GFW Founder, Frank Ochberg spent a week in Sri Lanka Helping

Dear Friends:

GFW founder Frank Ochberg spent a week in Sri Lanka helping trauma responders. The program involved athletes, many of whom were retired cricket players, trained by American experts to be supportive listeners. Here are excerpts from Frank Ochberg’s journal.

February 8, Matare

Now, at last, I’m in a camp. This one adjoins a Buddhist monastery and is overseen by a monk. We (five Sri Lankan cricket coaches, Randy form Green Cross, and I) came 200 kilometers from Colombo on a hot, harrowing drive. Soon after arriving, Lachni, Sanju and I toured the camp on foot, passing scores of corrugated metal sheds that served as homes, and walked down to the beach. Some homes, homes of those who now live in this camp, were obliterated. Others were completely spared. The sea is capricious at Matare, killing and sparing human lives with the turn of a giant wave.

My cricket companions seem reluctant to start conversations with survivors. They haven’t done this before, and I can understand their hesitancy. One said he’d prefer to have me accompany him, and I shall do that. But now they are distributing toys and setting up a “soft” cricket game with stumps and bats and tennis balls. Time for me to join.

I never played cricket with the children, but did play a few harmonica tunes. Nothing in my repertoire is familiar to Sri Lankans. Not the Marseillaise, Fair Harvard, O Bladi – O Blada, and certainly not The Yellow Rose of Texas. I tried Inky Dinky Spider and acted it out and had our driver translate it into Sinhalese. But even that left them baffled. Finally they laughed and smiled, especially one little girl.

One man complained of a stomach ache (not from my harmonica playing). He and his diminutive wife stood in front of their tin shack, speaking with two of the cricketers. It turns out they lost three children to the tsunami -the worst tragedy of the whole camp. I felt so sad for them, and concerned about the trauma workers, who had so little to offer. We all stood there, sending sympathetic glances, which probably was all that could have been done under the circumstances.

When another cricketer began distributing clothing from boxes in our van, we encouraged the couple to walk over. They weren’t interested in the garments, but they talked with others and seemed diverted and distracted -helpfully so.

The eldest of the cricket coaches was the shyest of the group. After a few hours I found a garrulous woman and asked him to translate for me. As soon as he got into the conversation I left, bringing them two plastic chairs and leaving them to talk. That was more for him than for her, getting him launched in the business he came to do.

Another cricketer told me, “There is no trauma anymore; they are just thinking about getting permanent homes.” I’m not sure how to handle this. There is plenty of trauma, I am sure. But my role is a delicate one. I’ll see what Randy has to say. Randy, who is a man of few words, said only, “He’ll probably change his mind.”

When I observed that this group seemed very reluctant to engage with survivors, Randy said, “It would be different if there were some women here.” This crew of cricketers is all male. He is right about that. I’ll try to pass that on to the higher-ups.

As I sit here at 4:15PM, the kids are all back from school (some go to the Buddhist Temple school on these grounds; I’m not sure about the rest). They are playing games just delivered by our team. A dozen, all aged under 10, are seated around a carom board, playing intensely and cooperatively.

A new tin house is being assembled a stone’s throw away and the hammering punctuates everything. This is a coconut grove, shaded, grassy, sloped gently and very beautiful. The monks of the temple own the land and have donated parcels generously to house these villagers. Temporary and permanent homes are built or planned.

I have heard that 12 were killed by the tsunami from the village that this camp now houses, a village of close to 100. “Only 12,” said the cricketer. He was the same one who said the trauma was over -an optimist, to put it kindly.

A breeze is rustling the fronds above me at the tops of the coconut trees. Above that the sky is cloudless blue and the air is not as hot as I expected. Ahead of me a large blue Isuzu dump truck lumbers down the dirt road, turns left and out of here. It must have brought supplies to the builders working on three frames for new tin huts. To my left there are ten huts in two rows, five to a row. These huts hide the hill beyond, where another dozen at least are built and used. Each building has a front and side door, sloped roof, wood windows with tin siding. The shacks are singles and duplexes, with a wood wall separating two families. As many as four occupy half a house. The roof and siding is corrugated metal. I say tin, but I have no idea. I now learn that this is Kambunrudamuwa -a temporary village of 37 families with 112 people.

Later near 9PM

Now I’m under pink mosquito netting in a hot hotel room near Matara where the fan makes a warm air breeze slightly better than no breeze at all. Dinner was a rubbery egg, toast, French fries and Lion beer, The beer was good.

At dinner we reviewed the highlights of the afternoon. One grandmother saved her two grandchildren, but not her 72-year-old husband. Lynn would have done the same. The trauma responders expressed feelings that translated into pride on her behalf. She seemed to be coping well and wanted to tell her story. I tried to be sure that no platitudes or banalities were offered her and it seemed none were.

Of course we reflected about the sad couple that lost all three children. Again, we all praised the listeners who knew enough to listen well and nothing more.

Sanil, the eldest, spoke of the recent death of his mother, his closeness to her, and the illness of his 12-year-old son. It has been a difficult year. I asked his opinion of the cricket project and he beamed. He was so proud and pleased to be a part of it.

I’m feeling that, too. These are former national athletes, current coaches, performing a service for their countrymen. They take it seriously. Once or twice they asked me, “What have we done wrong?” I couldn’t think of one mistake. Even the understatement of the trauma and loss (“Only 12”) is understandable. This village is coping well. There are far more signs of progress than of pathology. Where a mental health professional might dig for distress, these levelheaded folks know when to leave well enough alone. Randy agrees.

February 9th

10AM- We were just evicted from one camp and are awaiting permission to enter another. Apparently the managers of the first camp wanted money from us. There was discussion in Sinhalese among two of our crew and three or four soldiers who guarded the gate. The rest of us waited in the van. When we were allowed in, I thought the matter was settled, and wandered off with an English speaking government social worker. We sat with a fisherman and his family, learning about the loss of boats and livelihood. The man looked to be about 50, but it is hard to tell. He inquired whether I had eaten breakfast, and would like coffee or tea. So polite. But then Randy shouted, “Frank, we have to leave. You can’t do that.” Afterward, I learned that speaking with victims defied the officer’s rule: no contact without first paying his bribe.

Sri Lanka Cricket runs this second camp, so there should be no problem. We are waiting to see the manager who returns in 40 minutes. We want to be absolutely correct. Meanwhile, people are coming over and talking with the trauma responders. One young man, about 20, is telling of the loss of his mother, grandmother and property. Channi is listening attentively and sympathetically.

On the other side of me, a man distributes plastic packets of milk. Mothers of children in arms are clustered all around -a group of 20, receiving needed rations.

Pannith, the manager, arrived and later sat with me for 20 minutes. He is a large, handsome man, dressed in an orange shirt and multicolored sarong, with gold necklaces and bracelets. He has the bearing of a tribal chief and that is, in effect, his new role. But he explains that this is not a tribe and that was, until recently, his greatest problem. There are fishermen’s families and dirt poor families and families of a higher station. They have very different standards of hygiene and home care. If some were to leave the camp, they would steal and sell and soon be in trouble with the police. So Pannith has strict rules. No one comes or goes without his personal approval. He signs permission slips. He meets regularly with a handful of indigenous leaders from the camp population to sort out differences and maintain order.

Over 200 live here in large canvas tents pitched on a thin layer of concrete over sand. There is a Montessori School, a doctor’s cabin, a common outdoor kitchen and a common covered dining room. Several toilets are housed in new buildings for men and for women. There is a sanitary system, serviced by a sewage truck. A Buddhist school and temple adjoins the property and all residents are Buddhist.

The schedule begins with a 6AM tea-in-tent service, time for showering and cleaning, the first of three hours for prayers at the temple, school for the children, work for the employed men (all with documents from their employers in Pannith’s personal file). And then the day proceeds with strict times for meals, rest, personal chores, collective camp cleaning (not everyone, but a rotation system of 15 persons a day). Lights are out at 10PM. There is plenty of time for R&R;, including TV in a common room.

I asked where Pannith learned such a disciplined system and he said it came from working as a police officer. Now he is the Western District cricket coach. He played for the under-19 national team in his glory days.

While I might resent such regimentation, there can be no doubt that this camp runs well, has no disease, and pleases its residents. I was free to wander, interact, and learn. I could find no cases of anything resembling PTSD. Pannith explained, “These are simple people. In their villages they would eat and fish and sleep. They are ready to return to that.”

Frank tells me he ultimately agreed with the Sri Lankans who downplayed the need for psychological assistance. “The trauma was profound,” he said, “But the wounds are healing.”