On 26 December 2004, Indonesia was hit by a 9.2 magnitude earthquake which also triggered the South East Asian tsunami causing devastation in its wake. That day, over 230,000 people lost their lives. For some, life changed in an instant. In Sri Lanka, there are very few families who were not affected in some way by this tragedy and it is testament to those who were involved that so many have been able to move on and rebuild their lives. Those who perished may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten… Least of all on this 10 year anniversary.
The SHARE Foundation was due to launch its second project in early 2005 in a small coastal town called Paiyagala. Celine was en route from Colombo to attend a committee meeting when she was forced to turn around. As if by fate, she had postponed the meeting from 10am to 10.30am and the tsunami struck at 10.15am that day. She took refuge at her brother’s house while everyone tried to understand what was happening. We had never seen anything like this in our lifetimes.
The opening of the Paiyagala project was delayed while Celine and her team of nurses set to work on emergency relief operations, assisting in the management and care of the sick and injured victims. There was so much devastation, no one really knew where to begin. The stagnant waters attracted multitudes of mosquitos so the working conditions were harsh, in addition to the increased risk of dengue fever and malaria. However, emergency triage focussed on the most in need, either medically or those who had lost their families and/or homes. The relief effort was vast but the generosity of mankind came through in those subsequent weeks. At home in London, through our local church and family and friends, we raised around £24,000 in the immediate aftermath. I was astounded. Friends from Canada to Germany, rallied together organising emergency fundraising events and a team of friends even did a charity hike up the snowy mountains of Val d’Isere and Tignes**. All of this money enabled Celine to help those who were most in need and all of that money went directly to the people.
While a tragedy of this magnitude gives rise to thoughts of the injured, missing or deceased, it is also important to remember that those who may have been “lucky” to survive may still have lost everything. Everyday becomes a battle for survival. In the weeks and months following the tsunami, the SHARE relief effort transformed from being primarily an emergency medical effort, into a rehabilitation project (although medical care continued): food and drinking water continued to be provided; collaboration with other local initiatives meant housing projects were set up; fisherman whose boats had been swept away were provided with bright yellow Share boats and fishing nets were given to others; local grocery shops were rebuilt; three wheelers were provided to drivers who had lost theirs and bicycles also; and sewing machines to local seamstresses. All these initiatives perhaps do not immediately come to mind after a natural disaster but they were crucial to the survival of those who were left behind in the wake of the tragedy. Such a task was immense as it involved sifting through all of the desperate cases to evaluate who was really most in need. Saying no became a grim task. I still remember arriving in the area with Celine one year later and a queue of people forming outside the gate to her brother’s home. The locals knew Celine’s car and were arriving in groups to present their case to her in the hope of receiving some form of assistance. Desperation one year on.
Now, 10 years on it is reassuring to see the development, confidence and positivity in the region as well as in the people. Slowly we saw people returning to the water, after fear left them paralysed for so long. Very few, if any, families are still living in “temporary” accommodation and the smiles have returned to the faces of the Sri Lankan people.
This does not mean that we have forgotten. Far from it. This time is a time for reflection upon those we lost but also on everything that the survivors have achieved to bring their lives back from the depths of that wave. The SHARE Foundation, thanks to the generosity of those who stepped up at the time, played an important role in the little community of Paiyagala in the aftermath of the tsunami and has been able to continue supporting these people through the nursing service that it now provides to those same people.
In memory of all of those who lost their lives on 26 December 2004 and with thanks to all those who worked hard to help those who survived.
** We also remember the lives of Sam Harber & James Rourke, who were part of that fundraising team, and tragically lost their lives almost exactly 4 months later on the same mountain. Their memories live on in the lives of those whom they helped.