Boxing Day tsunami: we'll never forget baby in rubble

The aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka.
The aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka. Mark Furler

APN group digital editor Mark Furler travelled to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Ten years on, he shares his most powerful memories.

 

"COME, come, you must come.''

"They have just found another one.''

With those words, I am ushered from a small beach on the eastern side of Sri Lanka up a dirt road to a small 'hut' of rubble.

A local fishing boat owner, who has turned grave digger, hurriedly shows me the latest victim of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami  - 10 days after the waves hit.

In the ruins of a fishing village, I see the body of an 11-month-old girl. She looks like she is sleeping peacefully.

I can't help but think of my own five-month-old baby son, Samuel, back home.

Within minutes, the lifeless body of Alameen is put on a piece of timber, covered in a blue blanket and scurried to the beach as villagers come from everywhere to see if this little girl is one of their own.

Even as they carry her body, disinfectant is being poured into the street behind her as if that will somehow protect the village from disease and death.

Alameen is quickly - and haphazardly identified as someone's child. The mother is at a makeshift refugee camp set up for the hundreds of people left homeless by the tsunami.

There's no time to get her for a final goodbye. Within 15 minutes the baby girl's body is wrapped in a purple sheet, lowered into a beachside grave and covered in sand by dozens of frenetic hands, under the supervision of a Muslim cleric.

A simple white flag is the only memorial to the little girl lost in those freak waves. The grave digger tells me along the coastline in the Ampara district there are hundreds of bodies buried in the sand.

Nearby, in a local church, there are 600 bodies piled up.

Photographer Kevin Farmer and I spent 10 days in Sri Lanka - first covering the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and then returning six months later to report on where the $2 million generously donated by APN readers went.

It was a traumatic - and humbling experience.

Nothing prepares you for driving past kilometre after kilometre of rubble, for seeing huge mounds of dirt covering hundreds of bodies, watching just as many crows swooping and shrieking overhead.

Television images, powerful as they were, did nothing to convey the sensation of driving three hours from Colombo to Galle and seeing nothing but concrete, clothes, fragments of furniture and hundreds of scattered school books.

In Queensland, it would be like driving from Brisbane to the northern end of the Sunshine Coast and seeing home after home flattened, apart from the odd church and building here and there.

Seeing the remains of the Galle train, washed from its tracks a kilometre inland, taking with it 1000 souls, is something that will stay with us forever.

But in it all, the resilience and courage of the Sri Lankan people, also amazed.

Just days after the tsunami hit, they were returning to their homes, salvaging whatever they could and looking to rebuild - as long as it was well away from the ocean.

APN partnered with CARE Australia, setting up call centres at its classifieds in newspapers throughout Queensland and NSW.

As we wrote story after story of the impact of the tsunami, readers donated a $1 million in the first couple of weeks.

That soon swelled to almost $2 million as communities organised fundraisers and kept the ball rolling.

Returning six months later it was easy to see where the money had gone.

Hundreds of homes, which cost just $5000 each, had been built, along with new general stores, fishing businesses, schools and childcare centres.

FLASHBACK: June 2005, Sri Lanka, Shejanu (11) of Karativu talks about her life after the tsunami in which she lost her grandmother, aunts and cousins. APN newspapers featured her and her story six months ago.
FLASHBACK: June 2005, Sri Lanka, Shejanu (11) of Karativu talks about her life after the tsunami in which she lost her grandmother, aunts and cousins. APN newspapers featured her and her story six months ago. Kevin Farmer

In one village, we tracked down a young girl we had spoken to when we first visited in January 2005.

Her beaming smile told the story of new hope in the face of earlier despair.

In a place where many survived on $50 to $100 a month, the generosity of our readers made a world of difference and no doubt continues to do so today.

Shejanu (11) of Karativu talks about her life after the tsunami in which she lost her grandmother, aunts and cousins. APN newspapers featured her and her story as part of an appeal which raised almost $2 million.
Shejanu (11) of Karativu talks about her life after the tsunami in which she lost her grandmother, aunts and cousins. APN newspapers featured her and her story as part of an appeal which raised almost $2 million. Kevin Farmer


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