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Sunday, 05 June 2016

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The actual heroes of Aranayake

In the aftermath of any natural calamity, a necessary exercise is to find out what went wrong and whether or not the tragedy could have been avoided. Thereafter, it is all about making sure that there won't be a next time.

Wading through the waters to rescue flood victims (chattar.lk)

It cannot be stressed enough that there should be systems that can anticipate such calamities and also mechanisms to make sure that the threat to lives and property are minimized.

For example, every single person who was at risk in Aranayaka, Bulathkohupitiya and in areas that were in imminent danger of inundation, should have been evacuated before the landslides. One hopes that the relevant authorities will do the needful as outlined above and expeditiously.

Civic responsibility

For now, let us focus on those who rose to the occasion on behalf of their fellow citizens, sometimes even putting their lives in danger. They should be recognized and applauded because they demonstrated a sense of civic responsibility that is at the heart of our cultural ethos, a quality we have seen on numerous occasions, especially in the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004.

They stepped in without a thought for self-preservation and certainly with no notion whatsoever of subsequent recognition or reward - all the more reason as to why they should not be forgotten or such efforts be taken for granted. Let me begin by saluting the late Eranga Vikumsiri, Development Officer of Eligipitiya! We do not know if his message to a superior officer, A.M Faizal, Divisional Secretary of Aranayaka, would ever be included in a compilation of famous last words or if compilers of such texts would even hear about him, but they warrant mention.

"Sir, I can see the landslide in Eligipitiya colony. The villagers informed me. My brother is helping me evacuate the villagers. Please hurry and send ambulances."

His efforts as well as those of his brother helped save 80 lives. He perished along with his brother. Eranga's body was never found.

Was he answering a call of duty or was he going beyond the call of duty? The truth is that whatever we call it, it was an act of utmost selflessness and heroism. In fighting unforgiving elements to save the lives of fellow citizens, Eranga Vikumsiri set a standard not just for state officials but for the general citizenry. He deserves our unreserved praise.

Eranga Vikumsiri was not the only state official involved in relief work. I am sure that in addition to the relevant line ministries and institutions, there would have been innumerable men and women in the public sector who directly or indirectly assisted relief efforts. They all deserve our praise.

There are of course many others who braved the rains and disregarded the risks to help out fellow human beings in distress.

People called for relief, collected and delivered relief items, provided shelter, cleared debris, asked relevant questions about early warning systems, mechanisms to mitigate disaster and procedures to ensure that there is minimal damage to people and property.

It was reported that a man from Turkey, a country that has had its own share of natural disasters, had been amazed by the response to the tragedy from the general public. He had seen lots of people buying water and dry rations in supermarkets, all to be sent to people who had been displaced. It was unthinkable in Turkey, he observed. All these unsung heroes deserve our praise and gratitude.

To the rescue

We cannot and should not devalue the good work of these individuals and institutions, and we must emphasize on the spirit of sacrifice demonstrated by that exceptional citizen and official, Eranga Vikumsiri.

We must also recognize that there are others who spared no thoughts for self or preservation when offering assistance to the disaster-affected.

I am referring to the Security Forces personnel involved in search and rescue operations as well as relief operations.

They made a monumental difference, working tirelessly around the clock with absolutely no fanfare - not even the harmless indulgence of a Selfie.

It was reported that we almost lost two Army units involved in search and rescue operations in the landslide-affected Aranayaka area.

There was no way to predict the gorund situation and what pitfalls awaited unknown to them. Every step could have been the last one they took on this earth. And yet, they stuck to their task, braving the terrible weather and disregarding the imminent threat to their lives.

Clearly, they were disciplined. Clearly, they were as empowered by the regimen to follow orders as they were inspired by the best ethics relating to civic behaviour. Indeed, we have seen the Security Forces raise their hands whenever the nation faced a crisis of this kind. Rarely, if at all, are these efforts acknowledged, leave alone praised.

Heroism is not only something that happens in a battlefield. But the off-field work of these men and women are seldom acknowledged.

Fault lines

It is as though the Security Forces are the A-Z of all the back-up plans of all State entities. They are like the unofficial national insurer. "Saves them all, big or small" is a popular slogan.

Isn't that what they've done and what they continue to do? The difference is that they don't advertise. They don't say what they can do and they don't say "we did it," after doing it and claim credit.

This does not mean that we, as beneficiaries, should take them for granted or remain silent. The government has a responsibility to correct all flaws in the State apparatus that necessitated the deployment of Security Forces. It cannot leave it to this 'fall back option' and the general good-heartedness of the people to rise to the occasion of a national calamity.

Whether or not all this is treated as a wake-up call by the government, the least we can do as citizens who saw what the Security Forces did and who might very well need their assistance when tragedy hits next, is to state and demonstrate our gratitude.

So here's to every single individual who demonstrated a sense of concern to fellow human beings in distress and especially to our Security Forces personnel: "We are grateful and proud, and we just don't have the words to express these sentiments in ways that reflect what we feel in our hearts."

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