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Waking up to disaster on Boxing Day

World Vision
11 February 2015 by Prasanna De Silva
Waking up to disaster on Boxing Day

Tim Costello and Prasanna met fisherman who had received fishing boats after the Boxing Day tsunami, to help them rebuild their livelihoods. Photo by Ilana Rose, World Vision

This is part two of a blog written by World Vision’s Prasanna De Silva about his experience being in Sri Lanka when the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami struck – and how World Vision helped the country rebuild in the aftermath. Read part one here.

The next morning I woke up early to watch the Sri Lanka vs New Zealand Boxing Day match on TV. I can recall first sighting the short news headlines about small numbers of casualties in different parts of Sri Lanka as they flashed across the cricket coverage at the bottom of the TV screen. As time passed, these numbers continued to increase till eventually the cricket coverage and the match itself were halted. News bulletins started to describe a ‘sea come to earth’.

By 11am the full magnitude of the disaster was apparent. This was to be one of the darkest days in Sri Lanka’s history. News channels began showing footage of the devastation the tsunami had already wrought while almost continuously updating their bulletins with news of more deaths and destruction as the vast dimensions of the disaster that had struck us began to unfold. No one knew how to respond. There was a collective atmosphere of absolute fear and panic as people looked on helplessly as our beautiful country was ravaged by a monstrous wave that we were later to find out reached speeds of up to 500km per hour.

At first light, the following day, I am deployed to the city of Galle to assist with World Vision’s emergency response there. Galle is famous for its World Heritage-listed Fort, built by the Dutch during their occupation. The Galle Cricket Ground where Shane Warne got his 500th wicket is equally renowned amongst sporting fans. However on this day, I could not see the beauty of Galle for the overwhelming presence of bodies; hundreds upon hundreds of dead were everywhere, including upon the rampart and in the famous cricket ground which had been virtually destroyed.

Everywhere an overpowering stench of death pervaded. These are memories I cannot get rid of; they are with me always. I remember talking with a fisherman that had lost everything. Even now I can see the dull red of his bloodshot eyes and the tears that flowed from them as he wept for his wife and three children lost to the giant wave. He blamed himself because he could not keep hold of his children as the erupting wave consumed their humble home. I had no way of making his loss or his pain any better so I did all that I could do. I sat with him, hugged him close to me and listened.

Ten years later the Galle that greets Tim and I on our trip couldn’t have been more different. Gone but not forgotten are the dead, in their place the survivors and their descendants go about their business, the Fort once again majestic, the cricket ground restored. Tim and I visited these landmarks but our memories of the deadly devastation that we witnessed first-hand a decade ago still cast their pall.

We met countless families, communities, business people, teachers, doctors, even artists that were supported by World Vision in the dark days following the tsunami. We were welcomed by people who have never forgotten the provisions, skills and psycho-social support we were able to give them with the overwhelming support of the Australian people in their time of desperate need. There were countless stories of extraordinary resilience as well as profound gratitude.

We saw how a large but simple traditional wooden fishing boat gifted by World Vision in the wake of the tsunami is, almost ten years later, still feeding 60 families. We heard how one woman is now able to provide for her entire family thanks to the small batik business she has been able to establish following the training she received as part of World Vision’s economic rehabilitation programs. Only then are we able to lay our own ghosts to rest.

For slowly but surely Sri Lanka was rebuilt with the absolute generosity of Australians and many others. World Vision Australia alone raised over $118 million dollars for tsunami relief and rehabilitation programs. There was an atmosphere of comradeship and humanity as people gave without bounds. People gave up their savings and spare change with the thought that others needed the money more.

This money was truly able to make an impact in the lives of many people who suffered deep tragedy. After a decade the Sri Lankan people have still not forgotten the support they received from their brothers and sisters around the world. People have worked hard to rebuild, their gratitude almost palpable as is their fresh perspective on the preciousness of life.

Sri Lanka has moved past the tragedy of 2004 and is once again a proud country but none of us will ever forget the events of that day, and the people of the world who reached out to lend a helping hand when we most needed it.

Prasanna De Silva Prasanna De Silva

Prasanna was the former head of WVA international Programs and currently works as the Senior Director of Operations for the South Asia & Pacific Region.

 

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