TSUNAMI TALES

Tragedy and miracles on the same wave

by Rob Gilhooly

COLOMBO — In Sri Lanka, it seems everyone has a tsunami story to tell. Wherever you go, from Jaffna in the north, Tricomalee in the east, Kalutara in the west and Hambantota in the south, people recount near-miraculous escapes and tragic, life-changing episodes.

What characterizes these stories, however, is the modest fashion in which they are told. No matter what grief or hardship someone has suffered, it seems there is always someone down the road who is worse off. But as you delve deeper, the horror of those experiences becomes increasingly apparent. Following are two such stories, one of survival, another of loss.

Singing a sad song

The interior of Thuwan Rashid Kaseer’s tent, located in the grounds of the Dharma Kabeer Mosque in Hambantota, is unsurprisingly simple. There’s a bicycle by the entrance, and a clock strapped to the aluminum frame. Both are reminders of the day he lost his wife and three of his six children:

I left for work as usual at 9:15 a.m. on my bicycle. My youngest daughter was playing outside and I joked with her about not getting dirty. After a few minutes I reached a small hill, a familiar landmark. But on that day I felt an unfamiliar sense of foreboding.

I looked behind, then around me, and finally toward the sea. I could see what looked like a huge black wall, and then, suddenly, there was water everywhere below, surging quickly toward me. I quickly tied my longhi tightly at the waist and pushed my bicycle into some thick bushes. But as the water reached me, it ripped the clothing off my body. I felt strangely calm. I didn’t panic because I simply thought it was a dream. It was nothing like any reality that I knew.

I instinctively thought of home, my family, my children, and I started to wade through the water, which at one point was up to my chest, heading back toward the house. There must have been other people doing the same thing as me, or being carried away by the strength of the wave, but all I can remember was a huge water tank floating down the main street. That convinced me it was all a dream.

I returned to the hill and waited for the water to subside and I could see debris being dragged back toward the sea. I then started to dodge through the debris and helped some people stuck under wreckage. I saw three buses, filled with dead bodies. I suddenly realized there was blood gushing from wounds on my legs, but there were other people in worse condition than me so I carried on.

I was confused because the layout of the town had been changed so the place that I thought was my home was no longer there. The neighborhood was flattened. I could see some items sticking up from the ground where I thought our house must have been: Among them was a clock, which had been given to us as a wedding gift. It had stopped at 9:20 a.m. — the time the tsunami ripped through our town.

I was also drawn to some black clothing wrapped around what looked like a large doll. My daughter (Pasna, 11) had been wearing a beige dress, so I thought it couldn’t be her. But as I looked closer I could see an arm and a leg. I dug around and then saw my daughter. The dream was suddenly over.

I searched for my other children and found my son (Farish, 17) in a tree. His foot was badly cut, one toe virtually hanging off by a piece of skin. People panicked that more waves would follow so many people climbed up the town’s last remaining electricity tower. They were shouting out for water. I found some bottles of soda that had been washed out of the downtown stores, and carried some to them. . . . I went back and took my son and dead daughter to the mosque, which was all but destroyed. I lay my daughter down there. There was no time to despair. I had to find my family.

Nearby I could hear a young girl’s cries, and dug around and found her under some debris. Her mouth was split open to her ear and she was stripped of her clothing. I found her some rags and left her, too, at the mosque with a growing number of other survivors. My son and I searched, and eventually found my other daughter (Shifana, 8), face down in the dirt about 100 meters from where the house had been.

I took her and her sister to another mosque a kilometer or so away where there were about 200 other dead bodies and buried them. The ground was hard here and the shovel broke on the hard earth. I wept at the thought of leaving them there in the open to rot, but with some stones I managed to remove enough dirt to bury them.

I returned for my bicycle, and found it in the same place I left it. For days I went on searching for my wife (Shahid, 46) and other son (Ripsi, 13), but they were nowhere. I have cycled everywhere to find them. Every time I hear news of bodies being found, I go to look. Already 65 days have passed, but I remember everything as though it was yesterday. It was no dream, just a terrible nightmare.

I love to sing traditional songs, songs that make people smile. But it will be a while until I can sing a happy song again.

A great escape

Along the beach at Thalaydy, Jaffna Province, an elderly couple can be seen ankle-deep in the calm ocean fishing for their livelihood. Perumal, 68, plunges a sunburned foot into the wet sand and plucks out a clam, which he cracks open with his weather beaten hands and passes it to his wife, Sinnapillai. She in turn hooks the bait to a line fashioned from items found on the debris-strewn beach, including a piece of rusty wire for a hook and a spark plug for a weight.

Having lost their fishing boat during the tsunami, this is how they spend their days. On a good day they may catch 4 or 5 kg. On a bad one, like today, they go home empty-handed.

Perumal recalls the moment the tsunami struck Thalaydy beach as he and his two grandchildren made their way to find shelter from morning rain:

As on every other Sunday, I got up early that morning to check the conditions and decided it would be better to stay on land. Later, I played on the beach with my son and two grandchildren and it started to rain.

We headed for a fisherman’s shelter at the back of the beach, and I turned to look at the sea and saw this black wall in the distance, which looked to be 3 or 4 meters high. I asked my son to look at it and he said it might be a result of the low-pressure buildup that the radio had reported earlier.

I got a strange feeling about it, so decided to take the children home. The next thing I knew I was clinging to a tree stump, naked. Then the sea retreated and I was forced back with it. I couldn’t understand why until I realized that the tree to which I was clinging has been uprooted. I crashed into another tree and came to an abrupt stop.

I looked around, my legs and arms were bloodied and there were fish everywhere. People were picking them up. But, just as the sea had disappeared, so had my son and grandchildren. There were people walking around naked and shouting out names.

I shouted out for my grandchildren. Someone said that they’d found a dead child, but mine wasn’t one of them.

Then I realized a voice was calling me, and it took me a while to realize that it was coming from somewhere above me. It was my son. He had been thrown by the wave into the top of a coconut tree. He was unharmed. There was a small fishing boat nestled in the tree next to him. But there was no sign of my grandchildren.

We searched for what seemed like hours. The place was littered with clothing and other debris, the beachfront hotel had been flattened. Eventually we found my granddaughter lying outside the police station, about 500 meters inland. There was white foam around her mouth. I thought she must be dead and the grief was almost too much to bear. My son turned away, unable to look.

I put my hand to her mouth and felt the warmth of her breath. It was a miracle. She was alive. We carried her to the hospital, and searched for my grandson.

He was there, bruised and badly shaken. He had jumped onto a floating refrigerator and simply rode the wave. I had seen many big waves before, but nothing like this.

The following day I visited the beach because I wanted to see if the shrine there had survived. It has been knocked down, but I picked up the statue that was lying there and placed it upright.

A foreigner came by and gave me some candies, which I put in my pocket for my grandchildren. He told me I must have done some great good during my life to have survived. I feel grateful for these words, but at times like this, you can only thank your God for sparing your family and feel great sorrow for those who perished.