Tim Costello with Meril, a Sri Lankan fisherman and the fishing boat he recieved from World Vision to help him earn an income after the Boxing Day Tsunami. Photo by Ilana Rose, World Vision
I can still remember 10 years ago, being at the Boxing Day cricket when my phone started going off. There was terrible news out of Thailand and Sri Lanka. A massive tsunami had struck, sweeping away whole towns in its wake, killing and maiming thousands and thousands of people. Within a matter of hours I found myself on a plane to Sri Lanka.
I was still in my first year as CEO of World Vision and this was my first major emergency but nothing could have prepared me for the devastation that awaited me. I have carried those images of death, of destruction, of utter loss and confusion with me ever since. So when I had the chance to return just ahead of the tenth anniversary, I approached the journey with a great sense of nostalgia but also conflicting emotions. I was concerned about what I would find, anxious to know whether what we did back then had stood the test of time.
Now having the privilege of visiting Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh in Indonesia, I can say it has been quite exhilarating to return and recognise the fruits of that remarkably frenetic time. To see, ten years later, that it wasn’t temporary or a waste of energy but all that effort has resulted in quite profound change for those left behind.
The response to the Boxing Day tsunami was global and that is still apparent today. I saw it as I walked around Blang Padang Field in the centre Banda Aceh – this is a park where so many people died. The tsunami struck here on a Sunday morning as people were out walking, playing soccer. I remember visiting it in 2004 as a place of utter desolation; a grave yard.
The park now has rocks sculptured into the shape of upturned boats, each one representing a country that responded to the relief effort for Banda Aceh. Australia is there but next to us is Bangladesh and Bosnia Herzegovina and on and on it goes. Poor countries, small countries, people all over the world were touched by this tragedy and I realised once again that this global response was something that plugged into the deepest and darkest fears of humans. The overwhelming generosity to the survivors was an expression of unprecedented global solidarity.
Sri Lanka has also changed – I remember images of mass graves and corpses thrown together because there was no other option at the time. Coming back to the beautiful town of Galle I was in the same place but with a totally different feel. I am still haunted by the memories of that town just 48 hours after the Boxing Day tsunami, the utter silence of the people as they shuffled along the streets. It was just like a very big, dark heavy hand had settled over everything.
Now in its place there is frivolity, laughter, joy and a very vibrant community. To see how World Vision’s work started as relief and recovery work and has morphed into sustainable development was just exhilarating.
The assistance we provided, from providing communities with fishing boats or running Child Friendly Spaces, has actually spawned ongoing sustainable lives for the communities. Direct results of our work, like incomes from fishing and skill sets to deal with psycho-social trauma, are still being used today. There is also a deep, deep gratitude from the communities that we visited that World Vision was there in their darkest hour in their time of need – that they weren’t alone.
I simply didn’t recognise Banda Aceh – except for a few landmarks, like a massive ship two kilometres inland that has been turned into a museum. The city that I saw in 2004 really looked like a World War II picture of a Dresden or Berlin after being bombed. Banda Aceh back then was just really shattered and wiped out.
That city is gone and today is unrecognizable – the roads are fantastic, the buildings are beautiful, the play and laughter from kids is infectious, the businesses that have been set up are amazing. And it was great to see houses that we built ten years ago – earthquake-resistant, really good quality houses – that have stood the test of time.
We got to visit some of the little businesses, particularly focusing on women’s skills and livelihood that have continued not just to make a profit but to grow from ten years ago. It was healing to walk along the coastline where some 14,000 people were buried in a mass grave and see instead of a shattered bridge a busy two-lane highway bridge, with people fishing and enjoying the sheer beauty of their home.
So I’ve come back from this trip feeling it was a little like a book of emotions. The first chapter could not be darker and more devastating – but the final chapter, without trivialising the loss and pain and suffering, couldn’t be more inspiring, hopeful and pointing to the future.
And in between these two chapters, making up most of the book are the pages of great work that so many people at World Vision did in the intervening years, as well as the donors who were sacrificial in their generosity. The scenes of kids drilling now in evacuation procedures, the planting of mangrove swamps to halt a tsunami or slow it down, the early warning systems, the massive desalination that World Vision undertook and then taught more sustainable farming, couldn’t have made me more proud, so it’s been a remarkable hope-filled journey.