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