airport would be available in a few days. He planned to set out for hospitals and relief camps to distribute those supplies. He'd given 40,000 rupees -- about $400 -- to the imam of the local mosque to locate and purchase the sacrificial cows for the Muslims. Other plans were percolating.

With bottled water, Band-Aids and Nordstrom suits from a grieving America, Rizwan Mowlana of Gaithersburg had a country to save.

Rizwan Mowlana, in cap, meets with Muslim fishermen who lost relatives in the tsunami. He said he would find them four sacrificial cows, a vow that proved hard to fulfill. Mowlana hands 3,000 rupees (about $30) to an injured vendor who cannot support her family. God bless, she replied.