Unboxing the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004


A  slightly shorter version of this post first appeared on the World Bank Intranet and the End Poverty in Asia blog. 

It was happy days when I snapped this photo of Prasanna, Padmini and the young Kanishka and Matheesha. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

It was happy days when I snapped this photo of Prasanna, Padmini and the young Kanishka and Matheesha. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

My mother Manel Kirtisinghe encapsulated what the loss of a loved one in the tsunami meant, when she wrote in her diary “What you deeply in your heart possess, you cannot lose by death.” On 26 Dec. 2004, Prasanna went away leaving behind for me a lasting vacuum and a silent aching grief.”

Prasanna Kirtisinghe in Saudi Arabia. circa 1980s. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Prasanna Kirtisinghe in Saudi Arabia. circa 1980s. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Prasanna was my brother and this year when we observe religious rituals in memory of him, my mother will not be there with us. She left us earlier this year. Prasanna was our bulwark and the trauma of his death was so intensely felt that it took us seven years to rebuild and return to our beloved house. My mother was happy to be back in the house she had come to as a bride in 1944, but she stubbornly refused to go to the back verandah or to walk on the beach – a ritual she did twice a day before the tsunami.

Amma in front of the Birawa Almirah, which survived the tsuanmi of 2004. Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Amma in front of the Birawa Almirah, which survived the tsuanmi of 2004. The family relocated to Elpitiya, 22 April 2007.Photograph© Chulie de Silva

As my mother did, we all had our coping mechanisms to handle the pain. The grief is still with me hastily boxed and lodged inside me but about this time of the year the lid flies open and the horror spills out. The images gradually become more vivid, intense, horrifying. Like a slow moving movie, they appear…and the nightmares return.

Siriniwasa, after the tsunami. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Siriniwasa, our house, after the tsunami. circa 28 Dec, 2004. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Many who survived will not forget the swirling torrent of putrid smelling water and the paralyzing fear that rose inside with the thought “Will I survive this?” Prasanna, my brother and Cresenta Fernando, my colleague at World Bank Colombo office are but two out of the thousands the sea devoured on the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.  For many who lost loved ones, the scars wound go deep. It only needs a person that from the back who looks like Prasanna; or a girl playing tennis to remind me of Cresenta’s jokes about the view from my office, and the wound bleeds.

My immediate role was to keep calm and help my family as well as the others who were injured. Remarkable as it seems now, an hour and a half after the tsunami stuck, all members within our immediate circle had seen a private medical doctor who dressed wounds, stitched deep cuts, gave tetanus jabs and medication. The village undertaker, who prepared my brother’s body, had burned all his clothes fearing infection and had found my car keys among the ashes. With practices like this, the country recorded no additional deaths because of tsunami related diseases or delayed medical treatment.

Cresenta Fernando, Economist, World Bank Sri Lanka Office

Cresenta Fernando, Economist, World Bank Sri Lanka Office

The World Bank office in Colombo too took a heavy blow with the loss of Cresenta. He was not only the clever economist; he was a much loved and admired co-worker. His wife Ariele Cohen survived but Cresenta’s body was never recovered. A poignant memorial service was held in Cresenta’s office and I remember his father stretching out his arms and telling me “I wore his clothes – shirts, trousers and even his shoes to make believe he is close to me.”

Rocio Castro, WB's Lead Economist in Sri Lanka, comforts Ariele, Cresenta's wife. His sister, neice, and parents are next to Ariel. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

Rocio Castro, WB’s Lead Economist in Sri Lanka, comforts Ariele, Cresenta’s wife. His sister, neice, and parents are next to Ariel. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva

 

This period also brings to mind support I received from the then Country Director Peter Harold and the South Asia External Affairs Advisor Dale Lautenbach. I got back to work 7 days after the tsunami and that period was a roller coaster where communications were concerned. I would often find Peter standing at the door to my office around 3 pm, urging me to stop work and go home early.

Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe 22.8.22-17.1. 2014 Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Garlanded photos at the funeral of my mother Manel Chitra Kirtisinghe. On the left as a young mother and the one on the right celebrating her 90th birthday.
22.8.22-17.1. 2014
Photograph© Chulie de Silva

I didn’t expect my mother to survive 6 months after the tsunami without her favourite son but she did live to celebrate her 91st birthday and for another six months more, surrounded by a caring family retinue and an extended network of family, friends and neighbhours.

My brother Prasanna and I. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 1950's. Photograph by M.W. Indrasoma (Wimalatissa mama).

My brother Prasanna and I. Siriniwasa, Hikkaduwa. circa 1950’s. Photograph by M.W. Indrasoma (Wimalatissa mama).

As I write my film reel rewinds: I am on a mat on the hard floor in Upal Soysa’s house we sought refuge and every bone in my body aches. My mind is flooded with memories from the happy childhood days, to the last conversations I had with Prasanna, minutes before the tsunami stuck. I am terrified to shed even one tear, fearing that I might not be able to stop. Bats cry, an owl hoots and the smell of a dead rat on the roof somewhere comes with the changing wind.  To keep my sanity I repeat over and over a phrase I learned from my father “even this day will pass into memory.” Daylight was a long way coming.

When we gather for Prasanna’s memorial on the 10th anniversary, Cresenta too will be remembered.  No doubt I will be swamped with memories but then as my mother said, “What you deeply in your heart possess, you cannot lose by death

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Unboxing the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004

  1. God bless to all and your mother’s quote will now stay with me.  Best in 2015 Bill William B. ReinckensStrategic Communications Specialist C:301-233-9549  R:301-496-0416

  2. Dear Chulie, thank you for again sharing your memories of your beautiful family and this tragic incident which caused such deep pain and loss. We never tire of seeing images of your lovely mother, your smiling brother, or adorable little you. And thank you, too, for including the images and references to our wonderful friend Cresenta.

    Thinking of you especially at this time, Jan and Peter

  3. Chulie, first let me say that I did not know that Manel has passed away till I read this. Please accept my belated sympathies. I am sorry I missed the notices and the funeral. Your article stirs memories as only old ‘Hikkaduwians’ will know. Those memories of going by train, the unforgettable railway station and the old town, the fish market, the beach, the smells associated with all these, the people we knew – are now precious memories. Never to come again, just like our lives, our childhood ………..

    Sorry if I sound like an old crony crying for the bygones.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s