On the morning after Christmas 2004, an earthquake registering 9.3 on the Richter scale roiled the waters of the Indian Ocean off Indonesia. It sent a wave — one of the biggest ever recorded on earth — zooming toward the busy beaches of Sri Lanka at supersonic speed.
Tall and powerful enough to swallow multi-story hotels, the monster crashed ashore at a mind-boggling 500 mph. A killer tsunami.
The people had no warning. More than 35,000 died. More than 21,000 injured. A million left homeless. Cars, houses, hotels, trees and beaches were swept away. Total damages: More than $2.5 billion. A government ill-prepared, poorly equipped and prone to corruption couldn’t handle it. Millions of dollars poured in from all the over the world and that, too, was mishandled. The misery lasted days, then months, then years.
Thirteen years later, those who were there still wake up in a cold sweat.
H ashan Raja was just 7 when the tsunami struck.
He was visiting his grandmother well inland from the beach and does not remember seeing the actual wave but remembers the immediate aftermath – brown water everywhere. Twenty years old now, he still reels from the shock of losing his best friend and his home in the same instant.
“I wish it had never happened,” he says with sudden fire in his eyes. He glances down at the tattoo needled onto his arm in remembrance of his best friend. “Hashan,” it says. They shared everything, including their first name.
“When I see the tattoo, I remember all the things we did together,” Raja said.
Those were good times, the best. They would eat together, sleep together, just like brothers. When his best friend died, he didn’t know what to do with his life, Raja said, sadness clouding his face.
The government was slow to respond, then haphazard and ineffective in relief. It tried to enforce a bold new law banning construction within 100 meters – nearly a football field – of the beach. Later, the government’s enforcement resolve crumbled in the face of a lucrative new wave of beachfront resort hotel construction. But it was too late for Raja’s family and many others who had had to find other housing quickly.
With their home washed away, Raja’s family moved inland. His father was a fisherman but the tsunami took his boat and hundreds of others. The new home was too far away from what had been his livelihood. He had to learn an entirely new way of life. Today, he drives a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled taxi. The fisherman has become a landlubber, fishing for fares.
The surge of new construction was not all bad, at least not for the local economy. Once fear of the beach subsided and towering new hotels sprang up, the economy for surfboarding and surf shops was better than ever. Now a shiny Marriott towers over the beach here, looking out to sea where the wave originated, fed by a distant undersea earthquake.
Encouraged by the peace that followed a vicious civil war that tore the countryside asunder, the tourists are back. White sand beaches once littered with corpses are now crowded with surfboard vendors and refreshment stands and T-shirt salesmen and sunbathers. Now, Raja works the Weligama beach as a surfing instructor alongside several other people affected by the tsunami.
One of them is S.K. Sahan. He was 11 when it happened. He was working the beach that morning. He remembers how the ocean pulled way back from the beach, farther than it had ever pulled back before. He remembers watching the wave build. He remembers the brown color of the water.
He got swept up by the first of three towering waves and managed to grab the limb of a tree and pull himself to safety. He clung to the tree for an hour before help arrived. He was lucky. He saw many bodies floating in the frothy water beneath him.
His home was gone, his family forced to live elsewhere, far from their beloved beach. His school was washed away.
“We had [a] one-month holiday, then they built another school [inland],” Sahan said. “After 2 to 3 months, we could go to another school. The [first] school was not comfortable. It was small rooms to study and teach in.”
Relocating children into different schools was just one of many obstacles people faced. Help arrived first from neighbors and relief organizations. People came from all around to help rebuild houses and try to make life as “normal” as it could be. But normalcy came hard. Most people here say it took nearly five years to really feel normal again. Sahan explained that it took people a year or two just to feel good about getting in the water again after seeing so many of their loved ones washed away.
Some people have never been the same. Some may never be.
Sahan says he still jolts upright in the bed at night, tormented by dreams in which he sees the tsunami coming. Like many others, over time he has learned to overcome most of his fears. He even lives close to the water and has become a surfing instructor.
I had never heard the word ‘tsunami’ at that time, so I wondered what it was. That means it’s a wave. And I decided to immediately go because I knew that if that comes my mother and my sisters, everyone, will perish.
Sahan and his friends have had to acknowledge this tragedy and carry it with them in their new normal, building new lives the best way they can.
But still the memories linger. How could they not?
“In the morning, I got a call from my sister,” recalled Nimal Martinus. “She said, ‘There’s a problem. The beach is coming out. The ocean is coming out.’ I started laughing. I said, ‘Oh you are just pulling my leg, it’ll never happen.’ Then, I hung up the phone because I thought she was joking.”
“Again, she rang me,” he continued. “She said, ‘Please, watch the television and there is something going on, funny.’ Then I told my wife to turn the television on and I saw that there were a lot of alerts and news.”
“I had never heard the word ‘tsunami’ at that time, so I wondered what it was,” Martinus said. “That means it’s a wave. And I decided to immediately go because I knew that if that comes my mother and my sisters, everyone, will perish.”
“So, I’m basically driving down in my jeep to get them, but I could not reach there,” he said. “I had to get down from my jeep and run because of the traffic. I started running because I wanted to save my mother first and then the rest of the people. By the time I went there, I saw so many people on the road crying, screaming, carrying their babies and little small things and running away from the coastal belt.”
“I never saw such a turbulence in people,” Martinus said. “They didn’t know what to do. When I started walking towards the ocean, I had never seen so much destruction. People were crying and I could not really walk because of so much debris.”
“I got a call from my mother telling me that her sister and her four daughters, all of them [are] gone,” Martinus said. “They have no trace. That was hard for me. That was my elder aunt.”
Thirteen years, and still the watermarks of the tsunami run deep.
Thirteen years. And still, they remember everything.
“We were helpless and we didn’t know what to do,” Raja said, speaking the words so many others utter. “We were not ready for a natural disaster like that to happen.”