Postcard from Tsunami Ground Zero: Sri Lanka

Image credit: Daily Mail

The world is reeling from the recent tsunami that hit South Asia. With over 225,000
people dead, 1.8 million people are in immediate need of food aid and an estimated five million have been left homeless.

A World Hope International assessment team just returned from a week in Sri Lanka where they toured the southern and eastern coastal areas heavily impacted by the tsunami, and met with government officials in charge of resettling the 800,000 people left homeless.

The team's first glimpse of the tsunami devastation was an area south of Colombo. Railroad tracks were torn-up, houses leveled and boats tossed ashore and broken apart by the impact of the giant tsunami waves. A lone man in a blue shirt and sarong wandered aimlessly among the ruins where his two houses had stood by the seashore less than a month before.

"We ran up there," he said through an interpreter, pointing to a Buddhist temple. "Our lives were spared except for a servant in this house," he said, pointing to the rubble on which we stood. "But we've lost everything else."

Further south the team stopped at an impromptu relief camp set up at a school and Buddhist temple. At this spot the waves had tossed about a train carrying 1600 passengers, killing all aboard, and destroyed 250 homes claiming more lives and destroying several fishing boats. Three preschool children did a recitation and sang a song they had practiced for a program to be presented on December 30th. The children who were originally to perform the song had lost their lives, but these three children knew their lines from listening to their classmates practice. Their preschool teacher stood nearby proudly looking on as the children sang.

Just outside of Hambantota, we stopped at a salt lagoon where Youth Corps volunteers were working under the supervision of the military cleaning up the rubble. Although houses had once lined the road, not a house is now left standing. A soldier with the Sri Lankan military said that 145 vehicles had been pulled from the lagoon, and on the very area where we were standing 40 bodies had been retrieved. "The worst of the disaster is in the town beyond," he said.

Three thousand people were at the market when the wave hit. An eerie pall hung over this area, once bustling with people buying and selling goods. Two hundred and fifty fishermen's homes once lined the edge of the sea. Now all lies in rubble, clothing clinging to trees, a silent reminder of people who once wore them. A few tents, temporary homes of the few survivors, dot an area cleared of some of the rubble. We talked with a woman sitting in her bare tent with her two children, an elderly woman and a man. "We survived because we ran up the hill after the first wave hit," she told us. Many others had run toward the ocean as the water receded beyond the horizon. When the second, third, fourth and fifth waves struck, they were swept away.

A Muslim man spoke with us. He was very agitated. "The people are traumatized," he kept saying. "Those who survived are afraid now to go out in their boats. We need help!" The government director of relief in this region said that 4,500 people are dead and another 3,000 missing; 5,000 temporary homes are needed; 20,000 fishing boats and nets need to be replaced; six schools were destroyed.

We met a family in the Hambantota district: The husband worked at the courthouse, but the courthouse no longer stands and his job is gone. His wife makes bricks that sell for 2 rupees each. And his daughter works seven days a week in a garment factory. Low wages and stigma associated with this work makes her hate her job, but family finances force her to continue. The whole Sri Lankan economy has been hard hit. Tourists have ceased to visit. Hotels and beaches are gone. Three of the five large fisheries are destroyed along with 84,000 fishing boats; 7,500 fishermen lost their lives.

The team rode across the island 12 hours through mountains and jungle to the town of Kalmunai. As we approached the city, we saw rice fields flooded with salt water, the tender rice plants brown and shriveled from the salt. The main part of the town looked untouched by the tsunami, but driving on, we came to an area completely demolished by the tsunami. Suddenly in the midst of bare landscape, we passed a small church and two buildings behind it that were untouched. Green grass and flowers continue to bloom on the property. We discovered that 30 orphans lived there. When the tsunami struck, all of the children were in the church and God spared them all! The pastor's wife left the property with her 7-month-old child, and only she and the baby perished.

A young mother with a toddler in her arms shared that she and her husband owned a jewelry business in their home close to the sea. "Our house was strongly built," she said almost in disbelief at what had happened to them. "But our house was totally destroyed and our business wiped out. Now we are forced to live in the refugee camp."

The team brought some of the first relief to these people. Food, cooking utensils, clothing, mats, and mosquito nets were among the supplies given to assist 150 families with their immediate needs. Ten thousand people lost their lives in the Kalmunai area.

People are still reeling from all that has happened. Most people no longer have homes, many have lost family members. Businesses are gone. Yet the people were grateful for the team's visit, the opportunity to share their grief, and to receive the supplies we had brought. We were humbled when, at the close of our visit, they served each team member a bottle of soda, knowing the sacrifice to provide even this refreshment for us!

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