The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
First published 25th December, 2009
This morning, five years ago, what became known as the Boxing Day Tsunami rolled in, devastating sections of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives and India. We were on holiday in Sri Lanka at the time and were in Colombo when the wave hit. As Sam was a wire journalist at the time, our holiday ceased immediately and we headed down to cover the aftermath.
Following Sri Lanka, but before we headed to southern Thailand to cover the damage to Ko Phi Phi, Khao Lak and Phuket, I wrote an email to friends and family that encompassed some of my immediate impressions and emotions of the time. I thought, given five years have passed, others may find this edited version of the email of interest.
Note: This story contains a number of photos that readers may find disturbing or upsetting.
Sam and I arrived in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka at around 1am Christmas day. On Boxing day, a little after 9am in the morning a tsunami hit eastern and southern Sri Lanka, after already hitting Aceh and other parts of Sumatra, Thailand, the Nicobar islands and India. It went on to partially submerge the Maldive Islands. The death toll in Sri Lanka currently stands at over 30,000 and the worldwide toll over 150,000. By late afternoon we were in a van heading south.
Our first stop was late at night on Boxing Day. We had got a van and headed south from Colombo to Galle -- Sri Lanka's second largest city. We had a Sri Lankan photographer with us and hooked up with some more as we worked our way south. We knew we were going to need to sleep in the van that night, but decided to swing by the hospital beforehand just to see if many casualties had arrived.
As I walked into the hospital I was struck by how many injured people there were -- laying everywhere -- it wasn't until I was twenty metres into the hospital that I realise they were all dead.
All of them.
I did a complete 360, and for someone who until then had never seen a dead body, it was a 360 that will stay with me forever. The number of children was staggering, as was the sheer number of bodies. At first I thought maybe 100, but there were more like 300+, and though I'm guessing here, as I didn't do a count, close to half of them were kids. Often completely unmarked, laid out on the floor like they're asleep, the giveaway of course that they're not breathing, the slightly distended belly and the foam at the mouth.
The bodies were everywhere -- on the floor, under the stairs, on trolleys, out the front, still arriving, out in the back room, the storage rooms, outpatient floor -- every flat surface was tiled with a sprawling mosaic of dead people.
People arrive looking for relatives, brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, grandparents, grandchildren. The silence is overwhelming. One woman sits on the floor humming and rocking side to side beside a dead child. There is no calling out of names, no tears of the reunited, just silence. People doing a rotation or two looking at everybody. Sam, the photographers and I are pretty much the only people not searching for the missing. They circle through the hospital in a slow shuffle, slowing down, pausing, down on their haunches, then another false positive and they're back up onto the circuit.
A man approaches me, shocked or mad I'm unsure and he leads me to the individual groups of bodies of children -- "Bodies, Photos" he says. I take a lot of shots, he takes me to the next room "Bodies, Photos" and so on. A Sri Lankan photographer pulls me aside and says a photo of a corpse is always better if it has a live person in the shot as well as it creates a contrast and adds impact to the photo. I nod vacantly and wander on.
My guide tells me to take a pic of the only wounded person I saw that day, the bandaged man looks at me as the doctor professionally bandages up his legs, the patient's eyes so vacant they're hypnotising. My guide leads me to the Administrators Office to take his photo, but he slams on his desk and tells me to get out. I'm in a daze now, my guide leading me by the arm, my camera bouncing against my side as I drag my sandaled feet through room after room past body after body -- it's surreal and I break free and step outside for some fresh air.
After a few days in the sun, there is nothing quite like the stench of a bloated body laying just above the high water mark. On this day though, the bodies are all fresh, none even 24 hours old, and though there is a smell it is a sickly almost sweet smell. I remember thinking if a smell could have a colour it would be a dull ochre shade of yellow.
I'm surprised and remember thinking that the smell wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. I revised that opinion the following day.
The next morning, we go into Galle town to see the damage. It is early, about 8am from memory so we're just coming up to 24 hours since the wave hit.
From the waters edge to upto 600 metres inland, Galle is largely destroyed. The town is deserted -- for the first hour or two we share it with maybe 50 other people (excluding the police and military who were there to control looting from the night before). The most stunning are the vehicles, all as if attacked, demolished then randomly thrown around by a set of beastly giant hands.
Imagine a child's collection of toy buses, then pick up all the buses and drop them again. Upside down, on their side, sides and roofs bashed in, but oddly the windows often intact. Tuk tuks opened as if by can opener. Cars bent in half and shoved up a stairwell, vans bashed into the buildings left and right then thrown aside as a discarded toy. Later we hear from photographers who hitched a ride in a helicopter to join us, of buses floating kilometres offshore, no doubt still packed with passengers, silently and slowly sinking. These are the passengers nobody will ever be able to count. The missing families, entire generations, disappeared.
A couple of medium sized boats lie within the bus station and by the Galle cricket ground pitch a couple of buses that appear to have been through a meat grinder lay scattered.
Virtually all buildings are thrashed and those that aren't are gutted. The more solid remain standing, their interiors ruined -- filled with refuse, cars, bodies, flotsam and more bodies. Some people had the chance to shutter their stores and take shelter inside. Four days later their bodies are still being dragged out and left by the side of the road for people to identify. A monkey, chained up among the branches of a large tree opposite the police station leaps around pulling at its chain -- if only the chimp could tell its tale.
The police station remains standing, but the forecourt is graced by what looks to be a modern art sculpture on a massive and repulsive scale. I stare at it, wondering if bodies are a feature of the work, then realise I'm actually looking at a tuk tuk that has been wrenched off the ground, bent in half and then stuck under a written-off car which in turn is immersed under a mountain of stone, wood and refuse.
Boats in the bus station, buses float to sea. The silence completes the surreal nature of the scene.
We leave Galle town and return to the hospital. We step inside and are overpowered by the stench -- I can't stay inside. The number of bodies within has skyrocketed and the stench is unreal, defeated I step outside. Sam is talking to two western survivors -- an American man and an Israeli woman. These are our first. Sitting there in shorts he found and wrapped in a curtain that someone gave him. They tell us what becomes an increasingly common story.
Early morning laughter and incredulity upon the arrival of the first small wave, rapidly changing to abject terror as the second wave arrives. Their attempt to hold the door closed, but when a wave of a few million cubic litres of the Indian Ocean travelling at 500km/h is knocking at the door there is only ever going to be one result. How in a matter of seconds the room filled almost to the ceiling, wedging them against the ceiling, the deafening noise, the faraway screams, the sheer panic accompanied by the determination and will to survive and the realisation that it counts for naught. Sucked out of the room and spat across the landscape as the water surged inland submerging and destroying everything in its path. Tossed and turned across the property, amongst the floating refuse, eventually climbing a tree and surviving till the waters backed off.
Thousands others drowned in their rooms, under collapsed brick walls or beneath simple bungalows, trapped under fallen palms, tangled in ropes and refuse, crushed by suddenly floating buses or cars, electrocuted by falling wires, safe in the branches of a tree only to have it fall over, submerging and drowning them, or simply not fast enough to outrun the wave. The tales of the dead will never be told, but the evidence of the mayhem and their demise is everywhere.
We leave Galle and head to Matara on the south coast. We're able to arrange lodging with relatives of our driver and we head over to nearby Polhena, a beachside area popular with tourists. Like everything else, it is destroyed. Lives destroyed, entire houses gone, although unlike Galle, by now it is late afternoon and people are slipping from their stunned states and the first indicators of a clean up begin to show themselves. Small piles of rubble begin to appear, Personal belongings -- two china plates, a salt shaker and a school photo neatly stacked beside a mountain of rubble that once was a house.
We return to Matara and walk by the waters' edge. Hotels collapsed, cracked foundations, but streets are slowly beginning to be cleared -- mostly by residents cleaning the stretch out front of where their house once was. A woman walks up "My house and family are all gone" she says matter-a-factly and then wanders off.
Matara Hospital, like Galle a couple of days earlier is hard-hitting. It's also the first place we see hospitalised foreigners. They're all in ward 4, towards the rear of the hospital. Just behind their ward there is an open sala style area littered with around thirty of the most decomposed bodies I've seen so far. Wildly bloated faces and stomachs, one man's chest looks like it is about to be wrenched open from the inside, his face contorted and swollen, his skin red and blackened covered by a greazy sheen. One woman is in a particularly bad state, a black-red sludge of liquid seeping out of her body slowly spreads across the rough concrete floor, her blackened face swollen to exploding point, cheeks super-swollen as if packed with masses of cotton wool, yet the engorged tongue still managing to force its way out -- I remember thinking if I tried to lift her by the arm, her arm would pull off her body at the socket.
The smell is indescribable. Some of the bodies had been in the sun for three days and after seeing so much, this really breaks through, disgusting me -- at least they could be put in the shade I say to myself. A medical worker explains these are the last of the corpses they have at the moment and that these are to be carted off that evening for a mass burial. The unidentified and unidentifiable are buried in mass graves outside town, slowly but surely adding to the death toll of the unknown -- forever missing. We hear a few days later, once we're back in Galle, that the hospital was subsequently restocked with the dead, including a number of dead westerners. Many didn't seem to envisage a situation of new waves of dead coming in, thinking that once they cleared the current allotment, that would be it. Bodies will be washing up and be delivered to hospitals across the country for weeks.
The foreigners in the hospital are distressed. Although admirably being cared for by dedicated medical staff, the fact remained that medical supplies ran out in many hospitals across the country on the first day. Staff had to run to the pharmacies that remained standing in search of antibiotics and other medical supplies. These patients, a mix of Europeans who had mostly been brought in from Tangalle, a once idealic beach town about 50 km further east, are the lucky ones. Tangalle and further east to Hambantota were savagely hit. Their stories, told to Sam and another westerner, who himself is looking for lost ones, are harrowing.
The woman and her husband had tried to escape by running but were caught up by the wave, thrashed through and beaten against the ground, houses, trees. He cut his feet to absolute shreds and as Sam speaks to his partner, he is in surgery. She ran and was trapped under a tree, almost drowning, until, as in virtually all stories, through some miracle the maelstrom spared her.
The couple on the far side of the room are severely traumatised. Chased by the wave the two, with their infant in tow ran for their lives. Eventually they found something to hang onto as the wave tore everything apart. Hanging on to each other, the force became stronger and stronger until it reached a point where she had a choice to hang onto her husband or onto her child, before she could make a decision, the wave made it for her and ripped the child from her arms -- she watched as the child, arms waving in the air was dragged away. The parents survived but were taken to Matara hospital, all people they see they ask about the child, but you can see from their faces they know the grim truth. Save a miracle, their child is dead and the best they can hope for is that the body is found. Days later I see and hear more and more stories of miracles, stories of children escaping, saved by dogs, alive in floating trees kilometres out to sea, miracles do happen and I dearly hope that for this couple their child was one of the miracles, but I'll never know.
As we leave, two nurses bring in the man who had undergone surgery on his feet. His body shaking uncontrollably as he comes off the anaesthetic he reaches up and holds the doctors hand "Thankyou, I know you're a good man he says".
All these people, laying there in their hospital beds had nothing. In most cases no ID, no wallet, often no clothes or money, far from home with worried family and friends all over the world. Despite this all they wanted was to make contact with loved ones, to be able to tell them "we are not dead". Sam and I stand there, with a minibus, a mobile phone and a satellite phone, yet we couldn't help -- the helplessness is immensely frustrating. Neither the satellite phone nor the mobile worked. As we leave I suggest to Sam that with our minivan we could at least evacuate some of the more distressed cases to Colombo. In the end we decide not to -- Sam was there to work, to report -- not to ferry injured people back to an equally overloaded hospital in Colombo. I belatedly agree and instead suggest we hire a car to ferry them to Colombo, in agreement we go looking for a car. After finding a willing driver we hit the next barrier -- he has no petrol and there is none to be found -- the queues are kilometres long and it is late in the day -- too late to queue and then leave for Colombo. We give up and return to sleep.
The following day I return to the hospital only to find that the foreigners have vanished. Shipped to Colombo that morning I'm told. Relieved, I spend the afternoon wandering Matara watching as corpses, one after another, are retrieved from shuttered shopfronts by masked volunteers wearing bright green washing-up gloves. I stand outside a single store for about an hour as body after body is dragged out and lined up by the side of the road. The ebb and flow of onlookers as each body is retrieved -- people wait to see if the next body is someone they know and then wander off when it is another stranger. This is taking place out the front of shopfronts all over Matara and all over Sri Lanka -- I shudder contemplating the final toll.
Behind me a group of women begin to wail. First one woman then a half dozen. They've found a loved one, covered in a white shawl, laying amongst the rubble a mere ten feet from me -- despite the fact I'd been standing next to her for almost an hour I hadn't even noticed the corpse. The wailing and crying builds -- complete strangers wander up and watch the scene unfold. None of the mourners will touch the body, instead they wail and double over, holding their head in their hands and occasionally venturing halfway towards the body before backtracking. Although mostly women, two men are also involved. At one stage, another man on the edge of the crowd receives a call on his mobile phone. He answers it and strolls over to one of the mourning men, taps him on the shoulder and passes him the phone. The guy snaps out of it, stops crying, takes the phone and methodically takes the call like it was just another day. After the call he turns, hands the phone back to the other and bursts into tears again.
This continues for almost half an hour, then a white sedan pulls up and the men pick up the body and put the body in the back seat, some of the women get in and the car drives off. The crowd, now again silent, drifts off.
The next day we travel out to Telwatte where the "Queen of the Sea", Sri Lanka's coastal train had been derailed by the tsunami. According to authorities at the scene, the train had been carrying 1,200 people of which just 100 survived. We'd seen footage of the accident on tv and it looks like a practice run for the apocalypse.
The road finishes about two km shy of the accident so we unload and walk the remaining distance. Sam starts chatting to a Sri Lankan man who is on his way to where his house was to see what remains. We go with him. As we wander, I notice the road has been graded to an extent and the coastal side is lined by a 5ft high wall of rubble. We reach where his house is and climb the wall to see what remains.
Nothing but rubble with a great seaview remains.
Just as with thousands of others across the countries affected, this man has lost everything, all that remains is a pile of rubble and a section of a tiled bathroom floor. He is initially speechless then turns and says "this is my home".
By the time we arrived, 700 bodies had been removed while 400 remained in state -- hidden under trees, crushed under carriages, wrapped around bogie axles. The scene is one of complete devastation. The tracks are twisted up into the air like an absurd roller coaster. Carriages tossed about over a massive area -- across the landscape, into houses, trees, people -- destroying all and the devastation is everywhere.
Bodies. Bodies everywhere. A lone chainsaw is the only mechanical sound and it cuts through the silence as soldiers cut through a fallen palm tree to free a trapped and bloated corpse ten feet from where I stand. The scene is incredible.
This is Day 4, and the only equipment they have on hand is a single chainsaw -- this is at Sri Lanka's most spectacular and very well media-covered disaster site -- one wonders how much assistance is arriving at the more remote areas of the country which the tv crews can't reach. Despite the need for cranes and other heavy-lifting equipment, all that arrives during our stay are a couple of bulldozers, but as you can't lift a smashed up train carriage with a bulldozer, they're primarily used to ferry the unidentified bodies away from the epicentre, where they are unceremoniously counted by a grey-suited Colombo-based bureaucrat then dumped in a 1.5 metre deep grave in the sand dunes scant distance from the high-water mark.
Away from the grave, a ghastly peep-show unfolds. A ladder runs up to the rear door of one of the carriages and a steady stream of people patiently, silently climb the ladder to look into the carriage to see if they know any of the bodies that lay, broken and battered inside the carriage.
As I aimlessly wander, people call out to me "Hey, Bodies". They call me over and lead me through what remains of the tropical coverage to show me yet another corpse. They're different now, often swirling and pulsating with fake life as the maggots burrow their way under the skin. The purifying smell is now indescribable. Climbing over bodies, in and out of cars and around or through destroyed houses, I become increasingly paranoid of stepping on or falling onto a body. The image of slipping over and onto a purified corpse, their rotten flesh adhering to me fills my head and I struggle to get away from the scene. I take my leave and wash my face and mouth with water, as I turn to spit out the water I realise I'm standing beside another row of eight rotting corpses.
I need to clear my head and wander down to the beach. By the water's edge I want to scream out loud. I reek of death, my sweat mixed with their perfume, bodies on my trousers, their sickly aroma through my hair, all over my shirt on my breath and in my head. I want to jump in the ocean, but fears of what I'll bump into out there dissuade me.
I wander over to the graves and the bureaucrat is in discussions with a local man. Two of his children are in the scoop of the bulldozer and were about to be dumped into the mass grave, but he wants to take the bodies home to bury them with dignity himself. The bureaucrat isn't overly co-operative and the man has to get out id cards and photos to show him till he finally relents and the bulldozer drops its load on the ground beside them. The man is then left to retrieve his children from a pile of corpses.
That afternoon we return to Galle and due to a shortage of accommodation stay at The Dutch House -- a throwback to the colonial times, a large mansion atop the hill in the centre of Galle. At US$250 a night it is way out of our budget, but Sam's employer is paying. I relax on the sofa on our sprawling veranda and as evening falls I watch the fireflies dance over the croquet field below me. A staffer walks past and comments "Surreal isn't it".
The false wave
The next day is supposed to be a slack day in Galle -- playing it by ear seeing what stories come to us. We begin at a church where St John's Ambulance are running aid and other support out to refugee camps in the surrounding area. I wander off to a nearby camp where I meet a young Sri Lankan man who wants to show me his house. We wander down, through a bevy of alleys and backlanes, through people's houses and past their foyers till we arrive at this man's personal pile of beachfront rubble. That is all that remains of both his house and his family -- he is the only remaining member of a family that included his parents and his children. He asks me to take his photo and asks for nothing else. "I'm alive, that is enough for now" he says.
Later, as I wait by a church for Sam to finish an interview a 4WD pulls up and a police officer coordinating aid to the camps in Galle wanders over. Although he professes to be run off his feet, he still finds the time to sit with me on the church steps and chat. We cover a wide variety of topics,ranging from cricket -- the cancellation of the Sri Lankan tour to New Zealand -- through to the need for more aid and the difficulty of getting aid to them. In arguably the understatement of the century, he comments that longer term "...it will be very tricky as the people, they do not have houses. Fixing that problem will yes be tricky and I think we will need more help about that." This flies in the face of later comments by the Sri Lankan president that most of the dwellings that were destroyed were wooden shacks and shanties. We talk more about the needs to refugees and he shows me a carbonated copy of a list of all the camps in the area -- over 77,000 families in camps surrounding Galle -- tricky indeed.
Sam returns only to dash off with a truck that is making a circuit of the camps. I wander down to the rendezvous point at the bus station and stooge around waiting for the photographers to appear. Bored I wander up a small street, no different to the dozens of other banged up alleys I've seen over the past few days. About 100m down the laneway, a cacophony of screams suddenly erupt, I look ahead and can see a mass of people in front of me running -- thinking a looter has been caught I run up -- only to find there is no looter and instead that people by the dozen are climbing a half-built building, scrambling up the exposed stairs to the second and third floor, then turning and pointing towards Galle fort and screaming for others to follow. I'm confused and don't know what is going on, then I realise -- there is another wave coming.
Surely not I think.
At first, I feel a surge of panic but then rationalise it. Unless the quake had been straight offshore we would have got a warning call from the bureau in Colombo as the mobile network is creaking but functioning, but then standing there without a mobile nor a sat phone, I realise that maybe they're trying to call me but can't -- I curse my stinginess at not replacing the phone I broke in Laos, but then this was supposed to be a holiday -- I didn't plan to use a phone...
I take in the surrounds and see the panic is shifting into pandemonium -- people running past me shove each other to the ground, bolting past me, every man for himself, I see a child and a woman knocked to the ground -- no one even blinks an eye -- many of those running past survived the first wave -- they're not interested in pushing their luck. I've got the heart of an alligator but I don't know what to do, I survey my position, and figure in 30 seconds I could get to the third story of a building nearby, knowingly ignoring the fact that if a wave arrives at 500km/h I'm probably going to get halfway to the building before the wave takes me away.
I start to walk back to the rendezvous, which unfortunately lies back towards the water. After a short while I reconsider and take a left towards a main road. There complete pandemonium reigns, buses, cars, motorbikes are all belting past. A trio of monks, even in these terrible times a picture of calmness and serenity unceremoniously bolt past -- I start to panic. Where is Sam, how can I contact and warn her? I see a policeman and a soldier and stroll over to them to ask what is happening -- as soon as I'm in earshot they ask me if I know what's going on.
Thinking it is best to stay together, I go back to the rendezvous, snapping pics of bolting people, while keeping an eye on Galle fort, half expecting a 100m high mega-wave to suddenly leap up behind the wall. I get to the car and an argument is underway. The photographers are in two minds about what to do. One thinks we should go to the top of a nearby building to photograph it, while the other half-heartedly suggests the top of Galle fort wall. Our Sri Lankan fixer though is on the verge of hysteria. He has a brand new, unregistered, uninsured car and that is his primary concern. He is on the phone to a friend in Colombo who says the wave is on the way -- he wants out and out right now. We continue to debate what to do. Looking back now, would have been a fine death for a trio of procrastinators -- crushed by a tsunami as they debated what to do, without doing anything except dying.
In the end we bend to the fixer's will and leave, but by then the roads are gridlocked and we're stuck in a jam. The fixer is now hysterical, chain smoking, emphatically swearing in German, his panic and hysteria become contagious -- I recall thinking after living in Bangkok for almost seven years I don't want to die in a traffic jam in, of all places, Sri Lanka.
Eventually the traffic moves and we get out of town. One of the photographers finally reaches Sam on the sat phone and she is hysterical. Thinking he is the bureau chief in Colombo she screams down the phone "...is there another bloody wave coming?". We calm her down -- at least she knows there may be another wave on the way -- she wisely agrees to steer clear of tsunamis and sticks with the refugee team, we continue to speed towards higher ground.
The wave never appears, supposedly the warning came out of India, though the Indian authorities later denied ever sending one out. Regardless the warning never reached us in Galle till early afternoon and the earthquake supposedly had happened at 5am. Had that been the case, we would have all been killed anyway as the wave would have hit around four hours before we got the false warning -- illustrating the problems the country would have faced even if they had an early warning system.
My last day
My last day is a good one, we visit a refugee camp within a temple's grounds and while Sam is getting yet more survivor's stories, I start taking photos of kids. My camera is digital and the children love to see their picture immediately. I shoot thirty to forty pictures, chased around the compound by a pack of young kids, all wanting their picture taken, single shots, group photos, all making faces, teasing each other, solemnly making offerings to the large Buddha that sits at the centre of the compound.
It's fantastic to be taking pictures of these smiling children running around the enclosure laughing and screaming like nothing has happened, such a contrast to the little bloated and decomposing bodies, lying naked on the bare concrete floors of hospitals or by the side of the road covered by curtains, bedsheets or just a big t-shirt that have filled my lens over the past few days.
I hate to think of how many family members they've lost, what they've seen, run from and somehow survived -- against all odds. Now they're here in the temple, playing chasings, with a most uncertain of futures. As a photographer told me that first night at Galle hospital, when you're taking a photo of a dead child, you should always try to get a live person in the picture as it creates a contrast and increases the impact of the photo -- but it's even better if you don't have to take photos of dead children at all.
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