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First volunteers to the Maldives


There were four of us from the UK -Tim, Pete, Graham, and me - hastily flown over and attached to a group of Maldivian volunteers distributing tonnes of aid sent from Britain in response to the Boxing Day tsunami. Aid distribution is a difficult business in the Maldives -98% of the country is underwater -meaning that long journeys can only be made by slow boat.We visited the five worst-affected islands of the Dhallu Atoll group, a round trip that would have taken a day by truck. In total, our journey took a week.


The first island village, Meedhu, was straight out of a travel agent's dream: effortlessly beautiful with its leaning palm trees and glimmering coral reefs of turquoise and cobalt. As we waited for the fishing dhonis to come out and meet us we pensively eyed the neighbouring holiday resort, pummelled by the tsunami on its second day of business and now abandoned. Nobody knew whether it would reopen.We couldn't help wonder what waited for us on shore. A short but exhilarating dhoni ride left us in the hands of the island leader, and as the aid started to come ashore he showed us the damage. Coral walls turned to rubble; the white houses everywhere bore chest-high marks left by the waves. Dead leaves blew in the wind, fallen from breadfruit trees killed by the inrush of salt-water.We saw the battered graveyard, and the school that had lost everything: computers, textbooks, furniture, the lot. And yet the flood waters had come and gone in less than two minutes, we learnt.


But people had lives to get on with, and so the real business of the day began. First the excitement caused by the toys we brought for the children, and then the dignified business of the aid distribution: we sweltered in the sun as the men collected food and the women chose clothes from the mounds we had brought with us (the next day, at an island just a few miles away, the gender roles were completely reversed: just one sign of how diverse village life in the Maldivian Atolls is).


Back on the boat, as we dangled hand-lines to catch our supper, we pondered the relationship of these remote islanders to their ocean. It is said that so few Maldivians died in the tsunami because of their affinity with the sea, which meant everybody could swim. But as we travelled further we started to hear the stories of children left with deep-seated phobias of the sea, and we saw that this two-minute flood left more than just physical damage; there is a lasting damage that will not show its real consequences for the Maldives for some time yet.


by Dr Ian Walker