Time spent in Sri Lanka can just help reset things. At the end of a bit of a challenging month, we set off on holidays in Sri Lanka. Warmth, friendly people, terrific landscapes. But, I can I can never really switch off (yes Mr Pascoe, I know what you said to me, but…) because I am interested in what people have to say. I struck up many conversations with people, and when they find that I work in disaster management, the talk turns to the Tsunami.
A lot of the focus of attention after the Boxing Day Tsunami was rightly upon Banda Aceh. Thailand also featured heavily because of the loss of European lives. In Sri Lanka, in the midst of a civil conflict, lost over 30,000 lives, and more than 1.5 million people were displaced. People forget this, and the impact that it had. The conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Government ceased briefly to enable relief activities to occur.
We were staying in Trincomalee, one of the areas that bore the brunt of the tsunami in 2006. There were evacuation route signs, all faded. I looked at where were we staying, right on the beach, and decided that hill at the end of the bay would be the best place for us, rather than navigate the way back to the main village, then follow the evacuation route, should it be needed. But it wasn’t.
There are still many areas that have never been repaired, since the tsunami. Gaps in the streetscape. The wonderful Sandoon, who drove us around, told me about his story. He comes from a Telwatta a village in the south east, which was destroyed. His parents, and grandparents died in the tsunami, leaving him and his sisters orphaned, at 13. They received some support from the relief agencies, but not a lot, and he had to balance school with working, as did his sisters. Nearly 13 years after, it is still painful for him.
At dinner in Colombo, talking with friends, they said that a lot of people, including international firms, made a lot of money out of the tsunami recovery. He said this with a air of inevitability. “I guess its what happens”, he said.
On the 8 hour train journey back to Colombo, I befriended the CFO of a cement company, who decided he wanted to take the train back to Colombo. He was working the in the Maldives at the time of the tsunami. He and his family were taking a Christmas break in one of the resorts. For them, it was less that the tsunami was a wave. They noticed that water rose up around the resort to their doorstep. It then receded. Receded a long way. Everyone went to the beach, which was now emptied of water. One of the lifeguards said, this doesn’t feel right, and suggested they all head back to the dining area, which is the highest point of the island (and not very high. When they did that, the water surged back in, stopping just before the dining area. They would have all been washed away if they had stayed on the beach. He also spoke about the elderly aunt of his wife, who on her first visit back to Sri Lanka after emigrating to the UK in the 60s, was killed in a tourist bus in the south.
These catastrophic events have such a ripple event. I think its part of what defines something that is catastrophic. Everyone is connected to the events, in some way. And it would be such a challenge for a country riven by conflict, to recover from the events. As people said to me, recovery has been very slow.
I have bought some books, which I am looking forward to reading. I am steeling myself for Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave. She was at the beach with her husband, two sons, and mother and father on holiday. She was the only survivor.Its her story of recovery.
Being there, listening to the stories, and seeing how people go about their daily lives, certainly put a lot of things into perspective.