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In a country facing serious problems

Some thoughts on the occasion of the opening of Kalmunai Hospital

My back is aching, my arms hurt, the immense heat is taking all energy out of my body – this heat that does not only come from the tropical sun which is burning down on our old truck. It feels as if we are sitting right on top of the engine which is burning under the hood. Seven hours ago we started from the Children’s Village carrying the most important of the medicines which had been organized by the organization Pharmacists without borders. Unbelievable how they had managed that in such a short time, but there a many such unbelievable things these days following the devastating tsunami. The street into the disaster area around the city of Kalmunai on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka is a catastrophe – actually a string of potholes, some of them so deep they could mean the end of our old and heavily loaded truck.

“Have to stop, engine need rest”, says Suresh with whom I’m driving the old truck towards the east. “Anyway, we have to stop there again”, I reply exhaustedly pointing to the end of the street where a military barrier is coming into sight. It’s the fifths barrier in less than 120 kilometers.
The soldiers are nervous and irritated. No clear instructions how to handle aid transports had been given to them – here too the tsunami has left a big mess. “It’s for our people” says Suresh in his Singhalese dialect of the south coast. He is from Galle and that impresses the soldiers. He is one of them. Although Suresh’s home town has also been stricken heavily by the tsunami, the 33 year old Singhalese has not hesitated to come to the Children’s Village in Koslanda to join us in our efforts to organize aid measures from there, beginning with the eastern coast.
With this old truck we brought urgently needed aid to the east coast. Anton and Suresh were among the first who reached the destroyed city of Kalmunai.
Only three days after the tsunami he went to Kalmunai for the first time accompanied by my son Manuel and three colleagues. In August Manuel had started his voluntary social year in the Children’s Village and only two weeks before the catastrophe he had celebrated his 18th birthday. And now the young man had to face a tremendous challenge. In this situation of absolute chaos during the first weeks after the tsunami, he suddenly had to take decisions, find solutions, had to help where help couldn’t wait.

I myself was in Germany at that moment. It was my first Christmas there in many years, but I returned as soon as possible. So this is my first transport to the crisis-torn area, the third for Suresh.
We have passed Ampare already a while ago, it is said to be officially the last safe city, which means under control of the army. Now we’re passing huge paddy fields, or rather what the monstrous wave of mud and debris and the following flood have left behind.
The closer we come to the coast, the more tents we see, mostly tarpaulins stretched hastily over bars – a provisional protection against the rain. People come hurrying to the street, waving and then disappointedly turn away again as we do not stop. Not a single tree to be seen, only a desert of rubble and mud.
It’s getting dark as we reached the east coast. For a long time we have been driving through an expanse of rubble. Something is wrong with the alternator. Whenever I turn on the headlamps the engine turns off. So Suresh takes a torch and sits down on the hood. We both started to laugh. Only a moment later we surrender at the sight of a black water surface under which the street disappears. I’m extremely tired. 38 hours ago I started from Munich and the days before I haven’t had much sleep either. So many things had to be organized from Germany and now I’m in a completely different world.
Only ten days ago the world came to an end here, at least for many people. Suresh says the worst thing is that there are so many missing persons and that you cannot say goodbye and thus let go. “Boss, you will see! Still they are searching, still they are hoping”.

“Hope is the last to die!” Still weeks after the tsunami desperate people are searching for survivors in the rubble. Since her family members have not been found yet this woman just cannot believe either that she will never see her man and children again.
The driving cab is cramped and hot. The engine will glow still hours later. The back is packed with medicine. We lay down on the road right next to the truck. I fell asleep immediately and don’t realize how swarms of mosquitoes are attacking me. At some point during that night the itching is so severe that I wake up – swollen lips and eyes – their stings are everywhere. Suresh is sitting on the hood, blowing the smoke of his cigarette into the night. Without turning around, as if speaking with himself he says, “Boss, I’m here because you called me, but my people are also dead and my city is destroyed.” Then he turns around, his eyes searching for me in the dark. “Boss”, he says, “if we have finished here, will you help my people in Galle too?”
I lean to the hood which is still warm. “Suresh, I do not know what lies still ahead and how all this will end, but I promise that I won’t make any difference between Singhalese and Tamils. If we all stay together and try everything, we can achieve a lot – at your home town in the south as well.” Suresh nods slowly. “Okay, if we have finished here, we go to Galle.” It became a long night, with many more stings and even more thinking.
At dawn we start the truck again. It starts immediately. It seems as if the engine is also giving its best. “Let’s try”, says Suresh engaging noisily the first gear. The clutch seems to be at the end too. We have no idea how deep the water in front of us is and where exactly the street is, but with some skill and luck we overcome this obstacle too.
I shall never forget what I saw when I first reached the east coast after the tsunami. Rubble, pain and a breath-taking stench everywhere. Where to begin in such a chaos?
Hours later: Slowly and tiredly honking we are making our way through dense crowds of people surrounding the Ashraff Memorial Hospital. Here we are – finally – eagerly awaited. A Moslem wearing a white cap embraces me. We unload the truck.

5 years and 8 days later.

The same Moslem embraces me and again it’s not an empty gesture. My God! So many things have happened since then, how much has my life - and this country too - changed. The tsunami was omnipresent each and every day of my life. A constant struggle to keep a promise I made to others but even more to myself.

Today is the opening of the big supply building for the Ashraff Memorial Hospital in Kalmunai.
This time I haven’t come with a truck bringing medicine – I have come with the bus bringing many of my children from the Children’s Village in the mountains and from the Little Smile children’s homes at the eastern part of Sri Lanka.

My God! How many problems and difficulties we were facing everywhere, even with the construction of this building. Four years ago the foundation stone was laid in mud and mire. The architect, the engineer and the builder too, they all had been trying to cheat us, so eventually I had to finish the building with my own people. And there was no assistance to be expected from the government – on the contrary. The only thing they wanted was taxes from the aid funds.

These five years have cost lots of energy, more than one can give. The responsible persons from Pharmacists without borders who have financed this building always showed understanding and made it clear to me that especially such relatively small organizations are able to work so professional and flexible.

And again there are quarrels in Sri Lanka, and again people are killed. Only 13 days till the presidential elections – in such a situation not only arguments are thrown at you in this country. Despite this, or perhaps precisely because of this, we wanted to set a signal on this 13th of January 2010. Germans, Singhalese and Tamils have worked together and have managed to achieve quite a lot. Not a cent has been taken for corruption or to pay commissions. It may well be that there will be no single word of this opening to be found in German media and that no one there is really interested in it. And it may well be that Sri Lankan media will not mention it either due to the fact that I made it a condition that the reporting should be free of electoral campaigning polemics.
As with the laying of the foundation stone, the single Muslim Minister of the country, Mrs. Ferial Ashraff has come. The hospital was named after her husband who had been murdered. I have brought pictures drawn by children who had been affected by the tsunami. Each one of these pictures, which we framed just last night, tells a profoundly moving and shocking story.

And everybody who is visiting this exhibition on the 2nd floor feels right away that there is no space for high-sounding or loud words. At this place people have learned what it means to be a human and act humane.

In the large hall on the 1st floor more than 100 Little-Smile-children, some of them from our girls homes in the east and some of them from the Children’s Village in the mountains, are waiting. Ulrich Brunner and Jochen Schreck, the representatives of Pharmacists without borders also feel that this building is not created solely with stones, cement and iron.

It’s a wonderful opening without great pomp and ceremony – an honest celebration, a good start.

In the evening we will go back to the Children’s Village from where I have to start southwards to Galle two days later. We have built a school there too and a meeting centre will be finished soon.

I kept the promise I had given Suresh in that long night when I drove with him to the east coast for the first time, the promise to try everything, and together we have made a big step on a long way to more humanity in a country facing serious problems.