Sri Lanka is a tropical island of legendary beauty. It is often described as the “teardrop island” as it sits off the coast of India like a tear. It is a compact island with beautiful beaches, sheltered bays, ancient relics, wildlife and is largely untainted by tourism. I embarked on a 7-day journey that took me from Colombo, up into the hill country near Kandy where I witnessed herds of wild elephant bathing in the river, journeyed into the tea plantation highlands by train and had a 3-day stay on the coast.
I traveled with my family (my husband and 2 children aged 9 and 13) and we loved our stay in Sri Lanka, not only for the diversity of physical beauty but moreover for the beauty of its people. Sri Lankan people are so kind and warm and wherever you venture, you are made to feel very welcome as a foreigner. There is no full scale tourism developed here, which makes it one of the special places left on this planet to discover.
We finished our one-week stay at a sleepy little coastal resort called Mirissa. We chose this place because it was quiet, had an idyllic coconut fringed surf beach and had no sign of any high rises. The accommodation was all 3 star and consisted of humble little home stays and small lodges.
We arrived on 21 December 2004 and stayed 3 days in Mirissa. We took the train from Matara to Colombo on the 24th of December and flew out the next day. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have missed the Tsunami by 1 day. That very train we took, with our children on the 24th, took the full force of the Tsunami just 2 days later and it is estimated that around 1,200 people died.
In the words of Rohan, a Sri Lankan, I would like to quote how the events unfolded, and I am sure you will find his interpretation of the events quite unlike anything you may have read in the mainstream media.
How did all this happen?
1400 Km away, and 4 Km below the surface of the ocean, on the edge of the Indonesian Archipelago, what is now known as one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history took place. Sri Lanka slept in festive mood. Christmas just over, Boxing Day was the day of the full moon, the Poya Day of the Buddhist, a day of rest and worship, a day for being with the family.
A bright sunny morning of cloudless sky, the sea as calm as a millpond, a magnet of shimmering blue bordered by beaches of soft, white sand. As with any such place on this Planet, it drew thousands – families, children, and the young at heart. Picnics were laid out, beach cricket matches organised, children swam in the shallows, tourists dived on the reefs, and boats bobbed in the slight swell, all was well with the world.
Then the sea did something strange. It withdrew, very slowly, up to a Quarter of a mile away from its usual tidal mark. The reef stood out like a long sunken roadway, paralleling the contour of the land. Boats long sunk, some from World War II were exposed, their rusty propellers now encrusted with coral and crustaceans. Fish, stranded in the shallows, splattered in the small pools left amongst the exposed seaweed. Miraculously, what had been a mass of water, just a few minutes before, was a vast meadow of green, the sea seemed to have borne new life.
People, particularly the children, rushed out to explore this new world. They scurried after the crabs, while their older brothers and sisters explored the exposed debris of past human catastrophe.
Their parents wandered after them with curiosity and concern, that obvious emotion a parent feels when a child strays into new terrain.
There were some shouts of warning. A few, a very few feared this phenomenon, from uncertainty rather than knowledge. But what is one shout to the ears of many thousands?
And then the sea came in. It seemed to move slowly at first, the distance deceiving the eye. The exploring crowds began to drift back towards the old shoreline little realizing that they were being pursued by a demon traveling at over 800 kilometers per hour. It was not just the speed but also how the waters closed in on the land, and against the resistance of its own accumulating shelf, it rose upon itself, to reach heights of 30 feet or more.
Few reached the old shoreline, and it would not have mattered if they had. The force of the water was such that it rushed up to 2 kilometers inland in some places. And the sea did not stop there. It rushed out again with as great fury, sucking everything in its path out into its depths. And then it came back again, a few times more, making sure that the dying were now dead.
Beachside hotels were smashed to pieces, trains were derailed, huge trees uprooted, iron posts torn from their foundations. What chance does the frail human body have in the face of such an onslaught?
The Yala National Park on the Southern tip of the island suffered a wave of over 30 feet in height, devastating its coastline, hotels, and killing many fishermen and visitors to the Park. Over 200 human bodies were recovered in the Park, but not one carcass of an animal. They had all left the region. They knew. Perhaps nature had warned us after all, but we have forgotten her language.
As of today, the corpses of over 30,000 men, women and children have been recovered. The final toll might be 3 times that much and more. We can never really know, for when whole family units are wiped out, there is no one left to make account. Many isolated villages on the East Coast have been destroyed. Know one really knows how many people had made these small places their home.
There are very few in Sri Lanka who have not lost either a member of their family or a friend to the tsunami. Many more will die as disease, the awful second wave of all such natural catastrophes, takes its toll. Many will never have the chance to bid their final farewell to their loved ones, for the sea clings jealously to it’s new possessions, or throws them out, with little care, on to desolate jungle beaches.
As in all such situations, the light of human nature shines brightly in the darkness. Many risked or sacrificed their lives to save that of others. In just one instance, a man braved the raging waters with a child on his shoulders from their destroyed home and took the child to higher ground, not once but 7 times. He saved 7 children. In another incident, the first wave dashed a small family out of their house. They clung together, arms clasped around a tree, mother, father and child. When the waters turned again, the surge snatched the child away from the parents’ clasp. Without hesitation, both parents let go and were sucked themselves into the depths.
After all, what is life when your world has just died?
This is only the 3rd tsunami to hit this part of the Indian Ocean in 2000 years. The last two were in 1617 and 2 BC. No one expected it, and no one was prepared. The Nation is enduring a grief that even the civil war that has plagued Sri Lanka for so long has not generated. Perhaps, it is because the waves were no respecter of religion, race, caste, or gender.
All have suffered. We pray that this adversity also pulls everyone together, not just in grief, but also in rebuilding this beautiful land of ours.
There is no one to blame. This is an act of nature. A Greek philosopher once commented that when a child kneels down to pray to her God, in her mind’s eye, God has the face of her mother. Thus, when a mother chastises her child, for a moment, the child is filled with horror and hopelessness. How could someone she trusted and loved so devotedly do this to her? Momentarily, the child forgets all the love, comfort, nourishment, and life that the mother has given her, and remembers only the pain. Perhaps it is such with us too. We are bewildered at the fury of nature temporarily forgetting that we exist because of her. After all, has not nature the only right to take life?
The Sri Lankan Government, many countries and the NGO’s have rallied to the plight of the victims and distributed food, water and clothing and are helping us in the rebuilding process. However, this is not enough. 250, 000 people had already been displaced prior to the tsunami due to extensive monsoon flooding. Over 1 million are displaced this time. The majority in this land are poor, and though they are giving all they can, it will not feed, clothe and shelter a million.
Sri Lanka will recover. It is blessed with a soil, with a climate, with a people, with a spirit, all-conducive to healing. Give us a little while, a month or two, to mourn our dead, rebuild our homes, and replant our trees. Then come visit us, not bearing charity, but to enjoy our hospitality.
The sea is as calm as a millpond again. The sun is shining from a cloudless sky. This is a beautiful country. We rely on tourism. Come see us, fill our hotels, eat our food, visit our natural and ancient wonders, and truly help us to smile again. It may be a century or two before the next tsunami strikes these shores, but even if it does come before that, we now know what happens when the sea retreats too far.
Several weeks later, as people begin to rebuild their lives, what is life like for these people? How does something of this magnitude effect whole communities in the long term? How long will it be, before life becomes “normal” again for these people, or will it ever be normal?
I have been fortunate to be have had close contact with a local Sri Lankan man from Mirissa at the time of the tsunami and now we have contact weekly. I felt compelled, as many of us have, to help in some way and I sent a parcel of goods to him to distribute to the most needy. We have forged a trusting friendship over the past 2 months and I would like to share with you, how things are now moving along.
From Mr Ratnasiri February 24 2004
I like to report you with pleasure, that we have received goods you sent us – sarongs, ladies underwear and bed linen. We have completed our distribution today. When we received your items, we packed them in parcels and decided to distribute on Sunday, 20th February.
The next day my wife got a job. She is now President of the Women’s Welfare Society of our village. A member of our parliament gave her some milk and food for babies and pregnant women to distribute in our area.
This month we arranged for a concert for the children who faced the tsunami in our area. The theme of the concert was “Smile From The Tears”. We thought it would be very small project but in the end it turned out to be a big program. It took place in our temple. Lots of foreigners who have helped in the relief projects here also participated. The Belgian army especially, and members of the Galle project. My daughter was busy in that concert as the official English announcer.
We distributed your items today. It is Poya day, a religious day. Today is my only holiday of the month. We traveled from tent to tent and gave all items to the 70 temporary shelters. Mostly demanded items were the ladies under wear. I am sure all items distributed to these people have won you their trust.
When some of the people received those items that you sent they had very pretty smiles in their faces. I will always remember those smiles and remember your help. I think it is really a smile from the tears.
The outpouring and giving has been on an unprecedented scale, and humanity has shone through this disaster. The people of Sri Lanka have shown tremendous grit and resilience in the face of many testing situations, and I am certain they will shine again, through the tears of their smiles and once again restore their country as the jewel of the Indian Ocean that it really is.
Photos by David Metcalf