Sunday, July 12, 2015

2015 July 12: Joyous Reunions and Bittersweet Goodbyes

Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap.

Someone was at our gate. Before I could see who it was, I heard squeals of delight and hearty shouts of greeting.

I ran to witness a joyous reunion.

You see, a couple of weeks after our first trip to the beach where Steve did his PhD research, we went back for another walk along the shore. I suggested to him that maybe we could ask the people who lived nearby if they knew what happened to the villagers who used to live on the beach. We thought we knew what had happened, given the evidence and the news reports, but we wanted to be sure. So, as we were leaving, we passed an old man sitting on the sidewalk outside a nearby hotel. Steve asked him about the villagers, and he responded that he thought some of them were okay. He didn't know where they were or what happened to them, but he thought some of them were okay.

Thus, with that glimmer of hope, we began our search to find Steve's friends.

I asked people as I walked through the streets of Negombo in the early mornings or late evenings if they knew what happened to the people who lived on the beach after the tsunami came. I asked fish truck drivers if they knew what had happened to them. I asked the fishermen along the canal and further along Negombo beach. We asked our driver to help us find them. I received various responses, most indicating that they thought some were okay but had moved 'far inland' and were no longer fishermen. Even our driver indicated that they had moved elsewhere.

But no definitive answers. Except that now we knew that at least some of them had survived.

Last week I again asked our driver if he knew anything, and a couple of days later he told us that some of the villagers might be living in the Tsunami Housing Scheme nearby.

Which took us to Wednesday of this week, when we asked our driver to take us there. As we walked through the complex of four story apartment buildings, Steve listened for any words of Tamil among the many people speaking Sinhala. As we neared the entrance again, he asked someone if they knew if anyone used to live on the beach now lived in the complex.

And someone did.

We were taken to their apartment, where Steve talked with a woman who was just a sixteen year old teenager in 2000-2001. Her mother was not in town, but she said she would let her know that someone was looking for her who thought he knew her.

So there was little question in my mind who had come to our house on Thursday morning as I heard shouts and exclamations of glee and joy and laughter as Steve reunited with his old friend Susila. He spent many hours in her family's house fifteen years ago. When I ran to meet them, I was swept into their arms in huge hugs. She and her daughters were so happy to see Steve and to meet Elanor and me, and she cried when we told her that we thought her whole family had been lost in the tsunami and we were so happy to see that she was okay. She and her daughters then told us what happened on that day and what has happened in their family since.

Susila was fortunate to be in Chilaw - 44 km north - on December 26, 2004. But many other people in the village, including her daughters and other relatives, were on the beach in their humble homes. Pushpa, her daughter, told us how life was just going along as usual on that day...until the police came along with loudspeakers shouting for everyone 'to run for your lives'.

And so, they ran. Part of the warning being broadcast said that a huge wave had already killed thousands of people in southern and eastern Sri Lanka and that there was not a minute to lose. They ran, leaving behind everything they owned, many of them with only the clothes on their backs and their children in their arms. Some only made it as far as the church when the wave struck, and spent many terrified moments praying that they would be safe. The wave crested partly up the brick wall that surrounds the church, flooding as far as the road a couple of hundred metres from the beach, and then receded.

But when they returned to their homes....there was nothing left. Everything had been swept away. Furniture, mementos, clothing, personal items, identification papers, the houses themselves... everything was gone.

Susila rushed back to Negombo from Chilaw, not knowing whether her family was alive or dead. She found them eventually, and was relieved to find her daughters safe even though everything they owned was gone.

When Steve asked about her husband, Ameer, one of the daughters answered, 'He left our mother. He ran off and we haven't heard from him since.' But later, Susila told us that he was in Galle, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, when the tsunami struck, and that neither she, her family nor their friends ever heard from him again. She doesn't talk to her daughters about her husband's likely death and allows them to pretend that he is still alive, because it is easier for them to think he left her than to think about the horror he must have felt as the wave came and everything ended for him.

The local Don Bosco Catholic Church opened its grounds to those who were left homeless by the tsunami. In short order, they and others had built a shelter city consisting of tiny huts, one per family. But living conditions were very crowded and life was very difficult for the people living there, so the Father issued a plea for help. The Italian government responded, and within a year, had built the Housing Scheme for the Tsunami Affected nearby. Susila was issued an apartment there for her, her mother and her daughters.

Known as Boscopura ('Bosco City'), this series of block apartment buildings soon became home to families from all over Sri Lanka who were rendered destitute and homeless by the tsunami. Many people have moved on as their circumstances became better, with steady employment and the ability to purchase or rent their own place again. But more than two hundred families still live there, including Susila. Her neat and tidy four room apartment consists of a large kitchen, a small bathroom, two good sized bedrooms with large beds, and front room that is used for entertaining guests, repairing the neighbour's fishing nets, eating, and sleeping. Her family has also grown to include several grandchildren. At least one of her daughters, maybe all of them, were married to abusive men whom they have since divorced, and they live with their mother again. One daughter works overseas, usually in Saudi Arabia, for two years at a time as a domestic servant, and then returns home for one year.

They still have little. And they still are generous and warm and loving and expressive. And happy. They smile a lot. They laugh a lot. They hug a lot. They have been through hell, but they live as though they are in heaven.

And Susila explained that in a way, they are. They feel that they are blessed to have what they have. From a palm frond hut with a sand floor on the beach to an apartment four times the size with running water and electricity - they are in no rush to leave.

Later that evening we were treated to a wonderful reunion supper at their home, with grandmother and mother and daughters and grandchildren, and neighbours wondering why a white family was visiting them wandering in and out. It was truly a wonderful reunion.

And tonight we were invited back for a goodbye supper. It was bittersweet, having just found them after thinking that they had all been swept away and then learning that most of them, at least, were okay, to now have to say goodbye again. From tears of joy on Thursday, to tears of parting tonight.

But it was worth every tear to hear the joy in Steve's voice as he reunited with these beloved friends.