Joe Harbison, Asia area director for the Seattle-based World Concern, journals a day in tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka.

Share story


Joe Harbison, Asia area director for the Seattle-based relief and development organization World Concern, is in Sri Lanka assessing the humanitarian needs of the devastated region. He e-mailed this journal entry yesterday to his colleagues in Seattle, who passed it along to The Seattle Times. Harbison has lived in Thailand for 20 years, directing relief and development aid in Asia and Africa.


If you want to sleep don’t come to Sri Lanka. Coming into Sri Lanka now is like arriving cold in a major theater of war.


Driving down the debris strewn streets you are assailed with pleas for immediate assistance by the poor. Thin arms waving desperately for attention they cry, “Come here, see what has happened to us!”


They call out or pull at us politely with wan smiles of unfathomable sorrow. We go to a few people and listen; patiently they tell their stories. We listen with grave nods, a warm touch on the shoulder (no hugs here) and then move on. It is like being an impotent god as we listen to the prayers of 19 million people impacted by the unimaginable.


Then there is urgent need from outsiders, insatiable for information of what it is like on the “inside.” Radio and TV reporters call wanting to know about the dead. I want to say that we let the dead bury the dead; right now the living must be attended to. I don’t say this but try to keep the focus on how we attend to immediate needs.


The lists and demand for lists goes on: pallets of antibiotics from the U.S. and shipments of essentials — cooking utensils, plastic buckets for hygienic purposes, sheets of plastic for shelter, blankets, etc. — from Bangkok. A drop in a thirsty bucket that swallows up whatever we can supply.


Like the mortal in the movie Bruce the Almighty, it becomes impossible to shut out the desperate pleas for help until at the end of the day when sleep mercifully erases the cries, images and starkness of a land under siege from disaster. But only for a while.


Arrival in Colombo

We arrive at our hotel a little south from Colombo, Sri Lanka at 2 a.m. Wednesday. Hotels are packed because tourists who were along the coasts have been evacuated and nearly every room is filled in the city. About 500 tourists are billeted at the National Conference hall in the center of the city. They are everywhere and seem to pass the hours waiting for a flight out, unaware of the maelstrom that rages about them.


After two final calls to and from headquarters in Seattle we are allowed to go to bed but not before we get an urgent plea for an interview from KIRO radio in Seattle. They want to call in two hours but we negotiate for three and so the day begins with a 4:45 a.m. wake-up call and the growing realization that this is something bigger than sleep or breakfast or even toilet breaks. The adrenaline kicks in and the day’s events speed by like the blur in a fevered roller coaster ride.


At the Stromme Foundation, our point of contact and partner in Sri Lanka, we get our first briefing. A map is hastily opened up on the table and we see that the destructive tsunamis have wreaked havoc along the eastern coast from Point Pedro on the northern point of this tear drop island to the coasts of Galle District in the south. Yet even the western shores have been affected, too.


We are anxious to be done with the briefing; we want to go and see for our selves. Our host, Nimal Martinus, Regional Director for Stromme Foundation, graciously offers to drive us to the area of carnage. It is after noon and Nimal apologetically offers lunch, as though we should not think of such things at this hour of events.


Along the way we drive through streets jammed by a procession of cheerful looking Singalese carrying bright orange, gourd-shaped offering tins. “Please give,” they shout, “it is for the victims of the waves!” Every car is stopped and offerings proffered. On many cars white flags are flown. These are symbols of mourning, for the country is under a decree of a four-day time of mourning for the victims. White is a color we see a lot. It is also a symbol of solidarity with those who have perished or have loved ones dead or missing.


We stop numerous times for a procession of white-robed mourners quietly following the remains of a loved one to the grave. The dead man had just finished medical school and was on his first medical assignment to the eastern shores of Sri Lanka. He arrived on Saturday; on Sunday he died along with 40 other promising young doctors.


We follow the coastline south, where the road and railroad tracks cut through a strip of small houses, some wood, some concrete. Along the way we stop for lunch. The former British governor’s mansion sits bright and almost obscenely pleasant along the shore and within view of the destruction. It is now a resort hotel and filled with western tourists. They are lounging around the pool or eating in the elegant dinning room where dignitaries chatted about affairs of the empire. Though the meal is excellent we eat hastily for we know this is an island of illusion and in the water nearby are the people beyond our help.


Approaching Moratuwa, 30 kilometers south of the city, the road changes from that of the normal chaotic traffic to one where people are milling about. Debris is piled neatly and being burned. We are 100 meters from the sea yet the waves rose up and deposited its refuse here, choking the roads until the military was able to clear the highway.


People mill about, still dazed three days after the disaster. They are looking for remnants of their divided lives and especially for those still under the rubble. “They won’t remain here after dark,” Nimal tells us. “They are frightened that the wave will return and take them away.”


First hand stories


The shoreline of Moratuwa is strewn with what looks like mounds of drift wood. A few concrete structures still stand, but everything inside has been pillaged by the sea.


As we drive, people call out to us, maybe because they see our white skin and cameras or because we are in a car that looks like a relief worker’s vehicle. They seem too polite in their grief. We get out and talk with them. Small groups of people, many neatly dressed, offer polite smiles or “hello” and seem anxious to tell their stories.


One man is wearing a tattered shirt and shorts. His dark face is lean and lined from years of hard work, yet his eyes betray character and patience. His name is Tuda and is 63 but looks younger, with wispy black hair and a three-day beard. Tuda has lived here all his life and only recently upgraded his home from a wooden shack to a concrete dwelling. It is on higher ground on the far side of the railroad tracks that follow the coast.


When the wave hit at 10 30 a.m., he was beachcombing along the river south of the train trestle. First it was a curiosity, a four-foot wave that came rushing from the sea and flooded the inland water way. People took note but no alarm was raised. Ten minutes later another wave the same size came rushing in. It was inexplicable; the water never behaved this way before. Then Tuda and the gathering villagers watched in amazement as the waters from the beach drained and began to pile up 200 hundred meters off shore.


Tuda says was a very large and angry wave, not like the clear tropical waves that crest peacefully on the shore. This wave was dark, full of sand and “higher than that electricity pole,” he says, pointing at a 10-meter pole perched at an angle nearby. Everybody ran. They found their way to the top of a three-story concrete building and watched as the wave flattened every building in its path. Vehicles were pushed into the river and a boiling sea rushed over the train trestle . Relief is in Tuda’s voice when he says, “Thank God my family was at home. They only got wet but were not dragged back into the sea like so many others.” He points to a railway crossing sign and says the body of a child, a 9-year-old girl, was snagged there by her clothes.


We meet another man sitting on his motorcycle talking on a cell phone. He looks toward a spit of land 300 hundred meters away, across the mouth of the river. The spit is a bare patch of sand and a few trees. “My best friend and colleague was there with his family,” the man says. “He was the national basketball champion a few years ago but now works with me at the insurance agency. They had just gone to church and were going for a meal at the hotel there.” But where he points there is nothing. The family was wiped out in the third and final wave of that Sunday afternoon. The bare spit of land had been filled with homes and two hotels.


We hear too many stories of sorrow and loss. But also stories of salvation: A boy shielded by a concrete wall that did not collapse. A young man saved by climbing a tree and staying there three hours after having lost every stitch of clothing.


We pass a group of people in front of a home on the east side of the tracks. They are pleasant and obviously happy to be among the survivors. A car, water soaked and damaged is parked among the rubble in front of their gutted concrete home.


“We lost everything, nothing is inside. The waves came in and sucked it all back to the ocean,” one of them says. Amazed we ask how they survived. The mother explains: “We were watching TV and saw that a giant wave had hit Galle, so we all walked down to the shore to see if it was coming here. I was honesty alarmed but my family laughed at me.” . Her son picks up the story: “When mother returned and we had a good laugh at her fears, a four-foot wave hit the shore. It came right to this place and flooded our lane. Then we no longer laughed. Everybody piled into our car. But the lane was flooded and the car would not start. By this time the lane was filled with people tying get out of there. So we pushed the car, thankfully it started and we rushed away to high ground. From there we saw the wave that took away our possessions but not our family.”


As the woman and her son speak, I take note of the faces of the family as they beam in gratitude for having the opportunity to rebuild and live again. Nearby the reconstruction had already begun: On a pile of four broken bricks sits a ceramic Buddha figure with no head, the only casualty of the grateful family.


At the end of the day we find ourselves at the Malamula temple. This temple, like so many churches and schools, has become a sanctuary for people too fearful to sleep by the sea. The grounds of the temple are crowded with 350 displaced people while another 150 are dispersed among local homes. With pride, Nimal tells me how this is the way Sri Lankans help each other in time of need. And with a sweep of his hand he points out the cooperation being demonstrated as clothes are distributed along with other essential items. It was true: Like a Christmas truce in times of war, the disaster delivered a renewed sense of commonality and an appreciation for how vulnerable we are.


The day ends late again. At midnight my son and I say good night. Another phone call at 4:30 a.m. would begin the day on Thursday.