“F irst, was the fear of death,” Paliyagataye Nilmini said.
The 38-year-old mother from Baduraliya and her family woke at dawn May 26 to rising waters and no electricity. As dirty water and mud rushed into their home, the family fled to the roof for safety. Eventually, they were rescued and taken to a local Buddhist temple. They had no idea what would be left of their home when they returned.
In the nearby town of Digganna, Paliyagataye Piyawathi, a 55-year-old mother, woke to similar danger.
“In the morning around 5:30, at dawn, we heard that there had been some landslides not that far away from my house,” Piyawathi said. Both women spoke through a translator.
Thirty minutes later, another mudslide swept through the area and engulfed more homes. Like most others in town, Piyawathi’s family had to flee. Fifty-eight homes were evacuated, and many families, like Piyawathi’s, are still separated from their homes.
“Everything was lost or buried,” she said.
As homes were crushed beneath a chocolate avalanche, so were far too many villagers. Nine people in Digganna lost their lives. Piyawathi and her family helped search for victims and learned that the town’s treasurer and her whole family, including her three children, died that morning.
“I was shocked. I could not bear it because she was my best friend. She was my treasurer. She had three children who used to come to my house always, and when we came to know that they were lost, I could not bear it. I didn’t know what to do,” Piyawathi said.
Sitting at the foot of steep hills, the Baduraliya area has always been at risk for landslides in the rainy season. Just last year, a massive landslide killed more than 100 people.
This year’s devastation started in May, the first month of an abnormally wet rainy season. The rain fell in torrents. It kept falling and kept falling. Finally, soil on saturated hillsides could adhere no longer. Mud roared down from the heights and buried everything in its path. An estimated 250 people perished, and thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged, according to the government.
The tragedy underscored the vulnerability of the rural poor on the exposed lower slopes between the southwest mountains of the interior and the coast.
The most important thing is that we were together. We knew we were not alone.P. G. Nilmini
For many survivors, life in the aftermath was miserable. Piyawathi’s family eventually went to a rented home supplied by the government. Nilmini, like many others, took refuge in a local Buddhist temple built on higher ground.
She said she and her family found “comfort” there.
“The most important thing is that we were together. We knew we were not alone. It was a great help to restart life,” Nilmini said.
But, at least at first, life at the temple wasn’t so great, either.
As a sea of desperate people descended upon the temple grounds, disease ran rampant, and Nilmini said they did not have money to buy medicine. Dengue fever, an incurable disease carried by mosquitoes and fed by the relentless rain, became a major problem.
The evacuees slept on hallway floors and had to depend on the charity of others for food and water.
Typically, it took a while for the government’s disaster response teams to get help to this rural area. Friends, neighbors, and the victims themselves filled in the gap by working together to solve their problems, just as people did in the chaotic days after a killer tsunami hit the island in 2004, killing more than 35,000. People from churches were among the first to offer help.
Among those offering early aid was Nimal Martinus, a social worker and then regional director of the Strømme Foundation, a worldwide rights-based organization.
Martinus said it was “very difficult” to communicate following the mudslides and blocked roads made it impossible to get there. After four days, he finally arrived, but his options were limited.
“There was not much I could do, but I did try to give them motivation. I went to a couple of villages and met people. It was difficult, but that was needed to motivate them, and give them some strength,” Martinus said.
Back in the temple, victims struggled through each day but somehow found the strength of which Martinus spoke.
“We didn’t have clothes. There were not enough toilets. There were lots of social issues, but we worked together to sort out issues,” Nilmini said.
Together. That is always each woman’s answer. How will they get through this? Together. How will they rebuild their lives? Together.
Many of the women are members of a self-help organization created with the help of the Strømme Foundation, which has tried to empower women by giving them a sense of community, teaching them to depend on each other to solve common problems. It is through this sense of community that these women survived. Now Nilmini and Piyawathi aim to stitch together the fabrics of their lives, torn apart by muddy water.
The children bore the brunt of the trauma, according to both women. Piyawathi said her children were scarred by the loss of so many family members.
“The children still scream in the night,” she said.
As Piyawathi’s family moved into their rented house, Nilmini’s family returned to their home and found it in near-ruins. Her family lost everything, including her children’s school supplies. Replacing her children’s belongings has been one of her biggest obstacles.
“We had to start from scratch. The whole economy of the family was crushed. The education of the children was hurt. We are now rewriting the notes for the children,” Nilmini said.
Her family also had to restart its home garden. In Sri Lanka, produce stands are on almost every corner. Fresh produce is central to Sri Lankan culture, and the ubiquitous backyard gardens can be vital to a family’s survival. Nilmini’s once-productive garden was smothered by mud and rocks. It will take one to two months to completely clean her home and resurrect the garden.
It’s a lot to handle.
Notably, neither woman ever wavers in her determination to find a way to the other side of this tragedy. It is never a question of if something will get done. It is simply how long.
That is the heart of each woman’s story. Even after losing everything they own. Even after losing a best friend. They just keep going. They keep rebuilding. Together.