Revisiting seaside Sri Lankan village a decade after tsunami like sequel to a horror movie

Revisiting seaside Sri Lankan village a decade after tsunami like sequel to a horror movie

A return to the seaside village of Unawatuna in Sri Lanka 10 years after it was devastated in the Boxing Day tsunami brought back good and bad memories for a Melbourne family.

For the first time in 10 years, my wife, Sian, and I climbed the small staircase to the balcony of our

The previous time, we were racing to beat the rapidly rising water and awesome power of the Boxing Day tsunami that engulfed the coast of Sri Lanka.

Unforgettable moment: The instance the tidal wave hit Penang.

Unforgettable moment: The instance the tidal wave hit Penang.

Photo: Reuters

It was eerie being up there again – like a sequel to a horror movie.

In 2004, Unawatuna was the first stop on our dream Sri Lankan holiday with our children – Sam, then 11, Rosie, 10, and Matilda, 6.

Unforgettable moment: Akchay was just 18 months old and his sister Divya 9 years old when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami struck.

Unforgettable moment: Akchay was just 18 months old and his sister Divya 9 years old when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami struck.

Photo: Tony Heselev

Our double-storey apartment was set back about 50 metres from the beach.

As we stood on the balcony this month, we recalled that Rosie had had a loose tooth for several days and the moment it finally came out was when I saw the wave.

Sian had just returned from a run along the beach. Luckily, she heard my frantic shout and made it upstairs before the water roared through the hotel gardens to our ground-floor room, ripping out our bed, baggage and belongings, tearing down walls, and surging on for about 40 metres.

The raging water was rising rapidly, eventually lapping the balcony floor (about four metres high) before mercifully receding. Some said the tsunami sounded like an oncoming train.

Horror holiday: An Acehnese man lingers at the ruins in Banda Aceh in 2005.

Horror holiday: An Acehnese man lingers at the ruins in Banda Aceh in 2005.

Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi

Unawatuna was then rated among the world's top 10 beaches and the village was crammed with foreign tourists celebrating Christmas and locals celebrating their poya (full moon) day. The tsunami struck at 9.26am as many slept off the night before.

Some people were apparently trapped in their rooms and dived into the water to try to escape. The lucky ones emerged unscathed; others were injured – or worse – by debris hurtling through the water.

We watched buildings collapsing and cars floating in the murky torrent, and heard people yelling for help. Some were clinging to coconut trees.

Sian, a paediatrician, quickly began what turned out to be three days of disaster relief, using first aid kits plucked from the wreckage and torn-up bedsheets to treat the injured, initially from our balcony.

Among these was a Dutch family (who do not want to be identified). The mother had broken ribs and one of her three boys had a deep cut over his eye. I asked his father if the family was safe. Tearfully, he said no, their youngest – a 16-month-old boy – was missing.

The water had swept the boy out of his mother's arms. We found his body later that day.

In that upstairs room again, my most vivid and haunting memory is of the mother lying on our bed, wincing with pain and gasping for the breath she needed to weep for the loss of her young son.

The family planted a frangipani tree in the young boy's memory in the Sea View garden, and it is thriving.

The parents went back to Sri Lanka for the one-year anniversary, and the whole family will return for the 10-year anniversary next week. They will place a small memorial plate under the tree.

"To me, going to Sri Lanka one year afterwards was like going home," the mother said. "Almost everyone knew what it was like, had lost someone under exactly the same circumstances, exactly the same time ago. I could relate to their stories, was eager to hear them and it was good to share our experiences."

All the family members have been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Another son was born after the tsunami, and the mother says that he sometimes feels like an outsider.

"This time we want to show the children where it happened, and remember their brother and others who died that day – and also what a wonderful country Sri Lanka is."

Another family we befriended ran the tiny Sun Beach Guesthouse in Unawatuna. Our children frolicked in the water every morning with the daughter, Divya Arundhati, then 9.

On Christmas Day we had lunch with her mother and father, Kumudu and Nimal, shared gifts and danced together to Hindi music. Divya's 18-month-old brother Akchay amused everyone as he swayed merrily to the beat.

Because of their location, only metres from the water, we feared the worst for them after the tsunami but found out that they had somehow survived. Divya had been worried about us that morning, because our children were late for their swim.

This month, we met Divya and her family in Unawatuna to retrace their miraculous escape.

Kumudu recalled the sea bubbling at the foreshore, like a geyser, and turning dark. Then they saw the wave. It was three or four metres high and rising.

Without hesitating to retrieve anything, they ran away from the beach through a hole in a fence. Divya knew the way because she often picked flowers in the paddock behind Sun Beach.

She ran past a large concrete slide that she used to play on – and that is still there – towards a nearby canal.

It would have been impossible for them to cross the swirling, filthy waters but a boat became wedged momentarily, allowing them to cross to open land and a hillside 300 metres away.

They spent a harrowing night perched on the hill enduring the cries and howls of stricken people and animals. At one stage, Divya asked her father: "Are we dead?"

The next day they went back to survey the wreckage at Sun Beach. They were able to salvage only three photos, two of which were water-damaged. It was bizarre and distressing to see items of their clothing stuck in trees.

Kumudu recalled the family's seven years at Sun Beach as a happy and uncomplicated time, and broke down when she tried to explain how difficult their lives had been since.

They lost everything and received only about $100 compensation. Divya was cruelly called "tsunami girl" by her new classmates when they moved to the inland town of Embilipitiya, her academic performance suffered and she still has flashbacks, especially to that desperate night on the hill overlooking Unawatuna.

Sri Lankan-born Melbourne GP Thanuja Ranatunga was on the front line of the emergency response along with other doctors and volunteers from the Australia Sri Lanka Medical Aid Team.

She flew to Sri Lanka immediately after the tsunami, spending more than six weeks working in camps around Galle. She treated more than 100 acute patients a day, many of whom had lost family members.

"For the first few days I didn't ask anybody what happened," she recalled. "I couldn't handle that and do my clinical work; it was too traumatic.

"But by the third or fourth day, I had to overcome my fear of listening to their tragic stories. Otherwise there was no way of coping."

Sri Lanka was the worst-affected country after Indonesia. About 40,000 people died, half that number injured and up to 1 million were displaced.

About 250 international non-government organisations delivered some $3 billion of aid to Sri Lanka.

The national government was slow to respond, failing to grasp the full dimension of the disaster. Hopes that the crisis would bring an early end to the civil war between the Sinhalese majority government and the Tamil Tigers were dashed, but in the past few years, a tsunami warning system involving the use of police sirens has been tested successfully and evacuation routes designated.

Much discussion has centred on "building back better", but there is still confusion about whether a 100-metre building exclusion zone from the beach on the southern coast is enforceable. Certainly at Weligama, 23 kilometres east of Unawatuna, a huge hotel is being

Further up the coast, 125 villagers died as the tsunami tore through the tiny hamlet of Seenigama. But out of that destruction and hardship has come a better life for the survivors.

Philanthropist Kushil Gunasekera, who is manager of Sri Lanka's retired champion spin bowler Muttiah Muralidaran, used his cricketing connections (especially the Marylebone Cricket Club) to build a "rural community model" known as the Centre of Excellence on land around his family villa.

The centre provides services and facilities including English, IT and business development classes, medical and dental clinics, a preschool, swimming pool, and, of course, cricket grounds and coaching.

Victorian taxpayers contributed $3 million for the nearby Victoria Gardens housing project, which enabled the worst-affected people around Seenigama to be relocated in 84 double-storey duplex homes.

"It was an unprecedented, tragic time but we have turned this adversity into a blessing for the villagers," Gunasekera says. "The waves of compassion flowed worldwide to overpower the waves of destruction."

For the Dutch couple, the tsunami is never far from their minds. The husband is very hard on himself.

"I feel so bad that we let this happen to the children although I know we are not blame," he said. "I have joy in life again, but something is broken which cannot be – and I don't want it to be – undone, fixed or healed."

The mother sees the lessons clearly. "Before this happened, I felt I was in control of my life. If you work hard, make the right decisions, treat others like you want to be treated yourself, everything will be fine.

"Afterwards I realised this was a fantasy. Now, for example, instead of keeping the children safe, I want to make sure they're independent and strong so they might have a chance to save themselves if needed."

In our fortunate family, we talk of the tsunami as the "best worst thing" that has happened to us – because of the perspective it has given, and the friends we have made in 10 subsequent aid trips to Sri Lanka.

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