Sri Lanka: a decade after the tsunami

Pereliya is a village still mending its scars. A decade has passed since the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, but for many local people, rebuilding their lives from scratch remains a daily struggle.

The village is the site of the Sri Lankan tsunami-rail disaster, in which 1,500 people lost their lives when the wave derailed a crowded train, crushing those sheltering behind.

“I remember the sound, like elephants,” said Saman, a guide, who lost his job as a postman following his injuries from the disaster. “I remember the screams. Young girls were running past the house, naked. I thought, ‘something is wrong’. I had never heard of tsunami before.”

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He described how he climbed a tree, but the water was too strong. “The wave took me and I was hit by rocks. After, I crawled, like an animal, to the temple.”

Saman was a lucky survivor of the Boxing Day disaster, in a country where 35,000 were recorded dead, and thousands more missing. Sri Lanka was the second-hardest hit country after Indonesia, with some estimates putting the total death toll near to quarter of a million.

It took Saman a long time to rebuild his life and home after the disaster. With no pension, he described his continual struggle to feed his family of six.

“My sons and daughters, they need an education, clothes, food and water. But I have very little money,” he said.

The 56-year-old now uses his English to work as a guide, helping tourists from the railway station to nearby hotels. But, with the rise of the Internet, he explained, his services are seldom required. “Most people say ‘no’. They do not need my help. So I have little money,” he said. “But I have my family. I am rich of the heart.”

Many, he said, blame the government for their financial difficulties. “There were donations from other countries, but they don’t reach the right people; the people who need it.”

Nimal Shantha runs a turtle hatchery at Pereliya. On the day the tsunami struck, Mr Shantha had been working away as a mechanic in Colombo. He returned to the family-run hatchery to find his mother, two sisters, wife and three children had all perished in the wave.

“In 2005 I gave up my job to rebuild the turtle farm and continue my family’s conservation work,” he said. With financial support from the UK, Denmark and Germany, he now runs the hatchery in memory of his loved ones.

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In an area that has always relied heavily on the tourism industry, Mr Shantha said the local economy did not take long to recover. “The tourists, they did not stop coming. They were not afraid,” he said.

Although the economy has largely recovered and homes have been rebuilt, many wounds have not yet healed. “I suffer from depression,” explained the widow. “I take pills every night since that day.”

He said it was important that we keep remembering what happened in Sri Lanka. One local initiative established in remembrance is the Tsunami Photo Museum in nearby Telwatta, set up by Dutch volunteer Jacky van Oostveen.

Local mother Kamani de Silva looks after the museum. “My family ran from the tsunami for one kilometre,” she said. “This house was destroyed. It is all new now.”

Standing in her rebuilt home, she pointed to the tent, now suspended from the ceiling, in which she and her family of seven were forced to shelter amongst the rubble for six months following the disaster.

Kumani described the grief of seeing unidentified bodies being lowered into mass graves in the weeks after the tsunami.

“One third of casualties were children,” said Mrs de Silva. “They could not outrun the waves”.

The museum consists of photographs, newspaper cuttings and children’s drawings: an authentic and personal way of delivering their powerful message that nature cannot be stopped. On the basic wooden walls are written the words ‘heartbreak’, ‘fury of nature’, ‘hope?’.

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The exhibition relies entirely on donations from visitors, having been built on a very small budget raised by Ms van Oostveen’s family and friends.

“It is impossible to tell the whole Tsunami story, as there are too many,” said Ms van Oostveen, an artist, who had never visited Sri Lanka before the tsunami. “But by telling some of them I think a lot of people will get a general idea what has happened. I have chosen for a museum with a personal touch instead of a museum that shows all the facts. For me the personal stories are more important than the facts.”

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