The day the sea turned black
Walking down the main road is like entering a ghost town. Saris hang from branches swaying in the wind silently; video tapes are scattered on the sand; trees lie horizontally across the landscape with roots clawing at the air. A photo album lies open, the pictures distorted by salt water. A lone shoe has found its way to the top of a cupboard in an abandoned house. Pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary still hang on the walls of houses in this predominantly Catholic, Tamil area.
Once, the people here lived by the rhythm of the ocean, its familiar ebb and flow. Forty nine year old Fouzan Delima is one of them, now a survivor from the small fishing village of Sinnamuhattuvaram in Ampara. All that remains of his house is a wooden post with a small piece of corrugated iron attached to it. On the morning of the 26th, while brushing his teeth, he noticed that the sea level was rising and began to hear the panic-stricken voices of his neighbours. “The sea is coming, the sea is coming”. For him, like tens of thousands of others who live along SThe day the sea turned black.ri Lanka’s coast, the impact of the tsunami has touched all aspects of their lives – destroying families, homes, businesses and ultimately a way of life by the sea. He started running with his wife and young child as the waves approached. “There was a lot of white foam but the sea was very black and dark in colour. It smelt something like gun powder. We were running towards the river, and some of us got in. The water was chasing us, and that’s when I lost my wife. I saw her in the water, and I knew that she was dead”.
Fouzan managed to hang onto his son, and despite being carried some distance by the current, they eventually climbed onto the roof of a house to escape the waves. From where he sat he could see people being swept into the nearby lagoon where many of them eventually died. After being rescued by the Special Task Force they were taken to a makeshift refugee camp. Surveying the wreckage of his home he says, “Now I am back here and I have no house or belongings. I am scared that the sea may come back at any time. I am confused as to what to do. I don’t know if I want to live here”.
In Ampara alone, more than 10,000 have died with 184,000 people being displaced. All have similar stories about that fateful day. Many still think of the tsunami as an act of God: they thought it was the end of the world. A few kilometres away from Sinnamuhattuvaram, 438 families have been temporarily housed in the Sri Rama Krishna College in Akkaraipattu, making use of every inch of space. The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation has a strong presence here and appears to be coordinating aid. But this is a short-term solution. The school term starts in February and it is unclear as to where the refugees will be re-housed. Some are keen to rebuild their lives in exactly the same place while others cannot face going back.
Chandra is a thirty year old housewife. She lost two children, 8 year old Thanusha and 12 year old Kirthana. Her house has been obliterated, reduced to its concrete foundations. She shows me where she was carried to, and the trace of a water mark on a nearby wall suggests the size of the wave – more than twice her height. Her first warning that something was wrong was the sound of people screaming outside. By the time she had started running with her children, the water had engulfed them completely. “My two children were swept away towards the river. I was underwater and I couldn’t breathe – I thought I was going to die. I was shouting ‘help me, help me’ and then another wave came and dragged me towards the lagoon…The sea is so powerful and can destroy everything in its path. In my mind I thought I was going to die, and that my children were going to die. God took my two children and spared us”. Chandra has trouble sleeping and eating now. She doesn’t understand why she and her husband survived. “I am living at refugee camp and it makes me feel sad because it’s not like home. It’s difficult to come back here – because we are all scared. How can we come back and live here? There are so many memories of my children here, and I will never forget what happened here until I die”.
Seeing these people re-visit their homes is extraordinary. They are numb with grief. They stare blankly at the wreckage, excavating the detritus. It is the fishermen that I feel for the most, those like Vishvalingam who has spent his life depending on the sea. He was out fishing that morning and came back to the house to sleep. When the water level began to rise, a neighbour pointed out his boat which was balancing precariously on an extraordinarily high wave. He and his wife Jayakala grabbed their three children and started running. “That’s when the wave went over my head. My wife and one of my children were swept away. I was holding onto the other two. But my sarong got caught on some barbed wire and that’s when I lost the two I was carrying”. He starts to break down, sobbing incessantly while his wife looks into the distance. “They were waving at me and it looked as if they were saying goodbye and I couldn’t bear it”.
None of the children made it. “I thought I was the only one who had survived. I was crying and wailing that I had lost everything. Then someone came and told me that my wife was still alive. He told me where she was, so I went and looked for her. She was alone”. After being swept into the nearby lagoon, Jayakala had been rescued and sent to another camp. She doesn’t speak much during the interview but says simply, “I wanted to survive because I thought that my husband and the children would make it. If I had known that I would lose all my children, I would have given up”.
This is just a tiny snapshot of a tiny village in a tiny island whose grief has shaken the World. I return to London a few days later, unsettled and bewildered. I am amazed at the impact the tragedy has had on friends, colleagues and strangers. But my mind keeps wandering back to that horrific landscape and to the people I met there. Where will they all end up? Fishermen like Vishvalingam can’t imagine living anywhere else but Sinnamuhattuvaram. He hopes to return despite everything. “We are now alone. We do want to come back to this village. This is where we were born. I only know how to fish – that’s all I know. So I want to come here – that’s the most important thing for us right now”.