The anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami completely passed me by this year. This is partly because I was home for Christmas and somewhat preoccupied with digesting my Christmas dinner, catching up with my family and flicking between TV channels; and partly because my Sri Lanka news radar is fairly centred around cricket and conflict these days. It is also, to be honest, very easy to forget something that is now largely unreported and that doesn’t have a direct impact on my life.
Nonetheless, it’s a little scary to have so easily forgotten something that played a tremendously important role in my personal development and that was at one point the primary focus of my community. Gecko was actually set up in the aftermath of the tsunami and was initially, like many of our partner organisations at the time, entirely focussed on tsunami-relief, giving myself and my fellow Geckos plenty of exposure and volunteering experiences. And on a personal level, watching the horrifying news unfold was probably one of the moments where I realised quite how Sri Lankan I felt.
I don’t know a single Sri Lankan person who was unaffected by the tsunami, and everyone has their own memories and experiences to reflect on at this time. My most poignant memory was of a day Suvi (fellow Gecko) and I spent in Sri Lanka, roughly six months after the tsunami, visiting the homes of people who had been displaced. Everyone we met had a story that they wanted to share and these stories got more and more animated as people became comfortable with us.
Thinking about the tsunami today, I can vividly remember a strange mix of details and fragments from this experience; one man’s arms waving about wildly while he showed us which way his house went, and how he first ran here and then saw the water coming and instead ran there. A lady showing us her extremely small house, made of rubble and washed up wood, and explaining the sleeping shift pattern that she and her husband had adopted because there was only space for one adult to lay down at a time. The mother of a 21-year old heroin addict, forcing him to show us his slashed arm and begging us to make him stop. Parents describing how their children were scared to sleep when the sea was rough or the rains were hard. The way that every single man we came across quickly put a shirt on before coming to talk to us, and all these children constantly asking for balls (always with a little bowling gesture) so that they could play cricket. I also remember being struck by how beautiful and peaceful the sea looked that day.
For many, things have obviously changed dramatically since then, thanks, in part, to a huge outpouring of aid and humanitarian effort from the global to the grassroots level; to the multitude of individuals and communities who supplied their time, skills and expertise to those who needed it; to the resilience of the people who lived through it all and, I suppose, to the healer of all wounds: time. There are also many positive stories to have emerged from the whole experience and examples of ways in which it brought out the best in people.
I don’t know what the exact state of post-tsunami recovery in Sri Lanka is now. But my guess is that while things have improved and life does go on, people do not fully recover, emotionally or financially, from losing their loved ones, homes, possessions and livelihoods, in only seven years. So perhaps in this anniversary period, while we remember the tsunami and all those who died, we should also take this opportunity to remember those who lived.