Two years on, UNICEF staffers describe memories of the tsunami
by Beatrice Progida
“When I arrived at the office that morning, and saw it flooded by at least one meter of water, I thought a dam had collapsed somewhere. It was 10 o’clock in the morning and the news of the Tsunami had not reached us yet. We did not even know what that word meant, then.”
Jude Suthagar is Assistant Supply Officer for UNICEF in the Batticaloa Zone Office. He went to the office that day because his uncle, coming back from the market, had said that the whole area was covered with water. It was a Sunday. All the staff was home.
“Then the people that were fleeing from the coastline area began passing in front of the office. I heard one child had died, and I was shocked.”
But for Jude, and the UNICEF colleagues that began gathering at the office, that was just the beginning of the gruesome process of counting of victims. The Batticaloa District was among the most affected by the Tsunami. Approximately three thousand people died.
On his computer screen, Jude shows the pictures from those tragic days. The wall of the office that had collapsed in pieces, a lobster they found in the UNICEF meeting room, the devastation of the area, Pashanth’s house (one of the drivers) crushed, the body of a woman that came ashore in front of the office.
“That night, a few of us slept here in the office on the second floor. There was so much to do and it was difficult for us to get home. We were all stressed and traumatized. The bodies of the victims kept flowing by in front of our eyes, all day. Luckily, we had pre-positioned some emergency supplies in some Government storage depots - Tarpaulins, mats, medical kits. These proved to be essential in the first days, when all the people affected, and those who were afraid of another wave, had moved to the highest parts of town and were sleeping in schools or in the open air.”
In two days, international emergency relief operations began in full rhythm. The British Army provided precious support by putting at our disposal a helicopter to transport food and material to the areas that had been cut off. It was the first time Jude had traveled on a helicopter.
“I was scared! But we had to reach Kallar, the bridge had collapsed, there was no other way… That was also a time for me to proud to work for UNICEF. I normally sit at my desk most of the day, processing supply requests. In those days, we were everywhere. We were so few and the needs were so great! I know we made a real difference. I saw it with my own eyes.”
Prashanth is a UNICEF driver for the Batticaola Zone Office, Eastern Sri Lanka. On the morning the Tsunami reached the shores of his village, he and his family were getting ready to go to church. Jenny, his wife, was fully dressed and was bathing their one year old child.
“Suddenly, we heard people shouting in the street. When we looked out, everybody was running, screaming that the water was coming. Jenny started running with the baby towards the lagoon, but I grabbed her and rushed them into our van. We drove 100 meters towards the nearest two stories house, and we climbed up on the roof. By that time, the first wave had reached the first floor of the house. We heard the banging of the houses collapsing, of the tin roofs being blown away by the water. The noise was terrible. The water slowly retreated and we had just the time to climb up to a higher roof. There were at least two hundred people there, and the second wave came. Again, the water was all around and we could see people being carried away, screaming. The second wave had been even stronger than the first one.”
Prashanth’s village was among the areas in Batticaloa most hit by the disastrous wave. It lies between the ocean and a lagoon. Although it is a fisherman’s village, most people do not know how to swim. All the houses on the shore were destroyed. To this day, wreckage still bears witness to the force of the water. The temples, the school, the houses close to the beach are a sad succession of brick heaps and exposed foundations.
“In the days that followed, my wife and I slept in St. Michael’s college. We were totally dependant on humanitarian aid. We had no clothes, nowhere to go, no ways to get food.” Prashanth could not work for a month after the Tsunami. He was traumatized, and could not sleep. He would fan the baby and his wife to sleep every night.” I feel so lucky to have worked for UNICEF at that time. The organization gave me some money to start anew. I found a piece of land and built a hut there, waiting for the construction of the new house to start. All my colleagues filled my heart with solidarity. There was even a colleague in Colombo that donated UD$ 1000, anonymously. When I went back to work, the Head of the Office would call me in her office every morning, just to talk. Then, she would call me on the mobile ten times a day and ask me to smile.”
“I worked extra hours, it was never enough. There was so much to do!”. Today, thanks to all his work and to the support of the organization, Prashanth is completing work on his new house, and he is also rebuilding the house which was destroyed by the wave.
UNICEF’s activities in Batticaloa in recent months have focused on supporting the people displaced by the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Government forces. When the security situation allows, UNICEF staffers drive to the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) sites to provide humanitarian assistance. Prashanth is possibly the one amongst us that most understands the importance of our assistance to those families. “ When I go to the camps, I feel so close to those people. I was one of them just less than two years ago. I know the value of what UNICEF is doing, and I feel proud”.