I accompanied Methodist Minister, the Rev Thurairajah Samuel of Morley, near Leeds, when he visited his home village Thirukkovil in East Sri Lanka. He lost several members of his family and his family house in the Tsunami Disaster on 26th December 2005. This is my Report to the Morley Town Council upon my return.
“We are shocked at the destruction of the Tsunami. This is the first time we have experienced such a disaster. It will take years to recover from it.” These are words of the Rev Noel Fernando, President of the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka. The Methodist Church is the most severely affected of the Protestant Churches in the Country, having lost many Members. Many of the Methodist Chapels on the Eastern Coast are damaged beyond repair.
Churches and Church Schools were centres of rescue and relief in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami. A month on, most people made homeless by the Disaster are in shelter in Refugee Camps. “The long term objective is to rebuild broken and repairable houses, to help people find employment, to provide support for widows and orphaned children, and to offer trauma counselling,” says the Rev Fernando who was the first person we interviewed . We met him in Colombo.
Having undertaken a twelve hour flight from Manchester to Colombo, and then a bone shaking twelve hour drive from Colombo to Thirukkovil, we arrived on the Tsunami affected Eastern Coast on a bright moon-lit night, about 11.30 p.m. 26th January. The route included a mountain pass of many hair-pin bends, and spectacular scenery of lagoons, colourful Towns, Tea Plantations, a myriad Palm Trees and a variety of animal life. The “Pearl in the Indian Ocean” is a fitting title for this beautiful country. The beauty of the place and its gentle people gives a context to the years of communal violence and suffering, and the devastation of the Tsunami.
The moon shone like a search light all around us. We realised we were in Tsunami damaged area. The sea to our left , with blue white waves lapping on the shore just a few yards away, was restrained now like a Dog on a lead. We drove on in total quietness, silenced by the awesome destruction along the Coast. Driving over damaged, fragile bridges was terrifying.
We arrived at our destination, Thirukkovil Methodist Church on the stroke of midnight. The Rev Rasarethnam Dayanithy welcomed us. Soon we learned that he had been conducting a Service on that fateful Boxing Day, when he heard three bangs in quick succession around 8.55 a.m. His first thought was that LTT fighters had fired Bombs at the Army. Then he began to hear the shouts, “Sea is coming, Sea is coming” and water began to come into the Church. Every one rushed out in panic and the minister led them into the upper floor of the Orphanage in the Grounds. As a swimmer, he then went down and started to rescue as many people as he could.
“It was a nightmare” said the Minister. Having heard the story we tried to sleep.
The news that Sam was in the Village had spread quickly. Friends and relatives started to arrive early in the morning to meet him. This reunion was touched with pain and pleasure. There was embrace and smiles and tears.
We made our way towards the Sea and towards Sam’s family house. It took practically an hour to walk a few Hundred yards. Along the way many of Sam’s relatives and friends came meet him and to weep with him. The local Opposition MP Mr Nehru came and joined us and made his view clear that “the Government is not helping us. Help is coming from other countries but little from our own Government. They are using money to build Military power. Money should be used to build people and property.”
As we walked along we could see that practically every house within about a quarter of a mile of the Sea has been destroyed or severely damaged by the Tsunami. Some work has been done to clear Roads but there is no sign of any work on Houses.
We reached Sam’s House. From a distance Sam pointed it out. There was just a mound of broken walls. The bright Green paint of inner walls stood out in the searing Sunshine. “Here is a part of the Steel Sheeting from the Roof,” he said while we were still a short distance away.
I stood with Sam on the mound of rubble which is all that is left of his family House. It was a powerful emotional moment.
No words, just silence and tears.
Sam grew up here, just a few yards from the Sea. We could hear what today was the gentle lapping of the waves on the Beach.
A month ago the waves rose to the height of the Coconut trees around us, killed hundreds of people, and smashed the Houses. One person said, “The Wave was like a Snake with five heads that rose high and came down on us. It came very fast. It took many people with it.” All the wells are polluted.
Next door to Sam’s House we could see a Grave in the neighbour’s garden. We were told that buried here is a mother and her six month child. The mother had run into the House and locked the Door for safety. The Sea broke in and filled the House drowning both mother and child.
I conducted a short Service of Holy Communion, using Sam’s well as the Altar. We used Bread and Coconut Juice. The Coconut was taken from the nearest tree. The Pulley used to draw water from the Well formed a Cross in the background. All these symbols remind us that God shares our hurt and pain.
Several members of Sam’s family and neighbours who had gathered joined us.
As I broke the Bread and gave it out I remembered in prayer all those whose lives, homes and livelihood have been broken by the Tsunami.
Standing and praying with Sam, his family, friends and neighbours on this spot was an important contribution to make on my part.
We moved on along the Golden Sands of the Beach. A solitary Boat stood beside the Sea. All other Boats from this once thriving Fishing Village were destroyed.
About 50-60 people had joined us by mid-day. Sam invited them all to sit under the shade of a tree beside a Well. He counted their number. The two of us them handed out 50 parcels we had made up with Gifts from the people of Morley. Sam explained where and who these Gifts were from.
We also gave out Gifts of 1000 Rupees [approx. £5.00] to 105 Households. This money represents about a Months wage for local people. Most of those who received the Money were Fishermen who cannot earn Money from their trade at present.
We sat in the Sand with the Fishermen and listened to their stories. This is the poorest community here. They have lost all but one Boat. They are trying to repair another one. They have lost homes and their livelihood.
At one point I asked them if the Tsunami had made them question their Faith and the existence of God. “Not at all,” they said. The question had not arisen for them until I’d asked them. They had an unquestioning confidence that God is with them and had been with them in the Tsunami.
“The Sea has been a source of life to us. The same Sea became the source of death – this is what we cannot understand,” they said.
Before we left one Fisherman climbed a Coconut tree. He dropped down several Coconuts. These were cut and we were given Juice to drink. We sat beside a Well and drank Coconut Juice.
There is a dignity here that has not been shattered or broken.
We sat with some of the poorest people on the Earth now, in the Sand, listened to them and received of their generosity. They fed us and gave us all they could – their stories, their tears, their smiles, their time, and Coconut Juice. It has been our privilege that they have allowed us to enter into their experiences.
We later met some of the people of Thirukkovil in a nearby Relief Camp. They were being given Pedialyte [ replaces fluids lost through vomit and diarrhoea ], Mattresses and Mosquito Nets.
Families are sheltered here in small Tents with practically no furnishings, and as someone said, “no water, no toilet, no bathroom.” The toilet area is now full. The water supply is not plentiful.
One man said to me, “we have no houses, no jobs, only rest.”
There are no facilities for Children. Schools have opened now but many children from these Camps are not returning. What they need is trauma counselling first.
Poor Fishing Families and middle-class Families Camp side by side. The well to do Families have Motor Bikes parked outside their Tents. One woman showed me that her Tent has no Furnishings of any kind. She showed me three bags of Rice and a bag of Sugar. “That’s all we eat now,” she said. Rice Pudding.
There are 500 people in this particular Camp. We saw five such Camps between Thirukkovil and nearby Komari, another devastated village
How long will people have to live like this ?
We did go to the School in Thirukkovil at Assembly time. Sam gave out the Letters that had been sent by children in Morley Schools. It was clear that some classes are depleted on their numbers because Children hurt and bereaved by the Tsunami devastation are in no way ready to return.
What are the immediate needs now? How can the people of Morley help?
1. Children in Camps need Therapy and Playschool type of support. Arts and Crafts materials are needed. Art plays an essential part in trauma counselling. There is a need for Exercise Books, Pens, Pencils, Crayons etc.
2. Toilet facilities, especially for Women, are needed in Camps. Two, at least, are needed now.
3. A Day Centre for Older People is needed, to provide somewhere to sit. A mid-day meal could be provided. A meals on wheels service could be provided. A small three wheeler vehicle is needed for this.
All these items have to be provided as soon as possible. Sam can do a lot to get things moving while he is in Thirukkovil.
Long term, Sam is discussing this with people. Essentially people need jobs and houses. The Government has to take responsibility for housing needs. What we can do is to provide at least one Boat for the Fishermen.
The people of Thirukkovil are enormously grateful to the people of Morley for their solidarity, and look forward to a developing and closer relationship of mutual support.
2 February 2005