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Strength to Stand Again

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On December 26, 2004, the strongest earthquake in 40 years struck the Indian Ocean. It set off a series of lethal tsunamis which churned over the sea at a speed of 800 kilometers (500 miles) per hour. Sri Lanka is at least 1,000 miles away from the epicenter of the earthquake, but it still became the second most heavily damaged country after Indonesia.

"Allah gave me everything, and I commend everything to Allah." Despite the environmental devastation that has torn apart their land, the Sri Lankan people have found comfort and strength in the religious beliefs that shape their culture. They have found the power to rise up again and rebuild their lives, searching out new ways in which to rediscover the original abundance and richness of life.

Hambantota is a long, narrow city located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. To one side is a spectacular view of the Indian Ocean and to the other side is a salt-water lagoon. A scattering of tourist villas were once dotted along the beachfront area leading up to the famous Yala National Park. Hambantota's reputation as a renowned holiday haven was growing because of its close proximity to both the beach and the park, which resulted in a steady increase of tourist visitors each year. Holidaymakers could enjoy the best of both worlds, either choosing between the long stretches of pristine beach or alternatively venturing into the wild terrain of the park.

Every Sunday, farmers and fishermen from the surrounding areas would travel to Hambantota to sell their produce at the market. Gradually, the Sunday Market, which had begun as a small collection of sellers, became the busiest meeting place of the week. Villagers came from near and far to attend.

December 26, 2004, was the first Sunday after Christmas. As the sun began to raise its head sleepily over the land, the people of Hambantota also began to wake up and greet the day.

The news about the opening of a new hot-meal shop in the Sunday Market had aroused the interest of many local shoppers and by 9 a.m. the streets of Hambantota were filled with villagers. Not many people were aware of the strange change in the ocean's behavior.

The originally peaceful sea had begun to recede at a terrifying pace, as suddenly as though the land had frightened her. Soon afterwards a huge tidal wave, with the force of thousands of horses behind it, came stampeding over the busy city, not caring for the lives or property that stood in its way.

Within only 20 minutes, the bustling city was entirely demolished. All the clocks in the city stopped at 9:21. The disaster caught everyone off guard because it happened at the busiest and most productive time of the week. The deceased would never know that the tsunami had been caused by an earthquake in another country. 

 
The tsunami swept through the coastal areas so suddenly, and with such terrific force, that it damaged 70 percent of the island's coastline and killed over 30,000 people. 

The earthquake occurred to the west of northern Sumatra, Indonesia, and stirred up a 10-meter-high (32-foot) tsunami which churned forward over the Indian Ocean at around 800 kilometers (500 miles) per hour.

Sri Lanka is like a drop of water on the Indian Ocean, which is why it was so severely damaged by the tsunami. One hour after the earthquake, the giant wave swept across the coast, damaging 70 percent of the coastline and killing over 30,000 people. Homes, roads, bridges, crops, and fish were all swept away, and drinking water, electricity, and other basic amenities and infrastructure were completely destroyed. All normal economic activities ceased.

Horrified survivors witnessed not only the deaths of their family members, but also the complete destruction of their homes and belongings. Their hearts were ravaged. The 2004 tsunami will go down in Sri Lankan history as the most damaging natural disaster ever to have occurred in its 2,000-year heritage.

Within 36 hours after the earthquake, Tzu Chi made a decision to send a medical team of 36 doctors, nurses and volunteers to Sri Lanka via Singapore with 1,800 kilograms (3,968 pounds) of medicine and relief goods.

Colombo is both the capital of Sri Lanka and the country's gate to the outside world. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, rescue organizations and news teams from around the world were crammed into Colombo. All the local hotels were jammed.

The Tzu Chi team arrived on December 30. With assistance from Graetian Gunawardhana of the Lions's Club of Colombo and Anil de Silva of the Leader Day Company, the team visited the Minister of Health before taking buses to Hambantota, 240 kilometers away. They immediately set up a medical station so that they could begin helping the local hospitals, which were seriously inundated with injured patients. 

 
Kanthi lost three children in the tsunami. She hadn't eaten for days but simply murmured repeatedly, over and over again, her wish: "Let me die..." 

Tsunami survivors stayed with relatives and friends, or sheltered in local temples, mosques or schools. There were over 30 shelters in Hambantota, and the Tzu Chi volunteers visited a few of them.

In a temple in Mirijjawala, J.K. Alexander, 51, a grieving father and fisherman, described what had happened to him. His daughter and her husband were attending the Sunday Market when the tsunami hit, and they had been missing ever since. Alexander had been searching for them for days, but had found only the rusted remains of their bicycles and nothing else. His daughter had left behind a survivor--a one-month-old baby boy. Alexander's wife explained that the baby had no milk for five days after the tsunami, but fortunately some kind person had given them some milk powder so that they could feed their grandson. The little baby had survived the tsunami, but he had suffered the tremendous loss of both parents without ever having seen the beauty of the world through his eyes. He hadn't even been named yet.

Kanthi, 40, lay rocking on the ground in the corner of the temple. Before the tsunami, she had split her time between working at a garment factory and looking after her three young children. They were killed by the tsunami, and as a consequence Kanthi hadn't eaten or drunk anything for three days. All she could do was continually murmur, "Let me die. I've lost all my children and my life is hopeless. Just let me die..."

Dr. Yang Chih-kuo from the Tzu Chi team instantly recognized that the woman was suffering from severe psychological trauma, and he prescribed medicine to help ease her terrible pain. The woman's manager, Janaka Botejue, asked the doctor to give him the prescriptions for the necessary nutritional supplements so that he could buy them for Kanthi.

Numerous Sri Lankans were suffering from these same terrible problems. The Tzu Chi team stopped in front of a simple home that housed several families. A couple with injured legs told how they had been trapped in a whirlpool in the tsunami. When they regained consciousness, they discovered that they had lost seven members of their family. Drs. Yang and Chang Chia-ning treated their wounds.

Among the crowd was a nine-year-old girl called Risla Adahan. She was at home with her family on Sunday when a sudden roaring sound filled the skies. Her father yelled to everyone to run, and when they rushed from the house, Risla found herself swept up within the tremendous force of the wave. She was dragged along to a lagoon 200 meters (656 feet) from the sea. She held tightly onto a floating refrigerator and was rescued by a woman. Although she survived, her entire family had been killed.

Darshana Prasad, the team's interpreter, spoke quietly to us, "Risla is in such a state of shock that she probably doesn't comprehend yet that her family members have all been killed." Risla was being adopted by her uncle, Tuan Jabbar Adahan.

Adahan was the sole remaining relative the girl had to depend on. His family was saved when he helped them run to higher ground, but the tsunami had continued to wash away and destroy everything they had ever owned. When Risla asked him where her parents were, Adahan could only tell her, with tears streaming down his face, that he would take care of her from now on.

Adahan was a fisherman and a devout Muslim. His relatives had always gathered together once a week, but the tsunami had terminated that custom forever.

Sri Lanka is a typical example of a rural agricultural country. Forty percent of the population work in farming and produce mainly tea leaves, rubber and coconuts. Sri Lankan black tea is famous worldwide. Because the country is surrounded by the sea, residents in coastal towns mostly work in the fishing industry.

Fishermen know that there are risks in their business. "This disaster was the most ruthless one, but it won't be the last one," said Adahan, who knows this industry well. Fishermen can only rely on their gods for protection.

The sea destroyed everything Adahan owned, including his home and boat. He still prays to Allah to help him get back to the ocean and continue with his life. "Allah gave me everything, and I commend everything to Allah," said Adahan helplessly, yet peacefully. 

 
The air was filled with death in a town that had nothing left to live for. Crows flew low, and on this day, one week after the tsunami, people began digging. 

One week after the disaster, people started to appear on the land. A factory by a salt pan seemed to be working again.

The extent to which the tsunami had ravaged Hambantota was visible everywhere. The Sunday Market was a ruin, houses were crumbled into piles of rubble, trees were uprooted, a communication tower was twisted with the warped shape of a car still jammed inside it, piles of torn clothing hung in the trees, and tree roots, bricks, and cars lay upturned in the lagoon.

The air was filled with the overwhelming stench of death in a town that had nothing left to live for. Crows flew low in the sky and stirred up piles of dust. It was on this day that people began digging.

Five thousand volunteers, including the Relief Service Force, traveled over 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Ratnapura to remove rubble with hands or shovels. The Relief Service Force members explained that most people had been committed to rescuing survivors and distributing relief supplies, which meant that there weren't enough people to clean up the disaster areas. This was why they had volunteered to help with the cleanup work. At the same time, they were also trying to locate bodies.

Before the disaster, Hambantota District had had a population of 520,000. Half a month later, the local government estimated that over 1,900 people had died in the tsunami and over 1,100 were still missing.

The tidal wave had dragged many people and houses into the sea. The estimated death count included the bodies which had been washed back to shore and found on the beach. No one knew how many were still at the bottom of the sea or buried under rubble.

When excavating began, the terrible reality began to surface. Body after body was dug out from under the rubble. For sanitation reasons, bodies had to be buried immediately at a nearby location. It was a terrible sight to witness survivors searching among the piles of corpses, attempting to find their deceased family members. Worse still was the unbearable sadness that they had to endure when the deceased were buried before being recognized.

The team's interpreter, Sujeevan Arulampalam, sighed with a terrible sense of remorse when he looked out over the sea. The Sunday Market had been a popular weekly event that brought families and friends together for both business and social reasons. When the disaster happened, there were around 5,000 people in the market. Arulampalam was confused as to how he should interpret that number. "I don't know if I should say that it was fortunate timing or not, because if the tsunami had happened at 10 or 11 a.m., then there would have been even more people in the market."

After the tsunami, Hambantota was nothing more than a ghost town. Arulampalam said, with great sadness in his voice, "The devastating destruction that happened in 20 minutes will take us at least 20 years to recover from." 

 
The injuries inflicted by the tsunami were mostly physical contusions and psychological trauma caused from the loss of family. 

According to the Tzu Chi team, who spent many days in the disaster area, the majority of their patients were injured with physical contusions. These injuries had mainly been inflicted when people found themselves either trapped in whirlpools, or hit by fast-moving debris, such as bricks, machines, furniture, or cars. In addition, many people suffered from severe psychological trauma caused by witnessing the loss of some, or all, of their family members.

Although medical fees are waived at public hospitals in Sri Lanka, this doesn't mean that there is an abundance of available resources. There was a hospital situated about 50 meters (164 feet) from where the Tzu Chi medical team set up their station. The tsunami killed two of the doctors who worked there, so the hospital, which was already short of staff and medical supplies, was totally overwhelmed by the sudden influx of patients. The staff tried to cope with the situation with the assistance of a few doctors who were transferred from Colombo.

Mohammed Sisvi, 21, came to the Tzu Chi medical station for treatment for contusions. His wife, whom he had married only one month before, had died in the tsunami. He stayed in the hospital for five days for IV injections. After receiving his treatment, Mohammed told the volunteers that he would like to bring his mother too. She was treated in the Tzu Chi station the following day.

Doctors at the Tzu Chi medical station carefully diagnosed injuries, treated wounds, and tenderly inquired about the conditions of patients' families. If patients needed counseling, the doctors would ask volunteers to take over and assist. Nurses and pharmacists also carried out group activities in order to try to cheer up the waiting patients, while others examined their wounds or prepared prescriptions.

As the days passed, many families came to the medical station. Those needing medical attention went to see the doctors; those who didn't would simply talk to volunteers about their experiences so that they could leave the station in a more relaxed frame of mind. Some were so inspired by the work of the volunteers that they in turn volunteered to help other people.

Sri Lanka is a country deeply influenced by Buddhism. In the 3rd century b.c., King Asoka of India dispatched his son, Mahendra, to bring the religion to Sri Lanka, and the island became the home of Theravada Buddhism. For thousands of years, Buddhist philosophy has influenced Sri Lankan art, literature, architecture, and politics.

Many of Sri Lanka's temples were lucky enough to escape the tsunami's destruction, and as a result they became shelters for many survivors. The highly respected abbots of these temples also provided survivors with a much valued source of psychological counseling.

Across the street from the Tzu Chi station was a temple, and on the temple grounds was a bodhi tree so huge that it took over 10 people to surround it. It was at this place that the volunteers met Master Chandima. The young master, only 28 years old, had attained four university degrees. He had lost two brothers in the disaster; he himself had been saved because he had stayed in the temple. His spiritual cultivation allowed him to see the demise of his brothers with the Buddhist concept of conditional happening; he explained, "Buddhists believe that nothing in the world is permanent, and this fact is something we cannot avoid."

As people from around the world gathered to help, everyone was deeply saddened by the survivors' heart-breaking stories, but there was still hope. 

Members of two French organizations, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Telecoms Sans Frontieres, arrived a few days later. Helicopters from the British Royal Navy began constantly landing and taking off near the Tzu Chi station. When the pilots were free, they would often take a break at the Tzu Chi station.

Hambantota's incoming and outgoing communication networks were completely cut off after the disaster. Telecoms Sans Frontieres set up satellite phones to help survivors talk to their relatives elsewhere.

As people from around the world gathered to help, everyone was deeply saddened by the survivors' heart-breaking stories, but there was still hope. People from other parts of the world felt the pain of Hambantota's survivors and flew out to Sri Lanka to help. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the government, the two factions would not communicate with each other to help survivors under the control of the Tamil Tigers. It was indeed an added misery for these poor survivors. 

 
Uditha said that he felt his country was like heaven. Although the tsunami was certainly terrible, the resulting help from so many people around the world had opened a window for the people of Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka has rolling hills, lush green grass, and dense blankets of trees. The island is full of flourishing tropical plants and sweeping beaches dotted with palm trees spread out along the coastline.

The country also has numerous natural parks. Cattle walk freely on the streets and peacocks, monkeys, wild birds, and komodo dragons also enjoy the embrace of nature.

Sri Lanka's natural beauty and abundance of wildlife has always attracted tourists from all parts of the world to spend their holidays there. Its people also live relatively freely in this Shangrila environment.

"This is the real Sri Lanka!" our interpreter, Silva, would call out whenever he saw smiles on people's faces as he led Tzu Chi volunteers through the streets. The excellent levels of nature conservation and the peaceful coexistence between man and animals show that the residents are simple, good and kind.

Seventy percent of the Sri Lankan population are Buddhists, and many are proud to be body donors. In 1970, ophthalmologist Hudson Silva set up the International Eye Bank to export corneas to other parts of the world. Taiwan started accepting corneas from Sri Lanka in 1980, and since then many people in Taiwan have been able to see the world again after receiving cornea transplants.

Sri Lanka has suffered an unprecedented tsunami which totally destroyed local infrastructure and shops. No tourists are coming now, and as a consequence hotels have had to close down. The local economy was, and still is, seriously affected. Everyone, whether directly affected by the tsunami or not, still had to line up to receive relief goods. Sri Lanka is a country so warm in spirit that, despite the severity of the tsunami, it still opens its heart to the world. Uditha, a volunteer Tsu Chi interpreter, said that living in Sri Lanka was like living in heaven. The tsunami might have brought tremendous pain and agony to the local people, but with support and love from people around the world, they will stand up again and grow.

Postscript: From late December 2004 to January 19, 2005, the Tzu Chi medical station in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, served over 11,000 people. On January 18, Tzu Chi signed a memo with the Sri Lankan government to build 1,000 homes for survivors. At the end of January, the foundation decided to distribute two months of rice to over 80,000 people in Hambantota and 2,000 cooking utensils to survivors in Tangalla.

The Tzu Chi Indonesia branch office shipped 18 containers of relief goods, including 14,000 blankets from Taiwan, to Medan, North Sumatra Province. The Taiwanese Council of Agriculture also sent 33,000 tons of rice and two water-purification machines that can provide drinking water for 250,000 people. In addition, a follow-up relief plan includes building 3,000 homes and infrastructure in Banda Aceh and 3,000 house-like tents in Meulaboh.

By Chiu Shu-chuan
Translated by Lin Sen-shou
Source: Tzu Chi Quarterly Spring 2005