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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 January, 2005, 03:08 GMT
'People flung into the air like confetti'
A man stands in the ruins of his parents' home in  Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka
Stunned survivors are trying to come to terms with catastrophe
Arjuna Seneviratna, a 40-year-old IT consultant from Sri Lanka, lives in the capital Colombo but was staying in Beruwela on the south-western coast when the tsunami wave struck.

He witnessed the tsunami, and told the news and current affairs programme The World about the harrowing experience.

When the first wave came in, we were happy that we were seeing something that was really strange, but it was a very mild wave. Then the sea receded back, and we didn't know what that meant.

It was like someone had pulled the plug on the ocean, and crags and outcroppings of rock inside the sea were visible for the first time in years.

We just watched it, and I was taking photographs of it. Then came this massive wall of water. What did I do? I just sat and watched it. I just watched it and watched it as it came in - it took maybe four seconds from the point when I was aware of it to the point when it hit the hotel.

Those four seconds were like a lifetime. Even if someone runs at you with a knife, you can hit him back, or run away or claim insurance or whatever. This time, there was nothing I could do. I could only watch, and it was coming in, and it hit the crags, and I saw those people on the crags just being flung into the air like confetti, just blown out of the water.

'Life terminating'

Then this thing hit the hotel - I was on the first floor of the building in the restaurant - and it was like a bomb hit it. I saw a part of it just get taken off.

I still kept watching. I don't know why - I think that my mind was so completely numbed by the phenomenon of this, and the power of what was happening. I just stood. I stood my ground, not because I'm Superman, or a superhero, but I didn't know what to think.

Workers searching for bodies walk past one of the few remaining structures in Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka
Very little was left standing after the wave hit Sri Lankan coastal resorts
And this thing blasted through - I heard windows just bursting, not breaking, but bursting. It's a very special sound. It was like a movie. I just watched the whole thing.

I watched it go - I watched it take so much away. I saw so much life terminating, that I was seriously wondering what was more difficult - whether to live watching death, or just to die.

I really don't know if my life was in danger. There were five hotels that were really hard-hit in Sri Lanka - one of them was the hotel that I was at. I know only one thing: that there is no hotel there now. I do not know how I lived.

I wasn't submerged in water. The problem is not being submerged in water - it's the sheer force of the destruction. I think I was relatively lucky that I was very close to the ocean - that meant that only water hit us.

But if I had been 150m (500 feet) inside the coastline I would have been hit by flying debris, by 250 cars, by brick walls, by reinforcement bars. I would not have drowned, I would have been beaten to death.

The only reason I think I survived was that the walls were relatively strong to withstand the initial impact.

'Surviving the aftermath'

Subsequently, literally, I just walked out in three feet (1m) of water. I had an extremely small cut.

But what is more important is not how you manage to survive a 30-second burst of a wave, it's how you manage to survive what comes afterwards, when you see men looking for their wives, when you see mothers looking for their children and screaming their names, when you see people that you have danced the night before away with, not accounted for.

That is when reality strikes.

The night before, I had been dancing. It was Christmas. We danced into the wee hours of the morning. With everyone, everyone bonded. There were Finns, there were Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, there were Brits, there were Japanese - I actually won a dance competition.

The next morning it was like it was a whole big family of 150 people. And then the next day I am seeing one of those people screaming for their loved ones.

Now, I'm drinking a lot. I do not think it helps because right now, I've got a bottle, and it's not helping me - I'm as lucid as ever, I've been lucid since then, and it really doesn't help. What do you do? What do you do?

It's like 9/11. I was on top of the continental ridge on the Rocky Mountains when 9/11 happened. I saw only one thing. What I saw, was what I heard - silence. You know what that the silence was? The silence was that all the planes had dropped out of the sky - and in America, at any given moment, if you look up into the sky, there are at least 10 planes up there. There's a drone, that nobody really notices, until the drone stops.

My nation is silent right now.

This interview was originally broadcast on The World, a one-hour news and current affairs programme broadcast daily on US public radio stations and co-produced by the BBC World Service, Public Radio International and WGBH in Boston.


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