Video: U.S. aid in Sri Lanka

By Ann Curry News Anchor
NBC News
updated 1/6/2005 1:37:03 PM ET 2005-01-06T18:37:03

With over 30,000 people killed by the deadly tsunami, Sri Lanka is the nation that suffered the second most deaths in terms of sheer numbers. But, in proportion to its relatively small population of 19 million, Sri Lanka is in many ways the nation most badly battered by the catastrophic force.

Ann Curry, the News Anchor for NBC News' "Today Show," has been reporting from the devastated region all week, beginning with her first reports from Thailand on Monday.

Curry describes the scenes of devastation, as well as the scenes of hope, as more and more aid begins to reach those who need it most in Sri Lanka.

Q: What have you seen in Sri Lanka?

Today I toured parts of Ampara region from the air, I was aboard an Air Force Black Hawk helicopter and it appeared as though a bomb had gone off; it was that kind of devastation.

We landed with the Air Force, which is now delivering U.S. aid. This is the most devastated region of Sri Lanka. More than 10,000 — about a third of all of Sri Lanka’s dead – died in the Ampara region.

It was, I suppose, bittersweet to see the beautiful faces of the people lined up at the fence waiting for the aid to arrive.

One woman holding a 9-month-old baby told me they need food, and they need clothing for the children because everyone had run out or escaped with their bed clothes or one set of clothing on. They really need homes, they really want to have a home, because so many of them lost their homes.

Here in Galle, the devastation is also severe. There are areas were you need very thick boots to walk on broken glass. There is so much debris and bricks and things falling over.

When you look at this devastation you are shocked by the force of the tsunami. The tsunami was moving at 500 miles per hour. It was like a concrete wall moving forward. There was no escaping it. It was moving as fast as a jet airplane.

The devastation was not because the water was so high, but because it was so forceful, able to move a concrete building to break it apart, and  to take people and swing them against whatever objects did not move. And that’s how a lot of people died. Drowning and being hit by debris.

However, the most poignant part of touring the devastation, the most personally affecting part, has been to talk to the people, who are generous and lovely. I’ve really been touched by their spirit. When you sit and talk to them one on one and you hear their individual stories, it is so hard not to be heartbroken.

You hear from the man who was just shopping with his wife and two children when the water rose and he lost all of them. He was able to save his 10-year old. Then he found his wife and his 7-year-old daughter; she was a small body under a sheet. He pulled back the sheet and saw her face as she was breathing the last seconds of her life. All he could do was kiss her goodbye.

The pain and the suffering of all it — it's become very difficult not to cry virtually every day we are here.

What has been the most powerful image you’ve seen that can help humanize the story?

I don’t know how people could not be affected. Think that there is so much that humanizes this story. It is a catastrophe of a global scale. It has devastated families and killed a lot of children. Half of the dead in Sri Lanka are children. You’d have to have a cold heart not to feel for what has happened here.

One thing I’ve noticed is how many mothers have had to choose, many families have two, three, four children. But, when the tsunami struck, many mothers reached for their youngest children. Several suffer a mother’s guilt for having not saved the eldest one.

I think the trauma will be felt here for some time to come. This is not a country that has a lot of  deep experience with trauma therapy, psychological counseling. There is going to be a need for a lot of that for years to come because of the kinds of memories that the parents have. But also the memories the children have; seeing their brothers and sisters torn away or a mother or a father pulled away by the water.

I met a little girl who was afraid to walk. She saw her sister drowned and she was afraid the tsunami would come and get her. She kept looking over her shoulder. It’s going to take a lot for these children to get back to normal.

If this had happened to one nation, it would be horrible enough, but it happened to 12. That's the nations where the tsunami hit, and then you add to that the nations of people who were visiting, and it’s stunning. We have never seen a humanitarian disaster of this scale.

I think that the good news out of all of this is the people of Sri Lanka are very touched, deeply touched and moved that their thoughts are being cared for by people outside of their nation. It is something that is helping take some of the pain away.

As a parent yourself, what has been the most difficult thing you’ve seen?

Seeing people hungry, homeless and frightened. One of the saddest things I saw today were two little girls who haven’t been told that their mother is dead and they are hoping that she’ll come back to them.

There is just so much sadness. Anyone — a mother, a father, anyone — in meeting these people and seeing what they are trying to deal with can’t help but feel for them.

In these refugee camps that are really just sad and under very poor conditions, people are sleeping in hallways and depending on the kindness of a few to give them food. Most of the aid for the first week and a half was from Sri Lankans — international aid did not come pouring in. There are large parts of Indonesia, in Banda Aceh, where aid workers have still not arrived. This is the area where most people died.

It is stunning in this time that we live in, in these modern times, that 11 days can go by with this kind of humanitarian disaster and have people not even dealt with, not even cared for. It’s happened and it’s happening here.

That’s been a lesson.

The hardest part for me with all of these sad stories has been the frustration that so much was promised and that it has taken so long for it to come forward. These people needed so much in the interim.

But, the bottleneck has been broken and more and more of the aid is starting to arrive. So, it’s got to get better and that’s the good news.

For all of the reporters here, seeing so much suffering, I know I certainly wanted to make sure that people knew that they could do something, that they could donate something to one of the various agencies.

The agencies have been struggling to get to the areas were the aid is most needed — logistically it is just a nightmare. Now the U.S. military is helping and U.S. government aid is starting to arrive in some of the most devastated areas. So the bottleneck seems to be broken.

In all of the devastation, are there any scenes of hope?

There is hope in these aid workers that are so remarkable. I have seen them in the worst circumstances, in the worst places, driving eight hours to get somewhere because the roads are so horrible.

These aid workers are paid nothing and they do something for others just to alleviate pain.

I asked one of them about that and he said, “You have no idea what a privilege this is. To be someone who can give something to others to make their lives better. To have them look at you in gratitude. You are just the person delivering it. People contributed and they pay their dollars to help and you get to be the person who gives these people the food or the medicine. You get to deliver that and that is just a hugely rewarding position to be in.”

That, to me, was very uplifting. To see that there is this goodness in the world. Even at a time of great difficulty and suffering there are those that are willing to give themselves, without a great purse given to them, no great income. They do this because they feel it is the right thing to do, and you have to admire that.

My biggest hope is that some good will come of this and it’s started to. America, especially, has proven that its heart is huge.

That’s the good that has come of this — people have stepped forward to care about others and feel that some part of our collective human family has been injured and it’s incumbent on all of us to do what we can.

That is the good that’s come of this. We realized how big our hearts are and I hope that our hearts stay large for some time because the need is so great.

Ann Curry is the news anchor for NBC News' Today Show and a contributing reporter for Dateline NBC. She is on assignment in Sri Lanka.

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