Special to Revolution

After the Sea Stood Up

Life and Death in the Tsunami Zone

by Michael Slate

Revolution #002, May 15, 2005, posted at revcom.us

In March and April, Revolution correspondent Michael Slate traveled all over Sri Lanka, one of the places hardest hit by the devastating tsunami of December 2004. Slate talked to many different people about the tsunami and the oppression and suffering that continue to unfold. This is the first in a series of reports by Slate from the tsunami zone that will appear in Revolution over the coming weeks.

Heading south out of Colombo in the early morning rush hour is crazy. There is one rule that governs driving in Sri Lanka—especially in the larger cities like Colombo, Kandy, and Galle—and that is: fill up every available inch of space and keep moving at all costs. Cars, buses, and lorries try to steamroll ahead. Tuk Tuks—three-wheeled modified scooter taxis—zip between them like mosquitos. Motorbikes and bicycles carrying entire families compete with the three-wheelers. Skinny men whose bodies seem to be permanently strained push impossible loads of construction materials, rice, or other goods on ancient wooden wheeled handcarts in whatever tiny crevices are left between all this. And every now and then two or three cows wander out into the middle of all this to wreak havoc. If you don’t have a functioning horn you’ll never make it more than a few blocks.

At the edge of the city the traffic begins to thin out and the bustle of the early morning life disappears. Here the houses are tiny shanties pitched up in a jumble along the sides of the road. A few kilometers later the shanties are replaced by small houses lining the beach.

It isn’t until you hit this point that the evidence of the tsunami begins to leap out at you. Many of the houses along the beach have been destroyed—whole walls washed away, floors and roofs collapsed. Even now, months after the tsunami, the bones and carcasses of fishing boats still litter the beaches and roadsides. Large multi-day fishing boats perch on the roadside with giant holes punched in the hulls. Smaller day-boats lie cracked and broken. Even smaller catamarans lie splintered like toothpicks up and down the coast.

Some people still try to live in the houses that haven’t been totally destroyed. But as you get farther and farther south, the number of these houses dwindles quickly and, for the first time, you begin to see signs of the awesome power of the huge tsunami waves that ravaged a huge section of the Sri Lankan coastline. Instead of houses, you find a wall here and there, an upper floor perched on top of four support columns, a staircase leading nowhere, or nothing more than a foundation covered with sand.

On the morning of December... a massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, gave birth to a tsunami that killed approximately 250,000 people throughout South Asia. The largest number of people were killed when the wave tore into the Sumatran province of Aceh just ten minutes after the quake. Approximately 40,000 people were killed and 800,000 left homeless when the wave, traveling at 500 miles an hour, reached the island of Sri Lanka on the other side of the Indian Ocean two hours later.

The Remains of the Queen of the Sea

Two hours south of Colombo, huge tent cities have been erected all along the coastal road to house the many thousands left homeless in this region. And off to the side of one of these villages/refugee camps—a spot in between Peraliya and Telwatta—sits a silent monument to the death and destruction brought on by the tsunami. It’s eerie how one of the largest natural disasters in history can become so concentrated in a few rusting railroad cars and a stretch of twisted train tracks. This is all that remains of the Samudra Devi—the Queen of the Sea—a storied train that ran down the coast between Colombo and the city of Galle.

On December...—the day after Christmas and a Buddhist holiday—the train was jam-packed with at least 2,000 people when it stopped at Telwatta. Within minutes it was slammed by two giant waves. Passenger cars were ripped apart and sent tumbling off the tracks. A whole section of the tracks reared up and twisted around. At most only a handful of passengers survived. It’s estimated that 2,000 people died, but undoubtedly hundreds more should be added to that figure since many from the village and people fleeing the road in the face of the tsunami climbed on top of the train, hoping to escape the waves. Now, three months after the tsunami, three rusted and sealed railroad cars stand in silent and ghostly tribute to the dead.

In a makeshift medical clinic I talked with Chamila, a young woman from the village of Peraliya. We started out talking about the train but quickly moved into Chamila’s experience with the tsunami.

"I was at home when the tsunami came. Because I am a Christian that is a special time. I have a very small daughter, she is one year and three months old. Before the tsunami I was ready to go to church and I’m on the way. Somebody told me I can’t go because of tsunami. I don’t believe because I never heard of tsunami. We thought that it was beach water coming. We don’t know that it is coming very fast. I never see and I never heard about that.

"I carry my daughter and I am going to a little bit high place. Everybody is going and calling me, saying come take your daughter, come take your daughter and save your life. I saw that water and I saw a lot of people are going and they are asking help—but that water is come very powerful and nobody can help, nobody can help.

"They had two or three helicopters going, but they can’t come down, because there are a lot of trees and a lot of houses and the water is very powerful. We had two days—me and my daughter and a lot of people on that high place. We had all around us water. We can’t do anything and we can’t go anywhere. We can just sit there.

"We couldn’t find any food—only some cookies. They were floating and somebody who can swim went in and got the cookies and some drinking water. Whoever had those little bit of things, they give only to the babies, the kids. The parents can’t get anything because we don’t know how long time we can stay there. There is no radio, no message, nothing works. We can’t understand what’s happened. We tried everything but we can’t find anything to work, no electricity. Just only candle—without candle then it was a very dark night we are staying. Two nights it was very dark, without anything. We were scared because there were so many voices saying ’help, help’ all night. So many people are crying there. We see it in front of our eyes but we can’t help.

"The water was not very soon going down. I couldn’t just walk through the water. I tried—after two days it was maybe four feet, that water. The water was very dark, and there were a lot of bad things in the water. There were a lot of bodies also and it smelled really bad. That’s why we scared and can’t go alone. Somebody had to help.

"My family lost six people in the tsunami. But we only found two people. We didn’t find four bodies. A lot of bodies, we don’t know where they are. There is behind our village a big river and I think some of the bodies are going to other places because that water wasn’t coming through one way. There was the mixing of the beach water and the river water. And there was water in the well, and still we find bodies inside that well now three months after the tsunami. I think in that river are a lot of bodies. Daily, daily, every day we are finding bodies.

"A lot of people in this village died because there was the first wave and then the second wave was very powerful. And there was the train problem also in this village. I think 250 parents and younger people from this village and 175 kids are dead."

Death and Destruction in Galle

The city of Galle is probably the most well-known resort town in Sri Lanka. Sitting on the southwest tip of the island, Galle and the towns north of it seem like they should have been protected from the tsunami—at least to some degree. But tsunamis are complex things, and when the wave hit the tip of the island it refracted and changed direction, devastating the southwest coastline.

Galle town, in part because it is the administrative and commercial hub for a half dozen or more beach towns that have grown up around it, was featured in every international newscast on the tsunami. In the Galle district—which includes all the little tourist towns on the outskirts of the city—at least 4,000 people were killed by the tsunami and tens of thousands left homeless. In the city itself conservative estimates put the death toll at approximately 2,000 people. No one will ever know for sure because so many people were in transit or visiting the market when the wave hit, and they are all gone.

According to the mayor of Galle, "Most of the 2,000 people who died in Galle town were women and children because they couldn’t run. And mothers would not leave the children and run. They had to die with the children. If this happened in the nighttime it would have been worse because all the people would have been sleeping at home and they wouldn’t have known it was a tsunami until they were washed away. This happened at daytime and all the people were shouting and running to save their lives."

A short distance from downtown Galle there is a small rectangular block of row houses—more like apartments than houses actually. The different homes line either side of a small concrete footpath, and in the rear end of the complex the homes back up onto a narrow rocky shoreline. When the seas are rough, waves crash just 20 feet from the windows and doors of the back houses.

I stood at the back end of this complex on a day when the sea was calm. It was blistering hot in the sun and the slight ocean breeze was welcome. For a moment I stood there thinking about how relaxing the ocean and the soft lapping of the waves on the rocks were. Then my mind snapped to imagine what it must have been like to see a 20-foot wall of water speeding towards your back windows. I turned around to see what was left of the back houses after the tsunami. It looks like bombed-out houses in a war zone. Children’s toys and shredded clothes were stuck under piles of bricks and fallen wood.

"I Can’t Leave My People"

Ranpalee, a very slight woman in her late thirties, stood in a doorway with a fearful look in her eyes. She was in her house when the tsunami hit. "I was going about my usual business and the sea was behaving in a not ordinary way. It was behaving violently. I came into my house and looked out to see that the water was rising, and I told my friend to come and get behind the door. Then the water slammed the door and came through and I went back into my house. I closed my door. But the water slammed my door, broke through and came into the house, and so I took my sister and we went upstairs. Then we felt that all the other buildings downstairs were getting destroyed, so we climbed out onto the roof and we were shouting and screaming for somebody to please help us."

The residents of this housing block sought refuge in a local temple and then a local Christian school. After three weeks at the school the principal threatened them with eviction if they didn’t leave on their own. When they got tents they set them up on the first piece of land they could find. But when the owner of the land found out about it, he summoned the police who threatened the people with arrest unless they left. Finally, the people returned to their housing block and set their tents up in front of the building.

Ranpalee continued, "We had no place to go, so we asked for some tents. With the greatest difficulty we were able to get some tents. We are still living in tents. We don’t stay in the building at night. We just come here during the day because it is not possible to stay in the tents in the daytime. We don’t like to stay here at night because we are still fearful of the sea.

"Now we are without anything. We need a home. I have worked for 13 years abroad as a housemaid and a tailor in Dubai and Jordan and places like that and it was with the greatest difficulty that we built up this house. My sister and I and my husband and her husband live here. But my daughter came and asked me to come to Colombo, and I said I cannot leave my people.

"I can’t say that we got any relief or assistance, because without a home we can’t really build up a livelihood. Some foreign people gave me a machine to start sewing, but how can I sew if I don’t have a proper place? Having a home is my top priority, and nobody seems to be addressing that. We all live together here. We always have some solidarity here, we always cook together, we always eat together, and after tsunami we shared grief and we make sure that everybody is taken care of. Even when my daughter comes and tells me she wants to take me out of this, I tell her that I can’t leave my people. So they come from Colombo and look after me whatever way they can, but I stay with the people.

"The government has not helped us at all because we are very poor people. We don’t have property, we live at the sea. All we need is a home and they have not addressed this issue at all. We raise questions, we make our demands, but nobody seems to listen. My sister has a heart problem and she can’t use her one hand. I also have some disabilities, but I try to do some tailoring to survive. We are very helpless people and very poor. We made sure we didn’t lose any lives in the tsunami because we were together and we helped each other to survive.

"Biggest change for me is psychological because I still fear the tsunami. At night in the tent, even if a vehicle goes and I hear the noise I think it is another tsunami and I wake up screaming. I don’t want to stay in this house. I am so full of fear. When I am staying here I keep looking at the sea wondering when it is going to come again. People say on the...th of this month there may be another tsunami, so there is really nothing except to live with fear."

Rangani’s Story

Halfway down the concrete footpath that bisects the housing complex, a little boy with a very dirty face, a swollen stomach, and the most devilish grin I’ve seen in a long time stood in the small doorway into a small, dark apartment. When I approached he yelled out "Hi," giggled, and ran inside. In a moment his mother came out and invited us in. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the one-room apartment, a voice rose up from a far corner of the room. Rangani, a woman in her late forties or early fifties lay crumpled on the floor. Her leg had been injured in the tsunami and she could no longer walk. She wanted me to know her story and charged ahead in telling it.

"I work as a domestic servant for this Muslim family and that’s how I raise my three daughters and two granddaughters. One day when I was working I saw the waves coming, and I shouted to the Mister that the waves were coming. I warned them and they ran. I ran after everybody else, and then I first had to come and look for my family. On the way the water hit me and dashed me on the rocks. I lost my husband 25 years ago, and they lost their father 25 years ago. It is really working hard as a domestic servant—cooking, washing, and doing everything—that I have been able to raise them. The man I worked for comes now to give me a little assistance and that is like gold for me now.

"These boys who were at the Muslim mosque were rescuing people who were dashed against the rocks by the tsunami. And the lady where I worked also helped pull me up. I am very strong. One time I pounded 25 kilos of rice for an event and I have a lot of courage. But after pounding the 25 kilos of rice and giving birth to my third daughter something happened to my spine so now I am a bit weak. It is a long story of endless suffering for us. Sometimes it is not bearable. My daughters come and tell me that we should take an oil lamp and set fire to ourselves and kill ourselves. Maybe the stench will get outside and then maybe people will come and look at us."

Nelith and Chandrani’s Struggle

On the far east side of Galle there is a quiet little patch of land, full of trees, birds, and lizards. It’s separated from the road by a beautiful little lagoon. On the other side, it sits right on the edge of the ocean. Six months earlier this place was idyllic—now even the air is heavy with tension and fear.

Nelith has lived here most of his life. He caught up with me as I walked towards an almost finished house nestled up close to the lagoon. Nelith explained that his house had been demolished by the tsunami and that he was building this house with financial help from a British woman who lived up on a hill about a mile away. When Nelith built this new house he put it up very close to his old home simply because he had nowhere else to go. He and Chandrani, his wife, lost their daughter in the tsunami, and Chandrani lives with constant fear and horror.

After the house was built Nelith was visited by the police, who told him that since his new house was only 96 meters from the water’s edge, it will have to be demolished because it violates the law that says no house can be built within 100 meters of the water. This is a law that was put on the books back in the 1990s but was never enforced until the government started talking about it again after the tsunami. Of course, it is selective enforcement since only fishermen and others among the poorest people in Sri Lanka are being pressured under the law. Tourist hotels who use their proximity to the edge of the ocean as a big selling point receive special dispensation from the government. Nelith firmly believes that he has done nothing wrong, and he refuses to leave his new home.

Nelith was not home when the tsunami hit, and it took him five hours to get there from downtown. Chandrani told me her story of the tsunami. She couldn’t speak more than a few minutes without crying. She was so devastated by grief that she had barely eaten since the day of the tsunami. And on top of it all, the weight of religious tradition and superstition pressed down hard on her. It was coming up on the three-month anniversary of her daughter’s death, and according to Buddhist tradition there needed to be an alms-giving ceremony. But Chandrani and Nelith had nothing to put into this ceremony. In fact, they had just managed to pull together the house in time to hold the ceremony.

As Chandrani spoke, her voice cracked and her frail body shook intensely. "After tsunami we moved into a school and we were there for a few days. A foreign lady said she would help us rebuild our house. We said okay, and then we have come back here. It’s not really because we like to come back here, because still we feel frightened. But still we have no alternative except to come back here.

"When the tsunami hit I was not here, I was at the well. When I knew something was happening I came back here and I screamed for my daughter. Then I got washed away with the second wave and then I clung on to a tree. Then my son found me and asked where his sister was. Then we found my daughter lying on the ground unconscious. We carried my daughter to the hospital but she died. I had only a son and a daughter and I lost the daughter.

"The waves came up to almost the roof. We found our clothes and bedsheets on the roof after the waves left—so it was that high. Now we have to have the almsgiving for our daughter after three months. So we had to build this place. What does the government expect? This is not the house we lived in. But much of the back end of the house is gone, even though the house is not completely demolished. We had a much bigger house, but everything got washed away, even our clothes. The clothes I am wearing today are the clothes I was wearing in the tsunami. Whatever furniture you see here belongs to my son’s wife. We lost everything. They say that tomorrow, the poya day (full moon), there will be another tsunami. I don’t know but we are very frightened."

"I Don’t Know What Else There Is To Lose"

Across the street from Chandrani and Nelith there is a refugee camp made up of more than 60 blue tents. Inside the main pathway through the camp children sit playing games and beating on drums. Dozens of dogs lay around in the dust, trying to find a way to escape the sun.

Kavith, the camp manager, is a young man full of life, energy, and humor. Before the tsunami he had a house about 100 yards back off the road. It was demolished. He says he was "rich" and he got that way being a combination gangster and mechanic. When the wave hit his life changed.

"The tsunami was very dangerous. We had never seen anything like that, and even now we don’t talk about it because it makes us tremble with fear. We have never seen something like that. I was at home that day watching a DVD, and people started screaming. I looked outside and saw this wave coming at us—it was about 25 feet in height. There was nothing you could do, you couldn’t swim, you just had to let the wave take you. I was taken away and ended up in a small jungle clearing way over there.

"I lost my oldest daughter that day. We have lost all our properties, maybe some 10 laks or 15 laks, about one and a half million rupees, but we are not wallowing in that loss.

"The tsunami took a toll on lives. My hands were wounded and I was bruised and covered in blood, but I went around to rescue bodies. I went looking for bodies of our people, and I rescued about 15 bodies. It was then that I also rescued my own daughter’s body. Then I realized that we have all lost our loved ones. I cried at the time but then I learned not to cry because why should I only cry when everybody has suffered. Then I did the best I could by bathing my daughter and giving her the most decent burial that I could."

I spoke with Kavith for awhile as he detailed life in the camp. At one point a very young woman, Kiyoma, came up to us with pictures of her children in her hands. Kavith asked her to sit down and talk with me. Kiyoma had a crooked, shy smile and a voice that started out tiny but rushed ahead into urgency as she told her story.

"On the day of the...th I was 19 days pregnant. I was looking after my youngest daughter and my son was on the other side and I was with my mother when the wave hit us. I heard this big noise and I thought it was dynamite, which happens when people fish so I didn’t take much notice of it. Then I saw this water coming in. My husband was sleeping so I woke him up and I took this child and then had to look for my two other children. Then we came to this side of the road. From my shouting and screaming people thought it was an accident. Then I saw my father and I took my father and my infant son with my other hand and went to my mother’s house.

"I was running with my two children, escaping from the water. I never believed that a wave would hit like this. The wave hit and it hit in so many ways. It hit from side and in front of me a wave was receding and a lamppost which had got uprooted came and struck me. When it struck me I lost hold of both my children and they got washed away. I lost two children and my other child was losing his life, struggling to live. Somehow he was rescued. I also saw my mother being hit by something that was floating and she was also down. So I was getting washed away and I saw this tree and I reached out to grab a limb and somehow I got hold of my other son and I held onto him. And then another wave came again and I couldn’t hold onto this tree so I was carrying my child and he was drowning. We ended up at another tree and I held onto that tree and I lifted my child up and he was full of water. So I pumped his stomach and got it out and was able to save his life. With my son and holding onto this tree I was pleading with the gods to help us. I just told my son as I was clinging onto him that this is when we die and get washed away.

"Then I saw my sister’s son rolled up in a lot of twine and weeds and stuff and he was screaming for me. We reached out and somehow he disentangled himself. Then I saw my father coming, walking unsteadily towards us, so I told this boy to go and help my father. Then I was told that the dead body of my daughter is to be found in a tree. We didn’t even have a place to do a burial or a funeral. I was walking with this one child that is left and we recovered this body of my daughter and turned it over to a lorrie so that it would be taken to a hospital and left there.

"My family, along with my mother, we have lost eleven people. My other child that was lost, we didn’t recover the body but I have given the police a photograph so if somemlbody recognizes it they can let me know.

"When it’s hot, it is hot. When it rains it seeps in—there is no way to get any rest in these tents. We have lost our home and I have lost my children and I don’t know what else there is to lose."

To be continued