By FATHER R. BENTLEY ANDERSON, SJ, Special Contributor | Published February 3, 2005
The plan was to get up early Sunday morning, Dec. 26, to head north from Trincomalee to Nilaveli Beach to see about catching a skiff to Pigeon Island to go snorkeling.
Of course, the idea of getting up early the day after Christmas did not sound too inviting, but I liked the idea of seeing the tropic beauty of the undersea world of Sri Lanka so I agreed to the plan. Jeevaraj Thangarasa, one of the Jesuit scholastics—a Jesuit studying for the priesthood—and I were to depart around 8 a.m. by motorcycle (members of the Society of Jesus travel by “two-wheelers” here) to visit the beach and see some of the local sights: a Hindu temple situated on the coast, a World War II British imperial war cemetery north of town, and “hot wells” (hot springs) to the south.
We were delayed leaving Trincomalee by approximately one hour. Those 60 minutes made all the difference that day.
On Dec. 26 Jeevaraj and I left the college around 9 a.m. First we had to visit a Catholic family before heading up the coast. Upon leaving the house, a young man walking down the street told us not to take the inner harbor road because “the sea was.” We were perplexed by his statement so we decided to take the harbor road to see what the young man was taking about. When we reached the shore the waves were breaking over a low-level sea wall. One of the fiberglass fishing boats, approximately 15 feet in length, had lost its mooring and was being tossed about, eventually being lifted over the wall by the waves. The sea was coming ashore. Jeevaraj and I decided it would be best if we departed.
At the time, we did not fully understand what was happening. Since the 26th was a full moon date, we wondered if the tide was running unusually high due to lunar interference.
Before leaving Trincomalee we began to encounter larger numbers of people crowding the main street in town. Not only were there people, but cars, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled vehicles ubiquitous in Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia), motorcycles, scooters, animal-drawn carts, and bicycles also clogged the street. Everyone and everything was heading north. As they traveled people shouted that the sea was coming and to head to higher ground. Some were crying, others appeared to be in shock. Those who could, packed a few belongings before leaving their homes. The highway was congested and becoming dangerous to navigate. We stopped the motorcycle and waited by the side of the road watching a human tragedy unfold.
When the roads began to clear of people and vehicles, we continued our journey northward to see what had happened. On the way to the beach we saw groups of people standing, huddled together at the intersections of the highway and the entrance to their coastal community dwellings. Further down the road we encountered dozens of people—men, women, and children—climbing the hills that lined the highway, seeking higher ground. Eventually we saw a military truck unloading a group of Sri Lankans and foreigners—survivors of the disaster; some people were in bathing suits, one man had just a towel about his waist.
At the turn-off for the Nilaveli Hotel we spoke to some of the survivors who were waiting for medical attention and government assistance. They told us that the coast had been hit by a tidal wave, a tsunami. When we asked how they had survived, one woman explained that initially she had been trapped in her hotel room by the surging water, but by pounding on the door and with the help of the shifting tide, the doorframe gave way and she was washed out into the open. She suffered several cuts and bruises as the water carried her through farm land and over a barbed wire fence. Eventually she reached dry land, others were not so fortunate—six people were already known dead.
My Jesuit companion and I drove the short distance to the beach and the destroyed hotel. The sight was rather eerie as the sky was blue, the sea was calm, but no one was in sight. The hotel and the surrounding area had been severely damaged. Several vehicles had been smashed into each other and then into buildings, the windows and doors of the hotel’s main building and outlaying cottages were damaged or missing, the concrete walls surrounding the compound were flattened, the area was flooded with a foot or so of water, and debris was everywhere. After surveying the area we walked out onto the beach. Again debris was all about, much like one would see after a hurricane, except there was one difference: the palm trees were still standing. There had been no wind damage. The sea alone had created this havoc.
By the time Jeevaraj and I departed the area, the Sri Lankan Army had arrived to secure the area. At the checkpoint leaving the beach area, six victims of the tsunami lay on the side of the road covered with makeshift shrouds. The body count would continue to rise that day and for days to come.
On our way back to Trincomalee we stopped at St. Joseph’s Church to speak with the parish priest and the staff. The pastor and the sisters were assisting survivors; some were foreign tourists, from France and Germany, who had been staying at Nilaveli Beach Hotel. They were in shock. Escaping only with their lives and the clothes on their backs, these survivors were now quite anxious to return to the hotel to recover their possessions, or what was left of them. With little or no money on their persons, the pastor and the sisters arranged transportation for them. They would return to St. Joseph’s to spend the night until further assistance could be offered. For the local inhabitants they too would seek shelter and assistance from the church, the temple, the mosque and the shrine.
Most of the world now knows how difficult the situation has become here in Southeast Asia; the loss of property is staggering, the loss of life horrific. Some are without food and water, most without shelter, and all without the means to sustain themselves or their families. The hardest hit in the area are the “fisher folk,” the individuals and families who live on the coast making their living from the sea. If they survived the tsunami, they have nothing left of their homes or possessions.
For Sri Lanka, the tsunami compounds the difficulties the people already face. For several decades they have endured a civil war, which has ravaged town and countryside; an unsteady ceasefire presently ensures the peace. Some believe that out of this tragedy the warring factions, the Tamils and the Singhalese, will find a way to live together peacefully. In the meantime, immediate aid is being provided to all area affected by the tsunami. Difficult as the situation may be, supplies of food and water are being shipped by convoys across the country. The real test for this county and the rest of the world, however, is the long-term recovery.
Sri Lanka cannot rebuild without international aid and support. The need is great and so is the opportunity to help.
Father R. Bentley Anderson, SJ, is a history professor at St. Louis University, St. Louis, Mo., who is serving in Sri Lanka and India at this time. An Atlantan, Father Bentley is an alumnus of Marist School in Atlanta and his parents are members of Holy Cross Church in Atlanta.