After the Sea Stood Up

Introducing a new series from the tsunami zone of Sri Lanka

by Michael Slate

Revolution #1, May 1, 2005, posted at

Damage from the Tsumani in Galle
All photographs © Mukai 2005. All rights reserved. Photographs may not be reproduced in any form, digital or analog, without written permission from copyright holder.

I have been back inside the U.S. for less than a day. Over the last six weeks I traveled all over Sri Lanka and talked with all kinds of people about the tsunami and the oppression and suffering that is still unfolding — four months after the giant waves smashed the shoreline and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan people.

To celebrate the birth of Revolution newspaper, I wanted to contribute a few paragraphs to introduce a new series of articles and to complement the photos taken by my traveling companion, the photographer Mukai.

There is a beach just north of the town of Trincomalee on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the world with miles of soft white sand, the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, coconut trees and monkeys. During low tide you can walk hundreds of yards out into the ocean across a soft sand seabed and still be standing in water only five feet deep.

On a hot evening I stood talking with Ramasamy, a boatman who lived in a village a couple of hundred yards away from a beachfront resort hotel. Ramasamy is Tamil, an oppressed nationality in Sri Lanka. He talked about his life as a boatman—sometimes carrying cargo along the coast, or local people to other villages, and sometimes operating coastline tours for tourists. Business was never good. Much of the northeast had been devastated by 20 years of war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil fighters. The local people often had to seek shelter from the guns. During the daytime the government soldiers searched for the Tamil rebels and fired their guns from sea onto the beaches while the rebels found shelter in the villages. At night the fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam emerged to attack army positions. In between all this the people found ways to eke out a living.

Then, on December..., 2004, the tsunami came. Ramasamy described what he saw.

"It was early morning. I walked on the beach wondering if there would be work. I looked at the sea. Something was strange, but I didn’t know what it was. It was quiet. They say the sea disappeared, but I don’t think I saw that. I will never forget what I did see when I looked out from the beach. It was something I never saw before, no one in our village ever saw it before. The sea was standing up. It stood up and ran to the beach. It was 10 or 15 meters high.

"I ran far before the water reached me. My wife and child were with her brother inland and were safe. I was eaten by the sea. I found myself on top of a coconut tree after the tsunami. My village was destroyed. We were a small village, but now there is nothing, not even tents for shelter. Our village is gone, and now the government says we can’t rebuild because there is a law that says we can’t live in a house so close to the beach. My boat was destroyed so I have no work."

Ramasamy pointed to a huge tree trunk—maybe 20 feet long with a diameter of about 4 feet—and explained that it appeared on the beach about a month after the tsunami. "People came to look at it, and they said it came from Indonesia. Then came the body of a little girl. She also came from Indonesia. Then came coconuts, Indonesian coconuts; there were coconuts all along the beach. The government said we shouldn’t eat them, that they were dangerous. We were hungry and now we have nothing, so many of us ate the coconuts."

As nightfall crept up, Ramasamy’s two friends joined our conversation. They showed me photos of their families and pointed out a wife, an uncle and a child lost to the tsunami. One of them pointed to his village and then to the hotel. In an angry voice he demanded to know why the village was destroyed and why no one will talk about rebuilding it or even building temporary shelters for them, yet the hotel was repaired in a month. He thinks the tourist business wants the village erased. More than anything he wants answers. "What was it? I still don’t know what tsunami is. Will it come again? No one knows. I want to know how I will live. How will my village live? The tsunami came and left and we still suffer. Why?"

These are the questions and contradictions I explored as I traveled the island and spoke to all kinds of people— from plantation workers on the tea estates to fisherman up and down the coastline, from German doctors working in tsunami-devastated villages to Sri Lankan environmental activists, from Maoist revolutionaries to Buddhist priests, from supporters and members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to academics and engineers. I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to unfold over the next weeks a new series based on this visit in the pages of Revolution newspaper.