Job in paradise that turned into an exhausting mercy mission

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The Independent Online

She works 18-hour days, tends to the needs of the homeless and grieving and feeds the hungry. It is not exactly what Tracey Edginton expected when she signed up for a job in paradise.

Sri Lanka was going to be about swaying palms, sun-kissed beaches, king coconuts and spending time with her boyfriend, Sam. For two months it was everything she hoped for.

The 33-year-old had worked as a press officer for the New Zealand government. But she landed a job handling press and publicity for Save the Children in Sri Lanka. Then came Boxing Day. Within hours she became a frontline aid worker.

Ms Edginton suddenly found herself loading aid convoys and heading to the crisis town of Galle. The trip down the west coast was shocking. "I had driven down that coastal route many times and gazed in wonder at it. Now I was looking at a scene of utter devastation.

"I was shocked, stunned and shocked again as we made our way down to Galle. I fell very quiet. Why had some people survived and others perished? Why did some buildings stand and others fall?"

Within two days, of the disaster, Ms Edginton was in Matara on the south coast, full of upturned cars homes now concrete chunks and twisted metal. She now speeds around the camps ensuring the people of this land she has come to love have food and medicine.

By mid-afternoon yesterday Ms Edginton had been on two food runs to the stricken village of Dikwella. She packed food parcels for families and loaded them on vans. Each pack provides for a family of five for one week. In this area there are 40,000 people in 58 camps: 11,000 homeless families.

Sleeping a maximum of six hours a night in a spartan local guesthouse, Ms Edginton rarely gets to bed before midnight. Occasionally she grabs a five-minute break.

Last week one van run by another organisation was swamped by hungry people when those inside began randomly giving out food parcels. Many were left with nothing.

Ms Edginton said Save the Children took a different approach. "We arrive in our vans and if there are a small number of people in the camp we hand out the food packs. But if the camps are busy, we leave packs with monks or whoever is in charge there and let them decide who is most in need. Our operation is geared around working with the local people."

She is starting to see progress, a glimmer of hope. People are starting to move from camps, towards the sites of their former homes as tarpaulin and tents arrive.

Now the challenge is to ensure survivors have homes to go to and the means to support themselves. With rumours circulating about abduction and abuse of children, Ms Edginton is involved in ensuring all are accounted for. "We are adamant that children must remain within the communities where they are now," she says. "They must get back to some sort of normality as soon as possible."