Sri Lanka After The Tsunami


On the southeast coast of Sri Lanka, at the central station in Galle, I eased through a labyrinth of bald tires and steel bumpers around the bodies of dented green buses, their engines revving up and down like breath from mechanical dragons.

Women with babies strapped on their backs meandered in the heat rising off the broken pavement. Men, some eating puff pastries stuffed with fish curry, stood about the plywood and tin stalls which sold anything you might need for the three hour journey to Columbo or points far beyond is available.

Galle, with a population of about eighty thousand, is the forth largest city in the country. Beyond the platform was a crowded five story shopping center crammed with people. The market area, which extends to its half a mile or more to the right, is vibrant. All the shops are open-from Buddhist paper lamp kitsch, to electronics, tea, tires, pharmaceuticals and clothing. The water line from the wave appears nothing more than a slightly dark shadow on the concrete plaster.


Marc is initiated into the traditions of the local mason (wearing a straw hat). He started with the basics: the construction of the latrine out of cinder block.

Click on the photo for a larger image.

Photo: John Ross

I remember on boxing day visualizing a ten foot wave hitting this very place. The busses, where four sit in seats meant for two, where I watched child leaned out the window with an ice cream cone dripping down his hand, were watery graves. As was the train station across the street, packed with holiday traveler. Across the street is a cricket stadium. When the tsunami hit, there was a match between Sri Lankan and English school boys who survived by climbing high up on the stadium steps.

"The center of town was one of the areas where the most people in Galle died," explained one shop keeper. "I just pulled body after body from the water." He described how the tsunami, which was ten feet high at the bus station, came suddenly like a fast moving river. He was fortunate to live in the old Dutch fort, a World Heritage Site built in 1663 with high rock walls. Housing about 400 families, it sustained minimal damage.

I turned and looked at the ocean a few hundred yards away. Beyond the stalls selling fish and the rows of coconut palm, the blue water peacefully reflected the sunlight. I could almost trick myself into feeling that things were okay. What appeared was a dynamic market similar to many others I'd wondered through in developing countries.

This was not so different from what I remembered visiting here two years before, except…. I remembered walking among the houses and shops along the shore. These were poorly built structures. Now they were totally gone, erased from the landscape. Their remains, nothing but piles I rubble I noticed as left the center of town, traveling through diesel fumes of transport trucks on a three wheeled tuk tuk, .

Not far away are the tent cities. Like mini- advertisements, their pealing rubber skins are stenciled with lettering announcing that the tent was a gift from people of Denmark, Belgium or Italy I was told by relief workers that in Galle alone there are six thousand refugees living in tents. The one I visited had about fifty families. They shared a few water taps and a makeshift tin and concrete shelter which serves as a school and community center.

Many of those the displaced cannot rebuild their home. The government is not allowing any new construction within a hundred yards of the beach. The rule seems to have a certain amount of flexibility.

Some homes that were minimally damaged to can rebuilt and commercial structures, such as hotels or restaurants, are exempt. The wealthy and connected seem to simply ignoring the regulation and rebuilding quickly. Those who couldn't rebuild, the poorest members of the society, particularly the fishermen, are in the tents, complaining about the government land grab.

Driving further north along the coastal road, I'm struck by what appears to be the randomness of the destruction. Rubble filled building shells are scattered between other buildings that are completely in tact.

The curvature of the coast relative and the depth of the shelf leading up to the land contributed to how the wave impacted the shore. Concrete houses built without any rebar reinforcement had less of a chance of holding up then other structures that were better built.

Yet there are completely anomalous occurrences, such as an ancient Buddhist temple three hundred yards off shore, built on a small rock island level with the ocean. It was undamaged, while behind it, on the shore, all that remain of a large, multi-storied structures are the arch of a door way, the back wall, the concrete block crumbled.

One of the worst hit places north of Galle is Hikkaduwa. Located on the coast, 98km south of Columbo, this resort area was one of the first to be developed in Sri Lanka. It was known for its excellent coral reefs and its laid back bars and cafes.

It was here that a tsunami hit a train in one of the worst railroad accidents in history.

Three second class cars remained of the original eight. These have been set upright on a separate piece of track beside the main line, which serves as an infrastructure lifeline. The steal bodies with their pealing dark green paint were heavily dented from being slammed down though still completely in tact.

I went inside, walked down the isle, looked at the stuffing coming out of the seats, the loose wiring, the still fans, the shredded particle board ceilings. I looked out the broken window. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see such a forty foot wave coming from the ocean a few hundred yards away.

Now, all I could see was a field sparsely covered by coconut palms leading to a sandy beach which used to be densely built up. Dozens of houses, two hundred square foot structures made of rough sawn lumber and tin roofs, had been hastily slapped up by the Danish. People outside of them carried water, shopping bags, fishing nets.

The scene confirmed the depth of resilience and also, the difference between my world and those who live here. For them, there is no safety net, no insurance, no functioning government with real disaster support. No barriers to soften the brutal tentativeness of human life.

These people, like all the other Sri Lankans I spoke to, have moved on because they do not have the luxury, if they are to continue living, to do anything else but choose life.

I only saw a minute part of the damage. Still, I couldn't possibly make sense of the emotions I felt. Officially approximately eight hundred died here, though my driver told me it was two thousand.

Throughout my visit I often heard widely different numbers relating to the loss tossed around. The actually number of people who died in Sri Lanka will never be known because so many were swept out to sea and huge numbers were quickly buried in mass graves. Even now, official estimates range between thirty and forty thousand dead, with six thousand still officially "missing." One local Sri Lankan aid worker said it was sixty thousand dead.

I considered how the death of one person can impact a family, a community and even a nation. What does it mean when ten die, or a eight hundred? How do I personally understand the difference between forty thousand or sixty thousand dead? At what point, in the calculus of the human heart, in the limitations of one's mortal humanity does a life become just a number, an unfathomable abstraction?

Not sure at all what to feel, I stood on a stretch of track that was completely exposed to the beech. I thought about how if the wave had hit a few minutes earlier or later, perhaps the tragedy would not have happened.

I thought about how I had visited New York several months after 911. Where the WTC stood looked like a construction site and didn't impact to me as much as the posters with photos of loved ones, the first obituaries of lives stolen away posted lampposts and the walls of subway stations.

Here, surrounding the train, there were no posters. No graves. No plaques. Just the bruised up carcass of steel that had been a giant casket for hundreds of people.

During the two weeks I spent in Sri Lanka, it was only through seeing the places scarred by the traumatic events, and by hearing stories from the survivors, that I could begin to grasp the emotional upheaval left by the wave.

The train was one of those places. Another was an orphanage for handicapped children where dozens died. You can still see the small handprints against the ceiling.

Throughout my time in Sri Lanka I saw, in very small pieces, how every person who died left friends, family and community behind, traumatized. The survivors that are left have been shaken up, their perspectives on what is important and what is not utterly changed.

I was anxious to visit with Iflal whom I had met two years earlier at Merissa, a town about forty five minutes south of Galle. There I spent a week on a quiet beach eating, sleeping, reading novel about China and taking an occasional swim. Iflal had a three jewelry shops. He was the first person I emailed after hearing about the tsunami.

At his house in the old fort of Galle, a restored colonial building with high vaulted ceilings and carved wood accents, I met him and his wife, Yesreen, whose family had lived in the house for many generations.

"It was a beautiful day," she said. "There was no sign of anything unusual at all. Our youngest daughter, just four years old, came back to the house just fifteen minutes before the first wave hit. The day after Christmas is high season and Iflal should have been driving to his shop at 9:20, but for some reason he was late that morning…"

"I have lost all three of my shops," said Iflal, "but what does that matter? We are all safe." Fortunately, his gem factory was far enough inland that his employees were all safe as well.


Helen on the scaffolding with a Sri Lankan worker. "The work in the extreme heat and humidity was exhausting but fulfilling, Working together quickly melded us into a community."

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Photo: John Ross

"Thank you so much for coming to my country to help our people," he said, repeating a sentiment that is universal among Sri Lankans.

Despite the fact that only the coastal areas of Sri Lanka were affected, there are very few tourists, which has greatly augmented the economic damage of the tsunami. Mostly those who have come are associated in some way with air organizations.

All Sri Lankans I spoke to were truly grateful for anyone traveling to their country, but especially the professional and volunteer aid workers.

I was one of twenty six, ranging in age from 19 to 73, had come from the US, Canada and England to help build houses for tsunami survivors. Our payment to Global Crossroads, funded the entire project and our room and board.

After settling in our low budget hotel, about three kilometers inland, we drove on dirt roads past neatly maintained houses among hibiscus, banana plants, palms, huge jack fruit trees and myriads of tropical flower. Literally, it was a suburban jungle with monkeys, parrots and occasionally a six foot monitor lizard strolling by.

The building site was a former rice paddy with a two foot water table and a high voltage power line running through the center. An acre of land such as this site where ten houses would be built, cost about twenty thousand dollars, quite expensive in an economy where a well paid person might earn three dollars a day. The director of the program, Paul, had been a manager of a large textile factory which had given him leave to work on the tsunami relief efforts. He was am worldly yet deeply sincere man in his fifties who enjoyed meeting westerners and was genuinely concerned about our well being. He welcomes us. "Thank you so much for coming here to help my country," he says.

Before we began, we were given a tour. The very livable houses were about five hundred square feet, consisting of a four rooms, all plastered and finished with wood trim windows. The roof of the first house had been made with the standard asbestos corrugated roofing found on all Sri Lankan houses of this kind. Paul lamented how previous volunteers had insisted on clay tiling, which was much more costly and labor intensive.

We were encouraged not to over work in the heat, to drink plenty of water and to take breaks as needed. We piled out of the two vans.

Though we had been carefully polled twice as to our particular skills, when we arrived there was no organizational structure. Here we were, having traveled half way around the world, about to start building block houses in hundred degree heat in the beginning of monsoons while still severely jetlagged. The half dozen masons and carpenters observed us without stopping what they were doing.

Laying block, cutting rafters, plastering walls are all skilled jobs. Upon seeing the initial chaos, the most highly skilled member of our group, a retired contractor from Chicago, lamented how in his experience, a home owner always made it harder for the contractor by insisting on helping on site.

For the first few days it really was questionable whether we were helping or just getting in the way. There were no power tools on site. Some began cutting notches in wood poles that were to serve as roofing joists. Others got to the most difficult and strenuous work. The sand, which had been obtained by buckets by bucket from diving to the bottom of a river, had to be hauled from the road to the site. There, much of it had to be sifted for plaster while the rest of we mixed to make concrete in the ninety-five degree heat.

Over time, our group congealed and I began believe that we were actually helping with the project, simply because this type of building was so labor intensive. Hauling sand from the road to the building site. Mixing batch after batch of concrete. Sifting yards of sand through wire screens for the plaster coat. Pouring a slab floor. Digging new foundations. Most of the group had come from winter weather.

I ended up laying block with a sixty seven year old Christian ethics professor, a Mormon medical student and a published author and freelance journalist. Half of the twenty-six, including myself, had been sponsored to come over by a private family foundation. We were motivated and ready to work hard, though the heat and pace of the daily grind was exhausting.

Apparently the group before us had been troubling and Paul had had to be somewhat of a disciplinarian father to the younger members. When the workers saw that we were accomplishing twice the work of the average group, they began to invite us to their homes. By our second week, most of us had a full social calendar.

Randy, one of the masons, had a home that was slightly larger than the ones we had built. It had taken him a long time to build. His wife had worked for two years as a maid in Dubai, sending the money home. It consisted of a living area, kitchen, two bedrooms and a small room for a toilet which was not plumbed. Outside, among the banana trees, was an outhouse and an additional area for cooking with wood.

Eight of us sat on plastic chairs while his wife brought out her best dishes: rice, curry, jackfruit, fries, coconut condiment. Our plates were filled over and over again. Randy sat strategically in front of the beer and arrack (coconut spirits), his wide smile stretching across his face, offering more and more.

He hands pours a beer for me. His wife keeps coming by with the rice and curry. He smiles, showing his darkened teeth widely arced across his face.

"Are you happy?" he would ask every now and then. "If you are happy, I am happy."

Pictures were brought out. In broken English we shared the things common to all of us: children, parents, places. Randy's teenage daughter, who has learned English in school, explains that her uncle did not survive.

The living room is stepped up, a few feet higher than the kitchen area. Randy points to the water mark against the wall, about a foot high. We were certainly far inland from the coast, though I wasn't sure of the exact distance. Two kilometers from the ocean, the tsunami still caused massive flood damage.

Here, though I am very tired from the day of work, we sit in the heat of this tropical night with new Sri Lankan friends drinking beer and arrack while are plates are filled over and over. Here, the basic necessities of living, eating, breathing with meaningful human contact under a roof which are so easily overlooked in my life had become some kind of heightened experience.

I wonder, have these people have so much resilience that they have moved on, or is the collective trauma resting just under the surface? I still cannot grasp the scope of this event which left no heart untouched.

Sitting here with this family and the volunteers, I have a moment of feeling how we are all deeply connected, a kinship based on our common humanity and for that moment which I have traveled around the world to experience, I am definitely happy.

By the end of the two weeks, we are able to finish one of the houses. Like many construction jobs with a deadline, huge amounts of work are accomplished through heroic efforts in the last forty- eight hours. The masons and carpenters have work much of the night, yet they are excited for what is about to happen.

For Paul, it is critical our group gets to be there when the house we have been working on is given away. He has arranged to have two Buddhist priests come. They sit at a table in front of the house, heads shaved, dressed in their bright orange robes. Several people sit on a small walkway before the front door, hands clasped in prayer as the priests begin their chants.

The proud new home owners are two women, sisters, in their fifties. One of which lost her husband in the tsunami, though her son, is a fisherman in his mid-thirties, survived and will be living in the house as well. Their family name was drawn out of a hat publicly at one of the camps. "They lost everything," Paul explains. These people are very, very poor and have struggled much of their lives just to live.


This photo was shot at the time when the house was blessed by Buddhist monks and formally given away to the tsunami victims. Marc and Helen stand on the far left.

Click on the photo for a larger image.

Photo: John Ross

After the ceremony, the ribbon in front of the door is cut. The new home owners walk in. We stand around, waiting. Food is brought out, put on the table where the priests still sit. There is this feeling of heightened emotion when the sisters walk out.

One of them walks up to me. She is about five feet tall. Her hands are clasped in prayer. "Thank you," she says, smiling. Glancing up for just a moment. Tears are in both our eyes. She passes and walks over to another volunteer, thanking over and over again.


– Marc Choyt


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