I am an islander. The sea is my home.
I’m 4 years old, and I’m standing waist deep in the shallow surf at Wellawatte, Sri Lanka. I can see my dad, just a stone’s throw away, his head bobbing happily in the waves. I had been told that I could wade only as far as the water reached my belly button, and I was angry about it. I wanted the waves as well. I wanted the sea in all its hidden glory.
I’m 13 years old and I’m standing over my laundry bin, desperately trying to dust the sea sand out of my sports clothes. I know my mom would kill me if she found out that I had gone swimming at Mount Lavinia. A childhood friend of hers had drowned there.
The very next week, however, as I peeled off my morning fitness shirt and ran for the water, her threats were the last thing on my mind. The warmth of the surf and the gentle tugging of the water at my feet were all that mattered. Despite all her fears, I knew that Mount Lavinia wouldn’t kill me. I grew up on that stretch of coast. I went to school by it. I did my sports by it. As a teenager, I sat and drank by it. I lived in those waters. They lived in me.
When tragedy struck Dec. 26, however, I was as far away from Mount Lavinia as I could be. It was my off day, and I had just woke up. Rupavahini, the national broadcast channel, first put the death toll at 150. They weren’t even calling it a tsunami then. The Prime Minister addressed the nation, asking us not to panic. A fellow reporter and close friend called from Moratuwa to say he was fine. I didn’t think much of it.
It was evening when my news editor called me. I was to head off to Matara and Galle the next day. As I went to sleep that night, I didn’t know that my life would be changed forever. I was totally unprepared. I still loved the sea.
Arriving at Matara, I remember walking over the destroyed playground and toward the beach. I took in everything — a bus squashed up against a building, walls shattered and tossed about, sea sand everywhere. Then, as I watched, two men ran in from the beach. They were carrying the body of a little boy between them. A group of people crowded around to see if he was one of theirs. They moved off and left the boy alone once more, his body bloated and white from the water. More people crowded around, each face hoping to find a loved one. I looked at the now calm water, and for the first time I feared it. I hated it.
The voice of my photographer jolted me, bringing me back to my reality. He wanted me to ask the crowd to move away from the boy so he could take a picture. I shook myself. I was here to report. For the rest of the day we went through village after village, interviewing people, taking pictures. Most of them had very little to say. At the Hakmana Road Cemetery in Matara, I remember standing next to the mass graves, notebook in pocket, as body after body was laid to rest. I remember the smell. I remember the sounds of relatives wailing amid the ongoing litany of religious rites. I remember not knowing what to write.
At the Galle Cathedral refugee camp I remember listening to the priests say that people from the surrounding areas had brought clothes and food for the victims. I remember squatting on the driveway in front of the church and listening to the sea bellow, just a few hundred meters away. There, on the 27th night in Galle, in the midst of 700 victims, I prayed for hope. I prayed that God would keep the sea away from us.
During the two weeks that followed, as the death toll skyrocketed and as pledges for foreign aid came in, I discovered Sri Lanka for the first time. From Hambantota to Tangalle, to Galle and Matara, to Pottuvil, to Trincomalee, I walked the tired beaches of my country, my teardrop island. I went not as a reporter, not as an aid worker, but as a Sri Lankan, helping with the dispatch of rations, talking to people, listening. And somewhere among the wailing mothers of Matara and the hard working army recruits in Hambantota, I found hope. This country, my people, were rising up, even out of nothing.
Last week in Kalutara, I sat down by the roadside for a moment to talk to two old men. “The sea gave us everything we had, and the sea has now taken it all away — that is what this existence is about,” they said. They were both retired fishermen.
Now, a fortnight since the waves hit us, I sit here at my computer and write about the disaster. This week, I will go in to work and write copies for the tsunami coverage special. As I do all this though, I long to be out there, walking the miles of coastline and talking to my brothers and sisters who have nothing but each other to hold on to.
Seeing my absence from work during the past two weeks, a friend of mine called and advised me to get my priorities right. “You are reporter, you job is to write,” he said.
Yes it’s true. I’m a reporter, a journalist, a writer.
But above all I am a Sri Lankan. I am an islander, and no tsunami will ever change that.
Sea water runs in my blood, and in the blood of every single person who will sleep out in the open tonight. I will sleep in my bed tonight and maybe even tomorrow. But soon, I will walk those beaches all over again. And as the surf laps at my feet, as the warm sea breeze meets my skin, I will know that Sri Lanka will rise like the tide once more.
Hope on, Sri Lanka. Hope on.
Mahangu Weerasinghe is a freelance writer who lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from working in newspapers, he also writes to several online blogs, including his personal Web site at mahangu.org He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org