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Universal Forum of Cultures Barcelona 2004

Wed, 29 Dec 2004  14:53:49 +0530
Subject: Sri Lanka update #1/ 29 Dec 2004

Aloha All:

Hello from Daniel Susott, MD, in Colombo .  We are happy to have survived the tsunami.  Our small boat in the islands off of Southern Thailand was de-masted.   The 6 of us passengers were snorkeling off another boat and found ourselves battling currents which sucked one direction, making it impossible for 2 of our group to reach our boat.  As soon as we picked them up from the other side of the small island, the  ocean surged violently in the OPPOSITE direction, threatening to suck our boat into the vortex.  We had no idea what was going on.  Gradually we learned of the unfolding horror, and made it back to the beach where we’d started at 0815 that morning.  An hour after we had left the beach, the big wave had struck and wiped everything out.  We were lucky.  We survived.  Thousands more did not.   Happily the boat’s motor still worked and we could get “home” and back to Bangkok .

When I learned of the magnitude of the need in Sri Lanka , I decided to come here immediately, to do what I could to coordinate the aid which is desperately needed.   I came also because of my longstanding friendship with Dr. A.T. Ariyarathne (Nobel-Prize nominee, the “Gandhi of Sri Lanka”, and the founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana, a very effective movement for development in the region.

Dr. Ariyaratne says the death toll is already over 30,000 here and he is expecting it to top 50,000.   I am hoping that The Airline Ambassadors, for whom I am the new Medical Director, will be able to assist with transporting some of the aid which is so desperately needed here.

More soon to follow. Have to send this fast -

Best wishes, may All Beings be Happy,

Daniel Susott, MD
29 Dec 2004











This girl lost her parents and all known relatives in the killer wave, and has been mute ever since. She is in a Hindu temple converted into a shelter for some of the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by the tsunami.


4 January 2005


Call it coincidence. I like to think I played some part in saving some of the 15,000 people stranded in the worst-hit area of the south-eastern coast. The bridges were destroyed, the roads cut, and reports were that 15,000 souls were marooned, stranded, without food or clean water or even shelter. This, a WEEK AFTER the tsunami.

At the offices of the TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organization), a beehive of activity, there was great concern over this stranded community, cut off from the outside world.  All the local boats had been destroyed or were afraid to take to the water fearing another killer wave. The Government was doing nothing to help them. What was needed was a helicopter.  Or fleet of them.  With the key staff of the TRO, the main conduit of aid from Operation USA, I attended the coordinating meeting of the CNO, the Centre for National Operations.  Our group were not happy that this coordinating function had been taken out of the hands of the United Nations, thus leaving the process even more open to inefficiency and inequalities.  When we raised the question of the stranded people, a military man on the panel in front of the assembly said “there are no stranded people.  There are no communities without services.”  As we left the meeting in frustration, I got the cards of the 2 people there from USAID, and while at dinner heard that the United States Marines were about to arrive – with helicopters!  So I called one them, asking when the copters were arriving, and who would be responsible for directing them to the most urgent areas of need. I got the answer, called him, and left an urgent message that helicopters with aid must be dispatched to “Ampara district,  Komari – across the bay!”

    The next day I saw on BBC World News that indeed, the Marines had landed in Ampara and attended to a large group of stranded people...  

Then tonight at dinner at the TransAsia Hotel, I saw 2 Afro-American guys in military fatigues, and found out they were indeed from the USA – from the helicopter unit!  When I told them about “our” stranded people, they said “that sounds like the folks we got to today”!   I thanked them, Sgts. Scott from Longview, Texas, and  Price from Louisiana .  (I’m a Texan too – Waco , y’know.)

    I feel good about this – even if it IS a coincidence.  I did what I could, and maybe it helped. I have met many of the key players in the unfolding drama here and done what I could to facilitate communication between the various groups. I have been coordinating the in-shipment of aid, facilitated by Nancy Rivard’s Airline Ambassadors, creating an unprecedented convoy of commercial airliners ferrying aid from the United States to Bangkok where it is to be loaded into the cargo holds of aircraft form Sri Lankan Airways – all space donated, free of charge. United, American, and Northwest Airlines are helping on the US end, and Cathay Pacific also, which has flights all the way from the USA to Colombo , a connection cultivated by Richard Walden of Operation USA and Skip Whitney of his board.

    A WEEK AFTER the tsunami.  I finally got to see my old friend Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sarvodaya.  We have been speaking on the phone daily, but going in different directions.  He is all over the country, and Sarvodaya is active in all the affected areas.  They have been building their infrastructure for years.  He just returned from 3 days in Jaffna and Molatiu in the north, and reports that relief programs are going well there, as well as in the east and northeast.  He seems very well, vigorous as always, enjoying his petite digital camera. He snaps photos continually of the 200+ staff working around Sarvodaya headquarters, at the Disaster Relief Center .   There is a lot of activity there as they dispatch lorries full of aid to the affected areas.  His son is officially directing Sarvodaya now, but Ari is very much involved on a daily basis.

So what else.  All the medicines shipped in by Rotary were appropriated by the Government and the military with none disbursed to the private organizations.  The newspapers announced today that the military is taking over running of ALL the camps for displaced persons.  This does not sit well with the TRO.

    Mr. Kumar Nadesan, publisher of the leading Tamil-language newspaper, with whom we took the “mother of all road trips” to Batticaloa, is  creating 2 model camps to house 1,000 people in each, one for Muslims and one for Hindus, who have different needs.   He wants to “give back’ something to the readers who have supported HIM all these years by reading his paper.   He is a sincere and earnest man, whom I first met 20 years ago on my first visit to Sri Lanka , when I convened a meeting of the government and the media around the threat of AIDS.  I was working then as the Senior Physician Consultant to the AIDS Initiative at New York City Health and Hospitals Corp, and  Mr. Nadesan’s wife Sue came to the meeting – she had been an intern in training in New York and took care of the first documented AIDS patient... Before AIDS was even known!  We have kept in touch over the years, and now I am honored to get to work with Kumar in this relief effort.

The TRO are greatly supported by those of the “diaspora” returning to help:  I have met doctors and engineers and lawyers and others coming from Australia, the U.K., and the USA , all here to help.  There is a great opportunity for healing between the factions here in Sri Lanka which have been in conflict for decades, and we are all praying that UNITY is the result of this disaster, and not further division.

I guess that’s enough for one letter...  Thanks for your encouraging words.    Best wishes and love all around, and May All Beings be Happy!

Aloha, Daniel Susott, MD
4 January 2005

 PS:  I was happy to get to spend time today with the Venerable Karma Leshe Tsomo, a nun of the Tibetan tradition who teaches at several universities in California .  She was in the mountains of Bangladesh when the tsunami struck and learned only days later about the catastrophe – and that there was an international alert out for her, since it was feared she was already in Sri Lanka and maybe lost!  Her work with Sakyadita.org has empowered Buddhist women in Asia and around the world and helped to elevate their status considerably, especially those that have taken vows and ordained as nuns and “Bhikuni”.