My Tsunami Journey
We are all casualties of disasters that unfold on television.
I remember hallucinating about tremors in Ahmedabad long after the Gujarat earthquake had ravaged the state leaving death and destruction in its wake. Having personally felt the anxiety of a near death situation, I wondered why the Tsunami tragedy didn’t chill my spine or bring tears to my eyes.
Then a sad realization dawned on me – the electronic age has so numbed us to the tragedies that strike today, that I too have become a casualty. We watch death and devastation on TV over a sumptuous dinner. We read about the anguish and pain of innocent people in the papers while sipping our morning coffee. Our movies create such horrific special effects while portraying human anguish and suffering on celluloid, that the evening news seems almost insipid in comparison. Sensational journalism and entertainment flood our psyche. We have begun to comfortably coexist with the deep horror of human suffering without missing a beat. We sigh, mourn a bit, feel helpless and move on.
I began to wonder: what has happened to us? Is our compassion and empathy only for great people like Gandhi and Mandela? Their experiences, the pain they felt and saw brought out the best in them. Why do we shy away from similar experiences that could channel the pain we see around us into making us more sensitive as human beings.
All these thoughts were making me very uncomfortable. Was I self absorbed and apathetic because the Tsunami did not directly affect me, instead of thinking of what it did to millions of people who were indeed affected by it? I rationalized my turmoil by telling myself it could be because my mind was preoccupied with other work. On Dec 26, 2004, I was traveling with 45 children and about 20 adults from India and Pakistan as part of “Beyond Boundaries,” a peace initiative. However important and ignored this much needed initiative may be, does it absolve me of the need to “do something for those devastated by the Tsunami”?
Questions multiplied within as others posed their own to me. “So what are you doing for the Tsunami?” “How come you are not going to the affected areas?” “How much have you donated?” “Do you know anyone who has been affected?” “Are you going to celebrate the New Year?” etc, etc
Well, I don’t really celebrate the New Year. Thankfully I don’t know anybody personally who has been affected. Should I go to the affected area to just uphold the tag of being a social activist that has been thrust upon me?
In all honesty, apart from struggling with questions and trying to connect people with funds, I had done nothing at all.
Then an invitation to go to Sri Lanka by a journalist friend and Red Cross staff member was extended to me. I asked myself, what help would I be, that too for just a week? Will I be reduced to being a mouthpiece for the Red Cross? Will I end up being a disaster tourist? When I shared these apprehensions with Bandula, he assured me that I would go there as an independent empathizer, to boost the morale of those who had been working tirelessly to bring order to the chaos.
I wanted to believe that I had the capability and the empathy to make the impact they believed I would. As I shared my desire to go to Sri Lanka, with others, I was confronted with the questioning roadblocks of geographic and sectarian myopia, in spite of the fact that this was a disaster that knew no boundaries. Why Sri Lanka? Why not our own country, our own people?
Well, what does define my own? I wondered: Are those in Nicobar, Kuddaloor more my own? I don’t speak the language of any of the three, and of all these places, I have only been to Sri Lanka! Strangely, in the United States, in a room full of white people, why does a brown person from Sri Lanka or Pakistan seem like my own, and why sitting at home in Delhi do I have to be apologetic about going to Sri Lanka? The rebel in me rose as I responded, “Why not Sri Lanka”?
Why not beyond boundaries!
So I went and soon here I was in Galle, in southern Sri Lanka, where more than 4,000 people had died and innumerable others left homeless. Having seen all those TV reports I thought I was prepared for what I would see.
But what confronted me was eerie, ghostly and yet very real. I could not switch off the TV. I couldn’t walk away from it all. I was there exactly a month after the tragedy. All bodies had been cleared so that our weak hearts wouldn’t fail us. But the ruined coastline, (stretching more than a kilometer inwards), told its somber, heartrending story. People sat around with haunted, empty unseeing eyes, some tried to pick up the broken blocks of cement, where once stood a house.
Sitting in a café by the seemingly calm and comforting sea, it is difficult to fathom the wrath it spewed. The sea that was once a source of livelihood, its cool breeze serenading the days of summer, a playground for young and old … had so effortlessly turned into a harbinger of death and destruction.
I met a child who screams with fear every time she sees water flowing, even in a drain. Many children wake up from the nightmare of the sea choking them and casting away their loved ones.
The adults try to be brave and tell us (and themselves), that it surely cannot happen again. But, do they truly believe that? Or is it their way of dealing with fear? I wonder how an island living, breathing, depending on the sea continues as if life is normal again?
I thought to myself, it’s not going to be easy for them to befriend the sea again. But this was my logical and conditioned mind assuming that the response to such a tragedy can only be that of anger or a sense of betrayal.
But conversations revealed little animosity, and even no fear. The people explained it as an abused sea expressing her anguish. They had understood and they ought to apologize to the sea in all humility.
Was this Buddhism speaking or the native wisdom of the islanders, I wondered!
I learnt that tragedies are not only about sadness and grief but also about hope and camaraderie. Even as the devastation was overwhelming, so was the undying spirit of the people who had been engaged in relief work round the clock. I saw a wide range of volunteers, from young Sri Lankan students to white bearded American specialists. Their work could entail anything: from clearing cement blocks, pitching tents, distributing relief items to helping little children draw and color and also help out with the much needed psycho-social counseling to make those broken people whole again.
The Indian Navy and the Army, trained to fire the canon and navigate big ships like the Taragiri, were seen with brooms and shovels cleaning up the debris. Their years of disciplined alacrity, stood them in good stead in conducting systematic distribution of relief items, reconstruction of broken bridges, running medical camps by their doctors and erecting hundreds of tents.
These men from the forces who lead fairly solitary lives on the sea were deeply moved by the gestures of gratitude by the locals. They would often bring them tea and sweetmeats, precious and generous offerings in these troubled times. Wonder why nobody asked the Indian Navy why it was helping a neighbor and not its own people, like I had been!
The cynic in me looked at the Red Cross symbols all over with some skepticism. But, then I realized that anything that restores faith in human goodness can only be reassuring and positive. I saw young local volunteers from the Sri Lanka Red Cross distributing cans, kitchen utensils, milk powder, soap, match boxes, sanitary napkins, mosquito coils – basic amenities that we so take for granted.
I also saw the warehouse where relief material was coming from Red Cross branches around the world. It had maps, charts, data and a planner on its cloth walls and a couple of laptops on foldable tables. Some people counted the packets and pottered around to make sure it was all going to the right places, while others sat on their small collapsible chairs creaking under their American sizes, to plan the relief operations on their laptops.
The next day we went to Heggaduwa. Here Kushil Gunasekara, who started community work 5 and a half years ago and later secured the support of Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralidharan, had succeeded in developing an with help from the local community.
The people there told us unbelievable stories of the tragedy and the miraculous escapes from death some of them had experienced. Strangely their community center was the only building that had withstood the power of monstrous waves. I often felt reluctant to ask questions that would bring back the nightmarish memories. So we exchanged warm smiles and looks that said it all.
On my way back to Colombo, my eyes were still hrefusing to come to terms with
With some questions answered and some still looming before us, we moved on. I was told that nobody in Sri Lanka celebrated the New Year. Not even one fire cracker lit the sky.
The last day in the capital, I visit Sarvodaya a widespread grass root organization, launched by Dr. Ariyaratne. It incorporates the Gandhian approach to life and social work. The winner of the Magasasay award and a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, he is a simple and unassuming man. I looked on in awe as he gave me a tour of his headquarters, which was just one of the many centers from which the relief operation was being carried out.
There was much to celebrate about the human response to this tragedy. To be sure, there was the down side too: mismanagement, corruption, looting and even rape have been reported in the devastated areas. I realize that while tragedies bring out the best in us, they also bring out the worst. But to walk the road with faith, optimism and hope is what will take us further, not cynicism and apathy. So I want to capture that positivism, that hope as much as I can.
I returned to my own country, older by a whole week and full of emotions I didn’t know I would feel so deeply. I am in a strange position of neither being a relief worker nor a journalist.
The only way I can bring a less selfish dimension to the trip would be if I can share some of my thoughts and experiences with you. No words can ever express what I felt, but while we cannot control tidal waves, if we try, we can work towards eliminating the hatred, the violence and the inhumanity we inflict upon each other.
If we try we can restore peace and solidarity on this wounded planet. May be then it won’t take a tragedy like the Tsunami, to bring out our humanity and a helping spirit. May be then, we will reach out in a way that would transcend our narrow nationalistic boundaries.