10. Notes from the South Asia Tsunami 2004

As we read about the tragic events in the Philippines, I thought it might be a good time to post my 2004 reports from Sri Lanka  following the 26 December tsunamis.   As I read through them, I am once again reminded of how nature is no match for us mere mortals…

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In mid-December 2004, Hans Einar and I travelled to Colombo to look for office space for the new NCA office in Sri Lanka and a house for us.  We stayed at a hotel in Colombo and had planned to go to Galle on the southern coast for the Christmas weekend.  After a week of intense office- and house-hunting, we were tired and so decided to stay in Colombo and just hang out in our hotel for the holidays.  It was one of the luckiest decisions we ever made.

On 26 December 2004, an earthquake off the west coast Sumatra, Indonesia triggered a series of tsunamis that killed more than 200,000 people in 14 countries.  Indonesia was the hardest hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

What follows is a series of messages that I sent to family and friends to explain what was going on.

29 December 2004

The situation here is quite surreal, at least for me.  Since the tsunamis struck, I haven’t been much out of the hotel where we are staying (except to log in as often as possible to e-mail in the cybercafe next door).  But the changes in the hotel are symptomatic that things are not good “out there”.  The hotel lobby has slowly filled, first with tourists in bandages and now with foreign assistance in the form of military personnel (a large French contingent is here now).  I look at them and think how young they are!  In the afternoon and evening, I see groups of them walking out of the hotel with huge backpacks with labels like “infirmiere” (nurse) and realise that these young people are on their way to the south or to the east to help with people they have never seen before and probably don’t know much about.

The atmosphere is a very strange mix of feelings: excitement, shock, sadness.  I have heard foreign tourists calling home and relating their tales of survival with childlike excitement, bragging about the size of waves they saw from the hotel rooftops.  I think that surviving such a disaster brings out a lot of strange behaviours in people.

The Government of Sri Lanka has declared a national week of mourning and are encouraging people to fly white flags to show solidarity for the victims.  Almost all hotels in Colombo have cancelled New Year’s Eve parties, some are donating proceeds from the sales of tickets to relief efforts.  All throughout Colombo there are impromptu collection points for donations of dried food, blankets, mats, medicines.

We watch BBC World constantly and see the same images as you.  Hans Einar returned from Galle yesterday night.  He described the situation as “unreal” and mentioned that he had a hard time not being emotional about what he saw.  People were walking around in a sort of daze, picking up pieces of debris here and there.  He described the railway tracks as a roller coaster which will be impossible to reconstruct.  A woman told of her escape from the first waves with a friend and her daughter.  The daughter needed medicine and her mother returned to their house to get it, as things had calmed down.  The second wave hit and the mother has not reappeared.  Temples and churches have been turned into makeshift hotels for displaced persons. 

On the way home from Galle, Hans Einar stopped by a wonderful hotel where we had stayed in September, the Taruvillas Taprobane.  The hotel is 10 metres from the sea and we had expected the worst, especially since we read that the large beach resort in the same town has been totally destroyed.  Miraculously, however, the Taruvillas survived, totally undamaged, but many of the staff lost family and friends.  Stories of untouched areas a few hundred metres from areas devastated by the tsunamis abound.

The psychological strain for survivors is great and there is absolutely no capacity in Sri Lanka to handle this sort of counselling.  The clergy do what they can but they too have been affected and it becomes a situation of the affected trying to comfort the affected.  There is a great need for Tamil- and Singalese-speaking trauma counsellors here now and in the coming months.

Yesterday, the Daily Mirror’s headline was Death Toll at 12.000.  Today they just stopped counting and the headline reads “Sea of Deaths”.  News pours in every day about trains and buses that were packed for the tourist season and are only now noted as “missing”.  At the bottom of the tv screens, messages flash from business in Sri Lanka with pleas to employees to contact their headquarters.

So these are a few of my thoughts this day.  Thank you again for your support and good wishes.  They really have meant a lot to us both.

31 December 2004

The Daily Mirror’s headline yesterday was Disease after Disaster“.  The risk of epidemic outbreaks is high and soon we will be reading about deaths from cholera, dysentery and, for small children, diarrhea.  This, while the papers are still reporting on more deaths from the tsunamis.  There was a positive story in the paper about a group of 3.000 people who had been assumed dead but who were found alive today.  All had found refuge on a narrow strip of high ground in the district hardest hit.  They have been without food or water since Sunday morning.  But they are alive.

Hans Einar told of his trip to Galle on the 27th.  One of his strongest stories was from the priest they stayed with.  A friend had called to tell of another friend who had been struck by the tragedy.  The priest asked if the mutual friend was ok.  He was told that their friend had watched his wife and children washed away.  He was alive, but he was not “ok”  Being “ok” has taken on a strange meaning here.

The political situation in response to the disaster is unclear.  One paper reports that the LTTE (the Tamil Tigers) have turned back relief trucks who were bringing supplies to the northeastern regions.  But stories like these are difficult to confirm and they are often political motives behind these kinds of reports.  What is a big concern for relief workers is that the tidal waves have dislodged landmines in the areas already ravaged by civil war.  Some see an opportunity in the tragedy.  If the LTTE and the government can find a way to work effectively on the humanitarian aspects of the disaster, maybe they can resume peace talks with more optimism and solidarity.

Cricket is BIG in Sri Lanka and the national cricket team is currently in New Zealand.  The players had asked to come home but Sri Lanka was bound by international agreeements and cancelling the tour would have resulted in huge fines.   After an appeal by the players, New Zealand agreed to postpone the tour with no penalties imposed.

We had dinner with a Norwegian family who told us what is becoming a very common story of survival.  A colleague of Hans Einar, she lives and works in Laos. She, her husband and their two young chldren were vacationing in southern Sri Lanka and had just come back to their bungalow after a walk on the beach.  As they ate breakfast, their son noticed that the air conditioning started to “drip water” and, a few seconds later, the door to their bungalow burst open and water started filling their room.  They ran with their children to a hilly area a few hundred metres away from the beach, where they were safe from the horrors that unfolded below.  They were picked up on the road by a Sri Lankan family who took them home and gave them shelter until transport could be arranged for them.  They arrived in Colombo the day before yesterday.  She told me that having children was a blessing, since it meant that they had to focus on keeping things “normal” and didn’t have time to think about what they had been through.  They left for the hill country yesterday to try to be “normal” for the rest of their vacation.

Today is a day of national mourning in Sri Lanka and a huge memorial gathering has been organised, ironically, on the beachfront in Colombo.  The Galle Face Green beachfront is usually a place filled with families flying kites and couples holding hands and strolling along the boardwalk.  For the past few days the Green has been virtually empty except for a few tents set up for relief workers who pack boxes of donations and load them on to trucks

It is strange to think about a new year today.  Usually, the 31st is filled with feelings of optimism and excitement for what is to come.  I feel stuck in a past that happened 5 days ago and think about the future of millions of people whose efforts will be on survival, rehabilitation and rebuilding.  Have an optimistic thought for them at midnight tonight.

6 January 2004

Until yesterday, my images of the disaster that hit Sri Lanka were from BBC World, the bandaged and bruised tourists who came to the hotel in the days following the tsunamis and the foreign military and medical personnel who spend a day at the hotel before going out to the affected areas.  One morning, as I was having breakfast with Hans Einar, my view was of a Frenchman wearing a shirt that identified his specialty “Gendarmerie: Identification des Victimes.”

Yesterday I left Colombo for the first time since the tsunamis hit.  I travelled with some Norwegian radio and TV journalists.  Everyone had different needs and it was arranged that we would go to Galle and see what was happening there.  It has taken me some hours to reflect on what I saw and put my experiences in writing.  Here they are.

* * *

We leave at 4.30 in the morning and it is dark for half of the drive.  As I scan the horizon, I can make out the shadows of the terrible destruction left behind.  As the sun rises, the veil of darkness lifts and the horror of what lies before us turns our talkative van into total silence.

The devastation is clear…for miles and miles and miles and miles.  Where there once were homes and villages, there is nothing but debris and shells of homes and beachfront hotels that had been built of concrete.  It is impossible to imagine the fishermen’s huts that used to line Sri Lanka’s southern coast.  Nothing is left of them.  The shoreline is littered with large broken boats washed up onto the shore.  There are boats upside-down floating in the ocean.  The coast road is clear now but the debris has been piled up along both sides of the road.  It is a war zone where there was no war.

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I find myself wondering how water could be so powerful to, in a few minutes, wash away lives, livelihoods and family histories.  We see many areas where survivors have come back to what were once their homes.  They walk on huge piles of debris trying to salvage something of their lives.  Clothes litter tree branches.  I see a child’s red toy keyboard lying in a pool of stagnant water.  A statue of a Buddha sits surrounded by rubble on the foundation of what was once a seaside temple.

Our first stop is near Galle to see the infamous train that carried holiday travellers from Colombo to Galle on the morning of 26 December.  The train carriages are only near the tracks, which have been ripped from the ground by the force of the waves.  The four cars and the engine are scattered around a 300-metre area. None of the train cars is intact.  The bodies have been cleared but most of the cars still contain personal belongings of those who were on the train.  Clothing and shoes lay on the floor and hang from the luggage racks.  The area is guarded by Sri Lankan military personnel wearing gauze masks over their mouths and noses.  There are a few other foreign news people there and a lot of Sri Lankans have come to see.  I have a feeling of walking on a mass grave.

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Inside a train car.

A man walks up to us.  Through an interpreter, we learn that he had gone to the market on the 26th and escaped the waves.  His entire family has been washed away.  As I find out all throughout the day, people need to talk.  They do not ask for anything…they just need to tell their stories.

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In Galle, we visit a temple that now serves as a camp for the homeless.  About 80 people sleep on the floor of one room.  Cooked food is distributed twice a day with rations provided by NCA’s partner in Sri Lanka.  The camp is full of women and children, almost all of whom have lost a family member.  The men are out salvaging through the remains of their homes.  Children love having their photos taken and yesterday was no exception.  Their faces light up the first time I show them their image on the screen of my digital camera.  Soon, they all want their photos taken with their siblings or their best friends.  These are the faces of survivors.

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At another temple, a doctor volunteers in the mornings to treat homeless children.  Two young volunteers help him distribute donated medicines.  I talk to a social worker.  She is articulate and energetic.  She tells me that it is good that people like us come to see what is happening.  She tells me that Sri Lanka is a beautiful place full of beautiful people.  She tells me that her people will need help to rebuild.  She tells me that her people want to move on from this tragedy.  She starts to cry.  All I can do is hug her.  She follows me out to the van and waves as we drive away.

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Volunteers helping to dispense medicines.

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On a cleared parcel of land across the road from the ocean, the 7 survivors of a family of 11 sleep under tents provided by UNHCR.  A woman tells me her story.  In the morning of the 26th, she was feeding her 19-day old son when the water started invading her coastal home.  Her 7-year old son was in the house with them while her 5-year old daughter played outside.  As the waves grew in strength, she grabbed both her baby and her 7-year old son and started running.  As she was putting her 7-year old up in a tree, she lost hold of her baby.  She grabbed her 7-year old and continued running.  She ran to safe ground and realised that her son was not breathing.  She pressed on his stomach as dirty seawater poured out and he started breathing again.  Her husband, her 7-year old son and she survived.  They found the body of their daughter.  The baby’s body is still missing.  They want to start rebuilding their home but the land on which their home stood has eroded.  She wonders where they will go now.  I do not take any photos.  Sometimes, taking photos just doesn’t seem right.

As we drive through Galle, a group of demonstrators is shouting outside the municipal building.  One carries a sign in English that says “We want to go to our born place”.  They too are wondering where they will go now that the government has prohibited rebuilding within 100 metres of the shoreline (a law that has been in existence for many years but not enforced).

A young Buddhist monk coordinating relief activities at a temple speaks about the tragedy.  When asked what message he wants to send back to the people of Norway, he emphasises that the tsunami tragedy should not divert the Norwegian government from their efforts to broker peace in Sri Lanka.

At another refugee camp, a group of young political leaders from the radical JVP party speak about Norway’s role in the peace process.  The problems, as they expressed them, are that Norway is on the side of the Tamil Tigers and that their motivation in brokering peace is to spread Christianity throughout the island.

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Our last stop is at the Galle YMCA which has turned into an orphanage for 25 children aged 2-15.  There is not yet a clear policy on what the government will do with orphaned survivors. The children are sitting in a circle singing songs with two youth leaders.  Many of them giggle as I walked around them taking photos.  My feeling is that most of them are too young to comprehend what has happened.  For now, they are just being children.

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Before leaving Galle, we stop along the coast.  I walk into the shell of what was once someone’s home.  In one room, a picture of a Sri Lankan music star hangs on what was left of the wall.  Evidence of people’s lives are still very apparent.  Some still cling to the hope of finding family members alive.  The streetlamps that are still standing are covered with posters asking for information about loved ones.

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The press is full of photos of the devastation that the tsunamis left behind.  What is difficult to capture from these photographs is that each pile of rubble, each shell of a house, each piece of clothing hanging from a tree branch represents a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, a family.  Survivors talk freely of those they have lost.  I think they feel the need, even in front of strangers, to bear witness to the fact that these people existed.

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One thought on “10. Notes from the South Asia Tsunami 2004

  1. Roberta – this is as powerful now as it was almost 9 years ago. It makes me wonder what has happened to the survivors all these years later.

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