Unboxing the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004

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After the devastating tsunami, the Southern coast road rebuilt with support from the World Bank. Photograph © Chulie de Silva

My mother Manel Kirtisinghe encapsulated what the loss of a loved one in the tsunami meant, when she wrote in her diary “What you deeply in your heart possess, you cannot lose by death." On 26 Dec. 2004, Prasanna went away leaving behind for me a lasting vacuum and a silent aching grief.” 
 
Prasanna was my brother and this year when we observe religious rituals in memory of him, my mother will not be there with us. She left us earlier this year. Prasanna was our bulwark and the trauma of his death was so intensely felt that it took us seven years to rebuild and return to our beloved house. My mother was happy to be back in the house she had come to as a bride in 1944, but she stubbornly refused to go to the back verandah or to walk on the beach - a ritual she did twice a day before the tsunami.
 
As my mother did, we all had our coping mechanisms to handle the pain. The grief is still with me hastily boxed and lodged inside me but about this time of the year the lid flies open and the horror spills out. The images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying. Like a slow moving movie, they appear…and the nightmares return.

Many who survived will not forget the swirling torrent of putrid smelling water and the paralyzing fear that rose inside with the thought “Will I survive this?” Prasanna, my brother and Cresenta Fernando, my colleague at World Bank Colombo office are but two out of the thousands the sea devoured on the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.  For many who lost loved ones, the scars wound go deep. It only needs a person that from the back who looks like Prasanna; or a girl playing tennis to remind me of Cresenta’s jokes about the view from my office, and the wound bleeds.
 Rocio Castro, World Bank's Lead Economist for Sri Lanka in 2005, comforts Ariele at the memorial service held in Cresenta's office. His sister, neice, and parents are next to Ariele. Photograph © Chulie de Silva
My immediate role was to keep calm and help my family as well as the others who were injured. Remarkable as it seems now, an hour and a half after the tsunami stuck, all members within our immediate circle had seen a private medical doctor who dressed wounds, stitched deep cuts, gave tetanus jabs and medication. The village undertaker, who prepared my brother’s body, had burned all his clothes fearing infection and had found my car keys among the ashes. With practices like this, the country recorded no additional deaths because of tsunami related diseases or delayed medical treatment.
 
The World Bank office in Colombo too took a heavy blow with the loss of Cresenta. He was not only the clever economist; he was a much loved and admired co-worker. His wife Ariele Cohen survived but Cresenta’s body was never recovered. A poignant memorial service was held in Cresenta’s office and I remember his father stretching out his arms and telling me “I wore his clothes – shirts, trousers and even his shoes to make believe he is close to me.” This period also brings to mind support I received from the then Country Director Peter Harold and the South Asia External Affairs Advisor Dale Lautenbach. I got back to work 7 days after the tsunami and that period was a roller coaster where communications were concerned. I would often find Peter standing at the door to my office around 3 pm, urging me to stop work and go home early.
Garlanded Portraits of my mother Manel Kirtisinghe at her funeral; as a young wife and on her 90th birthday one and a half years before she passed away. Photograph © Chulie de Silva
As I write my film reel rewinds: I am on a mat on the hard floor in the house we sought refuge and every bone in my body aches. I am terrified to shed even one tear, fearing that I might not be able to stop. Bats cry, an owl hoots and the smell of a dead rat on the roof somewhere comes with the changing wind.  To keep my sanity I repeat over and over a phrase I learned from my father “even this day will pass into memory.” Daylight was a long way coming.
 
When we gather for Prasanna’s memorial on the 10th anniversary, Cresenta too will be remembered.  No doubt I will be swamped with memories but then as my mother said, “What you deeply in your heart possess, you cannot lose by death.”

Authors

Chulie De Silva

Communications Consultant

Join the Conversation

Dale
December 26, 2014

Chulie thinking of you today as every Boxing Day. There was a particularly fierce sea around the Cape of Good Hope today, a spring tide. Nothing extraordinary but poignant to be happening on December 26.

Chulie
December 29, 2014

Thanks very much Dale. The sea was fierce at Hikkaduwa too. This years rememberence almsgiving to Prasanna was near his grave, away from the sea in Prasanna's son Kanishka's house. Will write about that day soon.
best
Chulie

Gimhani Talwatte
December 28, 2014

May you and your loved ones have strength to move on. For a mother to lose a child at whatever age is so hard and I truly admire your mom and believe in her saying.....“What you deeply in your heart possess, you cannot lose by death.” Peace be with you all.

Ram Janakiram
December 27, 2014

Very touching tributes to Prasanna, Cresenta and Murel. May their memories and good deeds and the many others who lost their lives live forever. Hope we don't have to experience such a Tsunami again for generations to come.

Chulie
December 29, 2014

Dear Ram Janakiram
Thank you but words can only say very little about what the heart really feels but it does ease the pain. I certainly hope too that we don't have to go through such an experience but daily we hear of landslides, plane crashes, killings in conflict situations etc Death when it is brutal and sudden is difficult to come to terms .
best
Chulie

Amitava Ghose
December 27, 2014

Heart breaking reality caused by industrialisation and its affects on nature! Wish you all "strength and God be with you" - Seasons Greetings!

Chulie
December 29, 2014

Dear Amitave Ghose
You are right on the effects on nature. Hikkaduwa and Pereliya where the train disaster happened were areas where coral mining was extensive and hotels were built right on the beach -- not so much due to industrialiasation. Thank you for the good wishes and wish you the best for the season and for 2015 and beyond.

Chaitri Hapugalle
December 29, 2014

Dear Chulie,
I am fighting back many tears, but thank you for taking the courage to write this article and for sharing this picture of late Cresenta's family and Ariel. It was heart breaking to say good bye to Ariel and to hear about your own loss.
However, I am very proud of all the efforts made globally to support the countries and victims affected by the tsunami, and the catalyst role and leadership provided by the World Bank, Peter Harold and staff. While hoping that there will be no more disasters and of such magnitute, the leadership provided by the WB in times of crisis has never been more appreciated.
Your own contributions are not to be discounted.
I appreciated the chance to support the Government of Sri Lanka. However post tsunami. Instead, I would have preferred if I had many chances to drink king coconut drinks and play on the beach with all of you and Cresenta rather than spend mant sleepless nights preparing tsunami reports for the govt and donors, while anxiously waiting for friends to be rescued, and not having had to attend that many funerals, and in such a short period.
Blessings Chaitri Hapugalle, former IMF economist in Sri Lanka and Consultant at the WB.

sriyani de silva
December 23, 2014

I am lost for words...

Chulie
December 29, 2014

Thanks Sriyani. You knew Prasanna and all of us and so I understand when you say there are no words. Even my words are hardly adequate.
best
Chulie

Wolfgang
December 26, 2014

Dear Chulie,
Thank you for sharing your painful memories in this wonderful post.
Very impressive!
Wolfgang

Chulie
December 29, 2014

Dear Wolfgang
Very Many Thanks. Every word of appreciation is a balm that soothes the pain.
best
Chulie

MANO
December 25, 2014

Painful memories!!!

Anonymous
December 29, 2014

sad and well written. Be strong.

Suresh Peiris
December 29, 2014

Thank you so much for sharing, and also for thinking about Cresenta whom we still miss very much after all this time.