Documentary Galleries: Sri Lanka Tsunami
When I arrived in Sri Lanka, in January 2005, a week had passed since the tsunami had hit. The shock seemed to be wearing off for people and the enormity of what had happened to their homes, their lives, their loved ones seemed to be sinking in. Relief was rolling in from all over the world, yet in many places the aid was still unorganized and unavailable. Although millions of dollars had been donated, what these people needed most immediately were just a few rupees to help them get by. I took to folding small amounts of money into squares and discreetly passing them on with the shake of a hand as we parted ways. Very rarely was I ever asked for it. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
I stopped to photograph one lone man sitting in a chair amidst a pile of rubble. Instantly he called out, “Have a seat!” Here he was offering me the one thing left standing in his home. As if that wasn’t enough, he shimmied up a tree to get me a coconut and there we stood, on a slab of concrete, drinking coconut milk in what was once his kitchen. Another man bought me tea. A woman gave me shells, the only possessions the ocean had left in her home since sucking away everything else she owned.
I accompanied a young woman who was revisiting the remains of her house for the first time. It was where her two-year-old daughter had been ripped from her arms. The mother’s face lit up with the memory as she picked up a teddy bear, a child’s dress, a baby bottle, before dissolving into tears. Next door a man was chinking through the debris with a small knife looking for any remnants of his life, an identity card, a bankbook, a rupee note. Not only did these people have nothing, they were not even sure who they were anymore.
Of the 8,000 residents of Batticaloa, 5,000 died. That’s 60 percent of its population. A lagoon surrounded the once-thriving beachfront village so there was nowhere to run when the giant wave hit, just into more water. Saris and clothing were left embedded in the barbed wire set up to protect against wild animals, where many of the bodies had been trapped in its grip. A few remnants were scattered: cooking pots, photographs with cracked glass, clocks stopped when the wave hit at 9:22, Buddhist statues which mysteriously remained standing. But mostly there was just rubble. Everywhere had its own ghosts.
I viewed the beach, cluttered with personal effects. Human bones had started to wash up. A woman walked alongside me who appeared to be in shock. As I turned to ask if she was all right she began madly gesticulating toward the sea, indicating that it had taken her two children. Beside herself with anguish she attempted to throw herself into the ocean. I pulled her back and held her as she wept. Inconsolable, she buried her face in the sand.
Death is certainly more integrated with life in this part of the world, but there was no quantifying the universality of a mother’s anguish. Many felt the profound guilt of being unable to hold onto their children. Men who managed to grab on to palm trees live with the image of seeing their families swept away before them.
It was the end of the day, a milky dusk. I stopped to photograph an elderly Muslim man, his arms lifted to the heavens while clutching a small prayer book. He chanted prayers over the five freshly dug sand mounds before him, the graves adorned with small white flags flapping in the salty wind. Tears openly flow down his cheeks as he raised his face to confront the sea that had killed his family. Our eyes met and his were so overwhelmed by grief that I was compelled to take his hand. The heartache became a shared, palpable connection as he told me this was his wife and four other family members he was burying, their bodies only just found after two weeks. We stood like that for some time, the unlikeliest of people, bound by the rawest of human emotion. There was nothing that I could say. As I moved to turn away I heard his soft voice call out just above a whisper, “Please,” he implored, “don’t forget about us.”