Community: Real Life

Deciding to go back


Sarah White (28) works for the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID). She writes about returning to Sri Lanka for a "holiday" after witnessing the Boxing Day Tsunami first hand.
Entry: 1

Sarah thinks back to what those horrifying few days were like and tells us why she's decided to go back to help locals still trying to rebuild their lives.

My memories of the day

You must be really looking forward to your holiday", all my friends are saying. I'm not sure", has been my honest answer. This abnormal answer from me the travel-aholic has shocked everyone. But then it's an abnormal holiday I am embarking on - I am returning to Sri Lanka where on Boxing Day 2004 I watched the tsunami claim so many lives.

I was one of the lucky ones that survived the tsunami. I was staying in a beachfront hotel in Unawatuna, Southern Sri Lanka, with four friends when the tsunami hit. The first I knew about it was when I opened my door onto the balcony and found the hotel completely surrounded by water. The shock and disbelief at how the previous day's idyllic tropical scene had been transformed into a watery nightmare was only broken by the sudden realisation that our two friends in the front room were missing. When the waters from the first wave drew out, we scrambled downstairs to find our friends' bedroom completely torn away and they were missing. We then climbed to the top of the tiny hotel to watch, terrified, as the black waters drained out into the bay only to rush back in again as the second wave. A third wave hit before a Sri Lankan man led us through the debris-filled water to higher ground where survivors were clustered. It was there that we were reunited with our missing friends who had been swept up the street by the wave but miraculously survived.

We spent most of Boxing Day sheltering on the highest hill, watching in disbelief as the wounded went past looking for a way out. I remember two heartbreaking experiences clearly. The first was a young British teenager who filed past with his family saying nothing but My brother is dead". Then we saw that the Sri Lankan leading them was carrying his dead baby brother. A frail elderly Sri Lankan man later joined us, sobbing uncontrollably. His mumbled cries were translated to us as I've lost all my family". The whole situation was totally unbelievable, a feeling that only intensified over the next two days as we made our way from Unawatuna to the nearby town of Galle on foot and then on by one of the few minibuses to Colombo. The three-hour walk to Galle presented us with continual carnage. The impact of the tsunami was like an atom bomb: buildings flattened everywhere; bloated bodies being collected for burning on funeral pyres or quick burials; debris of every kind - taxis, trees, walls, clothes, fridges, fences - everywhere; and roads, railways and bridges twisted up.

The decision to leave

It was with overwhelming relief that my friends and I flew out from Colombo to Bangkok on the 29 December. I remember staring down at the lights below thinking how the twinkling night scene distinguished such horror and heartbreak but feeling just so incredibly lucky to be alive. Yet I felt so guilty for being able to leave when thousands had lost their lives and all the Sri Lankans had nowhere to run to like we did. At the time I was clear, and I remain convinced, that it was the right thing to leave. Tragically there was nothing we could do to help. We were not doctors or nurses who were busy saving lives. I felt jealous of their ability to help when I was so horribly useless. Being so useless, we felt it was better to leave to reduce the pressure of another five mouths to feed when there was so little food and water available. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami I consoled my feeling of inadequacy a little by writing a heartfelt email to everyone I knew to encourage them to give money. Little did I know just how fantastic the public response would be.

Coping when I got home

As the months wore on after the tsunami, I found I reacted in many different ways. Everyone I knew was very supportive and lots of people were worried about me having post-traumatic stress, urging me to seek medical help. I certainly did not have any objection to doing so, but in the first weeks I felt so elated and grateful to be alive I didn't feel I needed help. No stressful issues seemed a big deal anymore, I could tolerate anything and I felt rather invincible, convinced after what I had survived, I could survive anything.

But then my mood completely switched. I was so furious at a colleague who wanted to argue over the curtains I was buying from the office - I felt like screaming, Don't you know thousands of people died in Sri Lanka and all you want to talk about are these stupid curtains!" I also remember being really upset hearing a friend moan about how someone was wearing the same dress as her at a party. I had seen so many injured survivors in the tsunami naked without clothes and she was bothered someone was wearing the same dress as her!

"We were not doctors or nurses who were busy saving lives. I felt jealous of their ability to help when I was so horribly useless."

I found, unlike some survivors of the tsunami, I didn't actually want to forget about the tsunami. My family and friends never forced me to talk about it, but I actually wanted to. I soon concluded that it was the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me. The worst in that it was terrifying, heartbreaking and I could have lost my life and that of my friends. But I feel it is the best thing because it taught me to put life in perspective and remember what really matters. Not curtains. Not a party dress. But being so grateful to be alive, with all my friends and family and the chance to make more of my life.

My thoughts on going back to Sri Lanka

So now I am going back and I have very mixed feelings. Am I mad to push my luck by going back? While I only had a few nightmares after the tsunami happened, will all the frightening memories come flooding back once I see the place it all happened? I used to love the ocean but haven't been near a proper beach since it happened - will the sound of the ocean waves fill me with the same terror it did on Boxing Day night as we sheltered in the remaining hotel, convinced the waves were getting louder and another tsunami was approaching?

But more of me thinks it is the right thing for me to do than not, despite my apprehension and, frankly, wishing I was going on a relaxing holiday to recover from my stressful job. I am going with a good friend of mine who didn't experience the Tsunami but who shares my desire to go and 'help'. A colleague of mine in Sri Lanka has found us a small non-governmental organisation (NGO), called Project Galle, to volunteer with for our two weeks.

Knowing (from my work at the UK Government Department for International Development) of the dilemmas of 'helping' after a crisis, I am concerned about whether this small NGO will be coordinating effectively with other NGOs and the local Government to deliver appropriate and sustainable help to Sri Lanka. Evaluations coming out of Sri Lanka now are questioning whether a lot of the 'help' is in fact helpful. For example, some NGOs have built new houses to poor building standards in coastal strips that the Government wants to prevent people living on. Will these people be hit by another wave and the poor-quality homes crumble? Or will these people die from exposure and suffer from inadequate housing if the Government takes too long to build new houses when NGOs are ready to provide them? These are complex questions that are difficult to deal with full-time during my work, let alone in a two-week volunteering period, so I am going open minded. Then there is the guilt about what I can really achieve in just two weeks. Probably very little but I believe just putting some money into the depressed tourist-dependent local economy will be so important.

Why I want to help

Ultimately remembering why I am going back is what's keeping me positive about this trip. I will never forget the kindness of the Sri Lankans in those three unforgettable days. The hotel owner who welcomed the surviving tourists into his hotel and fed us all with the few bags of pasta he had left. The calm and helpful hotel staff who insisted on cooking for us all, when we argued they should leave it to us while they go to be with their families. The manager who kept our passports and tickets safe when we would have understood if those that had lost everything had been tempted to take our money. The Sri Lankans on the road to Galle that kept apologising to us for the tsunami, saying (quite unbelievably): We are sorry this has happened to you in our country". No, we were deeply sorry for Sri Lanka. And that's why I need to go back. To feel in some small way I can give something back to those that lost so much but had nothing but kindness and support to us who could flee.

Updated: 12/06/2007

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