Rising from the rubble: Excerpts from a volunteer's post-tsunami diary
These passages are excerpted from a diary kept by Dr. Karen Kramer Hein, a 1968 alumna of Dartmouth Medical School, while she was volunteering with her husband, Dr. Ralph Dell, in an Indian village devastated by the 2004 tsunami. These excerpts are reprinted with permission from the Christian Children's Fund (CCF). Hein's entire diary can be read online at http://www.christianchildrensfund.org/content.aspx?id=620.
February 1, 2005
At first, the beach seemed empty. A few huge pieces of wooden boats [were] scattered about. A few men sat on the beach, facing different ways, not facing the water. As we got closer, we nearly tripped over chunks of broken concrete. That was all that remained of this fishing village where 1,000 families were living just five weeks ago. Fifty-two people were killed in this one village, and not one house remains.
As we kept walking, the rubble became more dense—pieces of driftwood, bits of plastic, random debris. Walking was difficult, since the ground was nothing more than piles of crumbled concrete. Out of the rubble appeared more people living in makeshift lean-tos and huts, with plastic sheets partially covering upright sticks defining small spaces where a family or group of people was sheltered.
People have to get water from a nearby water pump and use a public toilet at a community center. Each day, the government brings some rice, and the women line up to get an allotment. The kids are going to a school some distance away. Since there's little for them to do where the adults are, they stay at the school all day and evening.
People are afraid to sleep near the water, so many of them just sleep on the road or in the temple—away from the sea. There are no chairs, no beds, nowhere to sit and no privacy. Women cook on driftwood fires. They are stuck between their past and the future. The government has offered them temporary housing 20 kilometers inland, but they are fishermen, so they give up their livelihood if they move.
February 4, 2005
The CCS [child-centered space] is either a tent or an area where children gather for various programs. In the morning, they receive supplemental food (hard-boiled eggs, bananas, chickpeas), then there are various times for playing games with toys supplied by CCF (jump ropes, rubber rings, soccer balls, Indian board games) or if no formal schooling is possible, educational sessions for kids of various ages. The CCF staff had a series of games and exercises to help them deal with their fear of being near the sea.
The older kids had been working on a dramatic performance in which they acted out various aspects of the tsunami, including being trees knocked over and people dying on the beach. The drama ended by their receiving a prize from their district leaders and having a celebration in which they all got up and danced. We were welcomed into the scene and soon I was dancing and part of the circle. Later, I distributed the food supplement to 150
kids—they all lined up, sat quietly, then with the help of CCF workers each washed their little hands and came with a plate for their two tablespoons of chickpeas and a hard boiled egg.
Our official "job" is to help craft age-specific health assessments to be incorporated into the training of workers in these child-centered spaces. CCF has a terrific manual and training sessions based on their other emergency relief work in conflict zones or previous natural disasters, but now adapted specifically to India relating to the particulars of this post-tsunami situation here. CCF has expanded its staff to include Indian volunteers, either community leaders, young people, or folks from other Indian aid groups who have suspended their lives and careers to help out temporarily.
February 22, 2005
We got back to Vermont yesterday after nearly a month in India. Our thoughts are still 12,000 miles away along the southern coast of India. My mind jumps from glimpses of gaping holes in walls . . . to the sound of sand and concrete being mixed . . . to the pungent smell of human urine and feces mixed with the alluring aromas of curry, coriander, and cumin.
I am no longer naive about the impact of the tsunami. I know the old man whose wife and daughters went to water some trees they'd planted near the sea and never returned. I know the family with the 2½-year-old who won't let go of her father's pant leg in fear that he will be swept away. And the 19-year-old young woman who became a CCS volunteer in order to help kids in her village, as she heals the emptiness that consumed her when her own mother disappeared that sunny morning. I know the microbiology technician who knew many of the 150 medical students who died when the ground floor of a building flooded, washing them away, yet no one on the floor above was injured.
Where is the energy for the next phase going to come from? The first wave of volunteers are returning to their homes, exhausted but grateful to have been part of the immediate relief work.
The energy is in the kids—the babies, the children, and the young people. As soon as we arrived in a village, the main sounds were kids' voices. The main movement was the whirr of kids' bodies running, dancing, shoving, clowning, playing. The lucky ones were those in villages where there are child-centered spaces set up. These are the spots free of hazardous debris. No broken glass or iron rods sticking up from the sand. These are the places where there are toys and other kids to be with. These are the havens where they are the center of attention, not in the way of construction or needing something that their fractured families can't attend to or provide right now.
The kids are where the energy will come from for the future of these villages. . . . [They will become] the construction workers rebuilding homes, or the health teams that will be better prepared in the future, or the next generation of government officials who have not just witnessed, but lived through a natural disaster of such proportions. The kids will be the ones who rise from the rubble.