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Monday October 21, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday October 21, 2013 MYT 8:16:17 AM
by n. rama lohan
Lucky (Lakshman Edirisinghe) accepts the good and the bad as part of life.
For a man who lost five family members to the December 2004 tsunami, Boxing Day is a sobering reminder of how fragile life is.
IT seemed like any other normal day, what with the revelry winding down a day after Christmas, but Dec 26, 2004, was destined to be devastatingly different – a Boxing Day that witnessed one of the greatest natural disasters in history.
It was 9am and fishermen by the coastline of Galle in Sri Lanka were engaged in the daily routine of fishing and mending their nets. But the seafront looked disturbingly different. Where the ocean waves usually lapped the sandy beaches, the waterline on this fateful morning had receded several hundred metres.
On the other side of the globe, Lucky (Lakshman Edirisinghe), a Sri Lankan working in the silver trade, was surfing the channels of American cable TV in his home base in Amherst, New Hampshire, stopping at one of the news channels.
About 15 minutes later, the first wave from the Indian Ocean tsunami which flattened Bandar Aceh in Sumatra, raced over a thousand kilometres of open ocean – gaining deadly momentum – before crashing into Galle, destroying everything in its path. But the second wave that rolled over the city’s coast, generated from a 9.1 magnitude underwater earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, would prove the decisive blow that killed 50,000 Sri Lankans.
As the carnage unfolded in his country of birth, all Lucky could do was stare in disbelief at the images before him like it was the most spectacular display of Hollywood special effects, one that would have made the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and Crowe proud.
“I was watching CNN at about 4pm when I saw the news. Many of my friends in America told me to call and check on my family, though I was sure my sisters who were still in Sri Lanka would be unaffected because they lived outside of Colombo. What I didn’t know was, my eldest sister and her family had gone to Galle for a vacation,” related the 52-year-old to this writer who was on a recent Malaysia Airlines-sponsored familiarisation trip to Sri Lanka.
When his two sisters told him that his eldest sister and family were not answering the phone, Lucky feared the worse.
Three days later, he received a call from his aunt. “She told me that they had all perished because it seemed unlikely for my sister’s family not to have made some form of contact since the tsunami hit,” Lucky recounted.
His caring boss encouraged him to leave immediately, but flights to Sri Lanka were fully booked, obviously by families in the United States who had left loved ones behind in Sri Lanka in search of better fortune.
Lucky finally got to Colombo almost a week after the disaster and drove with two friends all the way to Galle, where access to Sri Lanka’s southern capital was cut off. “I knew the by-roads,” said Lucky, who hails from Colombo. As a tour guide, he has a sound knowledge of his country’s landscape.
“Nobody knew anything there and many bodies were taken to the district hospital. We were fortunate to locate my sister’s maid, who told us what happened and said she hadn’t heard from them.”
The maid relayed the horrific tale of how she had remained at the beach bungalow, while Lucky’s sister, her husband, son and daughter-in-law – along with her six-month-old grandson – had gone out to the water’s edge to investigate the strange sight of fish jumping out of the water. After the waves hit, she never saw them again.
“It was a really pathetic sight with dead and decaying bodies all around. My friends and I had to tie our shirts across our noses and mouths because the stench was unbearable. We ended up helping other people there because you just couldn’t ignore their sorrow and pain,” Lucky revealed.
Decaying bodies were piled up high at the district hospital, but after going through them, Lucky could not find his sister and her family.
“More than 20,000 people had died in Galle alone, so trying to find five bodies was absolutely impossible.”
They then shifted their attention to another location where a washed-out building was said to house many bodies.
“I recognised my brother-in-law’s body, and eventually found the rest of the family members. While most of them were close by, my sister and her grandson were further away, but close to each other. The water had carried the baby into a toilet somewhere and he got trapped there,” said Lucky, recalling the grim sight.
Eventually, his sister and her family were buried there, all paid for by the Sri Lankan government.
Lucky even tried looking for his friends, many of whom he had met on his travels around the country. He located some, but not all.
After the waves struck, Galle was without food and water for three days, but eventually, the world responded, and the city was replenished with more supplies than it needed.
“I stayed in Galle for a while after that. I helped with the distribution of food and helped people find shelter. With the government’s aid, I also helped with the rebuilding of houses.”
Lucky returned to Colombo on Jan 7 the following year, where he donated his sister’s house to her parish church to be converted into an orphanage. “There were so many orphaned children, some of whom found adopted families outside Sri Lanka, while others remained there,” Lucky said.
The draw of the land of the free seemed unimportant after the tragedy, and being in Sri Lanka mattered more than anything else. To add to his misery, Lucky had to undergo open heart surgery to replace four valves, not long after the tsunami.
Lucky looks at life as a sequence of events only fate has a hand in. And his impression of death isn’t any different, even when it comes to family: “It’s just something that happens in life. This could happen to anyone, any time and anywhere ... it’s a natural disaster. How do you avoid it?”
Every year on Dec 26, a special mass is held in memory of his sister and her family. “I book that date with the church year after year.”
Boxing Day in most parts of the world is a blurry-eyed affair, but for Lucky in Sri Lanka, it is a sobering reminder of how fragile life is.
He firmly believes in giving back to the world, and it is this trait and his ability to smile in the face of adversity, that make him one of those people you’ll always root for.
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Lifestyle, World, Lucky, Sri Lanka, Galle, Tsunami, People, Lakshman Edirisinghe
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