It was the day after Christmas 2004. The Christmas joy was still lingering in many Christian houses. On the other hand, Buddhist families were at the temple, as it was the Unduvap Full Moon Poya day. Many people travelled down south for the holiday during the season. They were out on the beaches, playing and enjoying their holiday to the fullest.
While all this was going on, something unusual was happening at the beach. Around 9 am the people witnessed something rare. The water level of the sea was falling and no outgoing tide was responsible for revealing the area that was once under the sea, now opening to the blue sky. Some sea creatures were trying their best to survive from the gazing sun. People were thrilled. They ran out to the point where the water was. The children were highly excited about what was happening. However, the joy did not last long. Within a few minutes, a huge black wall of seawater arose from the sea, covered the people, buildings and everything possible on land.
In the blink of an eye, many coastal cities in the country faced the worst destruction of the century. Around 45,000 people lost their lives, and many became homeless. This year we are commemorating the sixth anniversary of this devastating incident.
Many people still weep for their family members or their friends. They have so many stories to tell. They are ones who suffered so much from this tragic incident. Akila Niranjan, a graduate from the University of Kelaniya is also someone who has first-hand experience of the bitterness of the tsunami. He shared his story about how he lost his best friend from tsunami, with us.
On December 26, 2004, the University of Kelaniya organised a ‘sil’ campaign for their students just before the final semester examinations began. Many students and lecturers observed ‘sil’ on that day. However, Jayalanka, a first year microbiology student, from Matara had other plans. He wanted to go home and see his old parents before the examinations began.
He took the early morning train to Matara to go home, hoping to return the next day. Everything was going smoothly, until the moment his friend received a call from him. He was in a hurry. Since he did not have a phone on his own, he had borrowed a phone from a fellow passenger.
“Sea water is coming to the land. It is flooded all over. We are trapped in the train. But, don’t worry I’m fine”. He disconnected the line. Within a few minutes, the news spread among the batchmates. However, no one thought it would be something more than just a flood. Therefore, they carried on with their program.
“It was a terrible experience. Some people cried when they heard the announcements on the radio. Updates about the tsunami destruction and the National ID numbers of the dead were broadcast all throughout. The worst was when they read an ID number of a dead person; a woman was travelling on the bus to find that person. I still remember the way she cried,” said Akila. “We were depressed just by listening to those stories,” he said.
Akila and his friends checked all the refugee camps for Jayalanka. However, they could not trace him anywhere. “We didn’t know what to do.
Then we went to one of our friends, Poorna’s, house to get some help,” he recalls. “With the help of Poorna’s father we went to Karapitiya hospital. One of the Poorna’s neighbours also joined us. He was looking for his wife.” he pauses. “I was terrified, to see so many bodies at the hospital. The entire place was stinking. Those bodies were beyond recognition,” he added.
The day turned night, and they checked each carcass with the help of a torch. At one point, Poorna’s neighbour said, “Putha, can you direct the torch to that body again?” He saw, it was his wife. He recognised her from the wedding ring. The night passed without any news about Jayalanka. As soon as the next day dawned, they went to Thalwaththa, where the train was.
“When I saw the train, I gave up hopes about Jayalanka,” Akila said and went on to describe the scene. “The rail track was badly damaged and the engine was many metres away from the track.
If the wave was that powerful, how can an ordinary man survive?” They found the National ID of Jayalanka, but not his body. They never found it. As soon as the sea settled, some badly damaged bodies had been buried. Therefore, they assumed Jayalanka’s body also must have been among them.
They went to his parent’s empty handed and held a funeral without a body. “His parents could not bear the news about the death of their only son. Still, when we visit that house they cry a lot. Jayalanka was their only hope.” Akila said. “The year after his death we organised a ‘pirith’ ceremony in the University to commemorate the first death anniversary. He was a great friend to everyone,” Akila sobbed and concluded the story with tears.