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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 January 2005, 02:07 GMT
Sri Lanka's living nightmare
Keshini Navaratnam is a presenter on BBC World television and has extensive experience of covering international news and current affairs for the BBC. She was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Here she gives her thoughts on how the tsunami affected her homeland and how Sri Lanka can go forward.

A text message from a friend of mine in Europe first alerted me mid-morning on 26 December that something had happened: "I pray that your family and friends in Sri Lanka are safe from harm."

Initially I thought there must have been a massive bomb explosion, an almost reflex reaction after the 20 years of civil war that beset the country, and when the ceasefire of the last two years seemed perilously fragile.

Only a few days before I had been broadcasting news about the floundering of the peace process between the Sri Lankan government in Colombo in the south of the island and the northern-based Tamil Tigers.

It was like watching a disaster movie replayed agonisingly scene by scene over several days, but with an eerie sense of knowing every place depicted

A feeling of deathly calm overwhelmed me as it had done when I first learned of the bombing of the central bank in Colombo when hundreds of people were killed.

Then, moments later I heard my sister calling out that Sri Lanka had been swept by a tidal wave.

For one ghastly moment I imagined that the whole island had been washed away completely, taking all those I knew and loved to the ocean floor.

As the scale of the tragedy unfolded over the next few days I scrutinised each picture of Sri Lanka.

The sea had launched a devastating attack on the island from apparently all sides, ravaging its coastline with 30 to 40 foot (9m to 12m) waves from the Jaffna peninsula in the north, down the east coast and around the south to the west coast.

Images of destruction glowered from every television screen - it was like watching a disaster movie replayed agonisingly scene by scene over several days, but with an eerie sense of knowing every place depicted, recognising views I had enjoyed many times and wondering whether the figures seen in their last desperate moments of life were my friends or relatives.

Like so many other people who are of Sri Lankan origin and living abroad, I worried about every single family member and friend who could possibly have been affected by the tidal wave, wondering whether they were alive or dead, mentally making lists of life.

Poor swimmers

Bizarre thoughts flitted through my head. I have always been struck by the fact that so many people who live in Sri Lanka are poor swimmers. Perhaps this is why the death toll here amongst local people was so high relatively far from the earthquakes epicentre.

I recalled my last few visits to Sri Lanka, when I went to many of the devastated areas including Galle.

I remembered the extraordinary sense of warmth that always filled me at the end of the long flights from Europe when a few minutes before landing we finally crossed the coastline of Sri Lanka, seeing miles and miles of golden sandy beaches embraced by gentle blue lapping waves and a romantic dreamy sense of optimism - a feeling of comfort of returning to my roots, of "coming home".

Now the same image embodies a living nightmare, with idyllic blue water sullied into a dirty wash.

Pristine picture postcard sand littered with rotting corpses and useless debris, the once proud coastal railway mangled and buckled, with the carriages of the ironically named Samudra Kumari or Queen of the Sea train flung aside by the force of the tsunami like wantonly broken toys.

Nature was devastatingly cruel to this beautiful Indian Ocean tropical island - striking not only on the day after Christmas, a Sunday, but also on a full moon day, a sacred holiday for the majority population of the island, a day intended to be for contemplation and repose.

This made all the more painful for the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural, multi-faith society where despite all the years of communal strife people have maintained the tradition of celebrating the holidays of each of the major religions - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

Drowned Queen

In all the tales of destruction, death, perhaps the one that affected me most was the image of the Queen of the Sea, its 1,700 passengers drowned by the ocean rage.

Once as a four-year old child, I boarded that train with my sister and my mother off to spend the holidays at a relative's house overlooking the sea in Galle.

I remember vividly the excitement of the journey, how I craned my neck to watch the waves playing as the train chugged along the beautiful coastline.

Countless families must have done the same on 26 December 2004. The sheer terror they must have felt at seeing the wave is barely imaginable. A moment frozen in horror.

The people of Sri Lanka have endured innumerable hardships and tragedies, but the havoc wreaked by the tsunami of 26 December was a cruel twist of fate for a country that had yet to experience the real peace dividend after 20 years of brutal civil war in which 65,000 people died.

And it could not have been more poignantly tragic, for it was the sea which so many people on the island regarded as a source of bounty, reassurance, comfort and continuity.

The continuous rhythm of the waves had been a reminder that nature had been kind to the island.

They were a symbol of hope and seemed to embody the very pulse of life.

Immediate impact

I received many phone calls and text messages from people in the tsunami-affected region and many from concerned friends and acquaintances who had learned about the disaster, anxious to help.

Sometimes advances in communications have made it harder to deal with the agony of this catastrophe.

Two telephone calls I answered just carried the sounds of agonised crying. I was not able to find out who made the calls.

The fact that an earthquake detection centre based thousands of miles away knew of the tsunami, but did not know how to communicate the warning to the countries it would devastate is a harsh reminder that the digital age can offer little advantage over primitive times.

As the gruesome story unfolds it seems to get worse. Sri Lanka is a small island of 20 million people where everyone seems to know everyone else.

The collective agony is unimaginable. Every phone call from a Sri Lankan brings a new horror. Another death to grieve.

It doesn't seem to matter whether we know the victim directly - somehow every Sri Lankan death reported brings an additional sense of bereavement.

I am a media professional, I have worked in news for many years covering disasters and deaths but this has a tormenting immediacy with almost every image summoning tears.

Many people have expressed their terrible sense of guilt being survivors, in some cases the only member of their entire families. Some are utterly traumatised.

Looking ahead

What of the future?

Over 30,000 dead, over one million people displaced and homeless, the livelihood of over 10% of the population destroyed, the fishing communities and the tourist industry decimated, transport and administrative infrastructure in ruins, and an entire population traumatised by the havoc wreaked in a terrifying act of nature.

The people will recover, not just because of government initiatives or international reconstruction efforts which will no doubt happen but which will take years to complete, but because they have a resilience and ability to cope with crisis which will enable them to come out of the disaster and endure.

For me personally this catastrophe tears me back to my roots, reminds me of the fundamentals in life, the fact that nature does not discriminate between rich and poor, race, colour or creed.

It has also powerfully renewed bonds of friendship and family. There is hope.


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