At the beginning of my first visit to see the tsunami areas in southern Sri Lanka, my van driver was trying not to hit the big yellow buses that constantly bully their way to the front of the pack. I fidgeted with the radio. I had travel the road from Colombo to Weligama many times and, as always, I settled in for the four-hour journey.
Just outside of Colombo, we approached the shantytown area that lined Galle Road, Colombo’s southern slum, where I had once seen a woman bathing her two small children in a mud puddle. The scene had jarred me. Each time when I’ve passed there I searched for the woman and the tattered looking brother and sister, hoping that somehow they’d be faring better.
As I stared out the car window to where the slum had been, I saw no people, no tightly-packed wooden shacks, no hustle of the country’s poorest hawking bare wood caned sofas, handmade brooms or primary-colored gewgaws. That day I saw only a sandy beach and a sparkling turquoise sea.
The shantytown had disappeared, swallowed by the sea.
That was the tsunami’s destruction, up close and personal. No television cameras. No newscasters. No sound bites playing over and over again. The wreckage was within reach, right there before me.
The further south we drove, the less recognizable the landscape became. Hotels I had known were gone. Broken fishing boat hulls littered the roadside. Houses were flattened. A beach where I had once taken photos of the stilt fishermen was deserted. Seenigama Devala, the tiny island Buddhist temple where chief Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka made a yearly visit to discuss their shortcomings, was visible from the road. Normally I’d have to crane my neck to grab a peek at it through the jungle of tiny houses and beach shacks that blocked the sea view. The red-tiled temple perched on the small island was in full view. How had it survived the tsunami when everything around it was smashed?
The landscape on both sides of the road, seaside and landside, looked like a bomb had hit paradise. Where neatly kept white homes once sat amongst the coconut palms, tents housed survivors. The Italian tents, bright blue and larger than most of the houses they’d replace, were neatly lined in rows. Other tents were scattered among the rubble of bricks and foundations. Some were makeshift and clearly not rainproof or well ventilated. People, their faces deeply lined from too much exposure to the sun, sat on their haunches outside tents that had replaced homes handed down from one generation to another.
I wondered if I’d ever forget the scene of tall lumps of saltwater-damaged bushes decked out like Christmas trees with peoples’ belonging as ornaments; a wadded blue shirt, a girls slipper, a woman’s flowered night dress, a water-logged school book.
It was at Tellwata, after visiting the ill-fated Colombo Fort-Matara Express train, when I stopped taking photos; one photo began to look like the next at the destruction took on a similar crushed look.
Speechless, my driver and I continued onward to Weligama. I wanted to see my young friend Kurunero who had lost his wife and identical twin daughters in the second wave of the tsunami. It wasn’t going to be an easy visit; I had no idea of what to say to him.
When we met, we hugged, held hands and wept, both of us unable to speak.
Except for a tiny portion of the kitchen wall, Kurunero’s family home was leveled to the foundation. A layer of sand covered the foundation; sand from the beach across the road brought in by the first tsunami and more sand brought by the second, more deadly wave.
Kurunero’s parents sat outside a tent donated by the Pakistani government. During the day they waited for their own government’s help while Kurunero worked at a nearby hotel. At night they slept at his sister’s partially standing house; already crowded with relations whose own houses had also been destroyed.
Sitting outside the Pakistani tent, with the sea in the background, his sister and mother served me tea. No matter how desperate their circumstances, they graciously made sure I had tea. A neighbor heated the water over a wood fire. I almost wept.
Kurunero told me how his wife and children had died. It had been bath time and his oldest twin daughter, Tharushika, was bathed and dressed by his wife while he bathed the youngest (by two minutes) daughter, Tharushi. He never saw the first wave coming. His wife, clutching Tharushi and he clutching the other twin, attempted to escape out the front gate. It was locked. ‘Thappayen pannina,’ he shouted to his wife. ‘Jump over the wall!’ Tharushi and Tharushika screamed. As he and his wife, hugging the children, ran for the wall, the second wave hit. The force of it swallowed his wife and youngest daughter. Kurunero and Tharushika also went under. He remembered being wedged between the wall and a fallen tree, his ankle nearly crushed. His voice broke as he told me of the horror of Tharushika, naked and slick from her bath slipping out of his hands.
‘Everything happened quickly,’ he said. ‘No chance.’ Kurunero pointed to the palm tree that he had climbed. Stripped of his own clothes and bleeding from multiple gashes, he bore witness from the treetop to the scene below as those he loved were destroyed.
When he descended from the tree, he found his wife and daughters. Tharushi clearly wasn’t breathing, but he thought he heard a sound from Tharushika’s chest. ‘I tried to give her life,’ he said. As Kurunero struggled to revive her by CPR, he asked a passing man to check his wife, who was lying nearby. The man checked her and said, ‘No life,’ and then yanked the gold chain from around her neck and ran. The man was a neighbor and as shameful as the act was, Kurunero said the earlier screams of his children haunt him more than the scene of his neighbor robbing his dead wife. His scarred hands held out the two photos he had of his family that had survived the tsunami. ‘I have no energy for hate, I have no hope,’ he said.
That night we shopped for essentials; a three-burner cooker and gas cylinder, two pans, a two-liter rice cooker, two kilos of rice, sugar, tea, powdered milk and other staples. The following day, we drove to Veduwa Aranya Senasanya, a Buddhist monastery in Kogalla. A few food goods would not save Kurunero from his nightmares, but perhaps a visit to Anaruda Thero, the monastery’s chief monk, would help him. The monastery grounds were peaceful. Built on an isthmus, it was a lush, green haven in the midst of disaster. I felt calmed by being there and hoped that Kurunero would too. Time ticked slowly as Anaruda Thero spoke to the 27-year old.
Meanwhile, I met with my meditation teacher, Santamanasa Thero, and learned of his experience during the tsunami. ‘Life continues,’ he told me. ‘You must be happy.’
How in the world would someone as pained as Kurunero be happy?
Kurunero smiled sweetly at me when he finished speaking with the chief monk; the first smile I’d seen on his kind face. ‘Hamaduruwo (the monk) told me I could help my wife and daughter.’ I was puzzled. Kurunero bobbed his head in typical Sri Lankan style. ‘I am to be a good man and earn pin (merits) for their afterlife.’
Brilliant, I thought. Kurunero could not sit and dwell on his pain. He had to help his parents, be a good neighbor, a good brother, get up each day and go to work and try to rebuild his remaining family’s life. ‘I will earn pins,’ he told me, thanking me as I fought back the tears. Kurunero had a purpose.
Sitting outside the tent provided by the Pakistani government,
Kurunero looked at the photos I had brought him of his family.
They were the last ones I had taken - the last ones anyone had taken of them.
Happier times; Kurunero, his wife and twin daughters.
Postscript: A couple of years later, Anaruda Thero told Kurunero that it was time for him to remarry and build a family. He has since done so and has a wife, Kumudu, and two children; a girl and a boy. He is happy again and each year on Boxing Day, we speak; remembering his first family.
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