My thoughts have been dominated by one thing since we arrived in Sri Lanka.
We are in Hikkaduwa on the south-west coast, which was devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.
As I stare out to the Indian Ocean, I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like. The sea here at the moment is quite rough – the breakers smash into the shore and there’s a heavy drag backwards. There are always some swimmers out, including children, but I decide it’s too strong to be a comfortable dip. The sea easily tosses people about and pushes them over.
What would it have sounded like? Didn’t people think it was unusual that the tide had gone out a kilometre? What would I have done in the aftermath – got out to an airport as soon as possible, or stayed to help with the clear-up?
Children who lost parents, parents who lost children, homes and businesses washed away in seconds. The sights and smells of dead bodies, bloated by the water and swollen with the heat.
We see houses which have not been rebuilt since the tsunami. Maybe a whole family perished. Or in some cases families have moved inland, too scared to rebuild their lives in the same place, so close to the sea.
An informal tsunami museum at Perilaya is run by a lady called Kamani, in a building that was (and is) her home. She has gathered together many photos and witnesses’ stories to explain the devastation of the day.
Nearby, there is the Giant Buddha, looking out to sea, with the pose for fearlessness and protection. We have read in a couple of places that its height represents the maximum height of the wave – though it seems impossible and it doesn’t say that on the official plaques.
Over the road, right on the coast, a memorial depicts the world’s worst train disaster – the tsunami killed more than 1,700 passengers on the Queen of the Sea train. Hundreds of them are buried here.
Today we went to Seenigama where my friend and former Jersey Evening Post colleague Suzi Austin volunteered for a couple of months in 2005. She later brought their volleyball team over to Jersey for a beach tournament.
I well remember how the charity Side By Side set up as one of the many responses in Jersey to help fellow Islanders.
We realised we had spare time on our last full day in Hikkaduwa to visit. We decided to walk the 2 km or so, even though it would be easy to take a tuk-tuk. You notice so much more on foot, not least the number of properties at the roadside which are derelict. And the number of small houses which have a gravestone or two in their garden.
On entering the village we looked for the Foundation of Goodness. We knew it was ‘first on the left’, but were not sure which road we should be on. Having seen a sign for a sports academy, we decided to try there first.
Sure enough, there was the Foundation… but it was closed. It’s a Saturday and a public holiday.
Right opposite, a young man was loading up a motorbike with bottles of water. Not one to give up so easily, I asked him if he knew ‘Kushil’, the name of the man that Suzi had mentioned. He couldn’t help much but fetched a neighbour who came out wearing a Foundation for Goodness T-shirt.
It wasn’t Kushil. Kushil Gunasekera, it turns out, set up the Foundation in what was his holiday home before the tsunami.
Unfortunately, the man we spoke to had limited English. He said he would make a phone call – I think he was going to ask for one ‘Suzi Austin’!
Fortunately, in my brief research before heading out from our guest house, I had saved a screen grab of a Facebook post which had tagged Suzi… someone by the name of Asanka. So I asked the man if he knew Asanka. He walked us to the train track (about 30 feet away), pointed to a child and said just there was Asanka’s home!
I had not thought to click on Asanka’s profile and had assumed it was a woman’s name. We were greeted by two women and a lot of children. We were invited in to their lounge – and then we waited, not quite knowing what was happening.
A few minutes later, Asanka draws up on a motorbike. He greets us warmly – even if at first he guesses I may be Suzi’s mother. We gloss over that and he shows us photos of his Jersey visit (with the volleyball team) and he asks after other people he met in the Island. He gives us fresh coconut water and then takes us to the Foundation. Free medical and dental clinics run there – as well as psychological counselling.
The volleyball team still play – Asanka was quick to point out that they beat Jersey on their visit. And he said it was really important for the children to have had a focus with the sport. How do you measure the psychological benefit of having fun on a beach after such a devastating tragedy?
(Apologies – we have been having technical difficulties uploading photos)