Colombo, Sri Lanka – Joss sticks are lit near rows of bodies. A woman wails for a lost child. A young boy peers into a camera, oblivious to the fact that he has lost his parents in Sri Lanka’s worst natural disaster.
Journalists have been struggling to find politically correct words that would be sensitive in Sri Lanka’s biggest crisis, which has come on top of civil strife and chaos the country had undergone during 21 years of conflict.
Scores of journalists have been affected directly or indirectly by the tidal waves that devoured entire villages and swallowed small groups of people. However, we remain committed to our work primarily because we have grown up in an environment of war, conflict and uncertainty.
Probably one of our main skills, and I think I speak for all local journalists, is that we handle tragedies quite well and propel into action the moment a crisis breaks out. We are like rubber balls; we bounce back quickly after a crisis.
Our coping skills, like any other resident in this country, are remarkable. It’s no secret that Sri Lanka’s economy has had an admirable 4 to 5 percent growth annually in the 20 years of bloody violence, unheard of in any country affected by conflict. This is because of the resilient nature of its people.
Many foreign news agencies have in the past two weeks written or featured widely the ability of Sri Lankans to recover swiftly from a crisis, smiling and being calm, helpful to strangers in the midst of such misery and adversity. The trauma and tragedy that befell more than 1 million people — that’s one out of every 20 in the population — affected journalists and me personally.
I have worked for local newspapers and international news agencies for more than 25 years and have covered assassinations, disasters, carnages, bloody massacres and other trauma-filled events. Such a portfolio of events has provided me an inbuilt immunity to effectively handle crises such as the tsunami.
But some images, though fleeting, will remain etched in our minds for many years. Children crying for their lost parents; scores of cars, buses, trucks floating on gushing waters; vehicles stacked on each other; rows of bodies waiting for mass burials; railway lines torn and twisted; trees uprooted; horror-shock foreign tourists wearing sarongs after losing all their belongings and being helped to relief centers, thousands of victims clutching their most important valuables, including family photographs, TVs, radios and dry rations.
Even for us hard-nosed journalists who have traversed the length and breadth of this country reporting on the war and brutal killing that has cost the lives of close to 100,000 people in the past two decades, it was extremely difficult to sit down and describe the brutality of the surging sea that swallowed scores of people, without shedding a tear or two.
While writing thousands of words describing the tragedy, its immediate aftermath and relief convoys rushing to the disaster areas, I struggled to find time to spend on being personally involved in the relief and rehabilitation effort. Being a (U.S.) country music buff, part-time guitarist and an organizer of charity concerts for the past 16 years for children, I also was on the phone to friends overseas, particularly in Germany, to raise funds for long-term rehabilitation needs. A concert for children with top musicians in the United States and the West to raise funds for needy children and women here is on the cards. That was part of the goal that I set soon after tragedy struck Sri Lanka.
Many writing assignments have sprung up from foreign newspapers, agencies, etc., seeking input on the tragedy. For me, any money earned out of these extra assignments would go to charity and to help victims. Quite a few of my colleagues feel the same and are going beyond writing stories to help this battered country.
Feizal Samath, 51, is business editor of the Sunday Times in Sri Lanka. In a journalism career of 25 years, he has worked for Sri Lankan newspapers and international news agencies Reuters (Colombo and India) and Bloomberg, covering sports, culture, entertainment, courts, politics and business. He has helped raised more 1.5 million rupees for children’s charities via UNICEF by organizing annual country and folk music concerts titled since 1988 through his nonprofit organization, Country Music Foundation.