Offering goodwill, US cultivates partnership in South Asia
HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka — The line began forming hours before sunrise at Kirinda Peripheral Hospital, in a rural, south coast town known mostly by the nation’s big-city folk for its nearby elephant sanctuary.
The Sri Lankan, U.S. and Australian military teams expected about 400 patients to show up. By afternoon, there were well over 1,000.
Army medics, Navy nurses and dentists, Australian midwives and doctors of several specialties worked into the night amid the 90-degree heat and tropical humidity, handing out eyeglasses, checking ears and writing referrals for more serious health issues.
“It’s cool just to help people,” said Sgt. Jorge Laguna-Ramos, of the 62nd Medical Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. “They don’t have much, and we have a little bit that we can do and help them. It’s rewarding.”
In this town and others nearby, nearly everyone lost a loved one or knows someone who did in the 2004 tsunami that ravaged much of South Asia. About 30,000 Sri Lankans died in the disaster, and the south coast of this island nation of 21 million bore some of the worst damage.
The tsunami’s destruction added to the hardship in Sri Lanka, which was still in the grip of a decadeslong civil war. The war ended in 2009, and since then Sri Lanka’s economy has grown and its poverty levels have fallen sharply, according to the World Bank. Its stability and strategic location near one of the world’s busiest shipping routes have drawn renewed interest from the region’s powers — particularly from China, which has used ports here as military submarine docks.
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