A survivor's story

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:45

    Editor's note: This letter was written by Varunika Sonani Hapuwatte Ruwanpura, a 27-year-old architect in Sri Lanka, on Sunday, January 2, 2005. The 26th of December 2004 started off as an idyllic day here in Sri Lanka. My husband, Hela, and I set off at 6:45 a.m. for Tissamaharama to visit his mother. We always take the scenic coastal road, as we love the island's beaches. I comment as we drive past Bentota and Hikkaduwa as to how beautiful and calm the ocean is that day. I observe a fine hazy mist on the horizon that makes the separation between the sea and the sky indistinguishable. I have never observed such a mist before and I have driven down this route for the better part of my 27 years of life. Now I realize that this amazing serenity was the proverbial "calm before the storm." We stop for breakfast at Sun and Sea Hotel, Unawatuna — a beautiful natural bay off Galle. The restaurant overlooks the bay. I was just commenting on the magnificence of the reef when everything began to change. The shoreline that was about eight meters away rushed up to the hotel in seconds. The water churned and suddenly washed ashore at tremendous speed. Boats anchored in the bay began washing in and knocking against the sand banks. At first, time stood still and we merely gaped in shock and amazement. Then the tables started toppling as water drove in and ran through the bar and out into the Galle road on the other side. I screamed for Hela to follow me and ran out of the hotel. Hela shouted for other tourists to run across the road to a hill. We got into the car and reversed it out onto the road. Simultaneously, from the corners of my eyes, I see water rushing in from either side of the road. Our car gets caught in the huge waves and is raised up about three meters off the ground. Water rushed into the vehicle at frightening speed. I scream in terror and try to keep my head above the water now in the car. "Let's get out!" I scream, but Hela's door jams. I bang with my elbow and open my door and swim out into the water with Hela behind me. Once I am out water engulfs me and the current is too strong for me to swim. Hela holds me and pushes me forward towards a retaining wall on the land side. He tells me to hold on to this wall and try to get on top of it. I desperately try to hold on but all I can reach is grass that tears off. Then, a man comes running down and pulls me up onto the higher ground. Hela cannot get near it, as a floating lamppost bars his chest. I scream for the man to help him and he runs back and pulls him up too. He shouts for us to run up the hill towards safety. The water rushes back to the ocean at twice the speed at which it came ashore. People walk around in a daze. We hesitantly go back in search of our car. Buildings have collapsed; fish flounder on dry land, my husband's body is covered with strange small animals. There is no Galle road any more; it is an endless scene of death and destruction. We have no shoes, no cell phones, and no money. We find our car full of seawater lying against a house next to the ocean. I struggle in and find a pair of slippers; there is too much broken glass and live wires to walk barefoot. Hela picks up an old man fallen on the road and miraculously my handbag with all our money is under his cycle! Before we can gather our wits, a great roar comes from the deep sea and the sea rushes in again! This time we don't look back but just run and run and run over walls, fences, drains and gardens uphill to the very top of the mountain as far away from that water as possible. While we run the weak get swept away all around us. Hela carries a little boy who is standing in shock after losing his family. Those of us who survived reached a little temple on the mountaintop. Many are injured or in shock, families are separated and many are dead. Tourists, Sinhalese, Tamil, Christian or Buddhist, there were no differences that fateful day as we ran to save our lives. We stay at this temple the whole day, helping the injured and traumatized without any medicines. The villagers cooked for us. The monks do not eat but give their share for the people. All day survivors trickle in, each with their own tale of horror to tell. Miraculously the phone works and we call home and give our exact location. Our loved ones are terrified. Only then do we know that this is affecting the whole of South East Asia. Strangely this gives us some sad comfort knowing that we are not alone in this calamity. We prepare to stay the night in the temple in constant fear of the water coming in again. There is no way out but to go down again. We fall into an uneasy sleep. At about 11:00 p.m. I hear my father's voice calling Helaka's name and mine as if in a dream. I jump up in bittersweet joy thinking now they too are in our situation. My father hugs me and we quickly go down the mountain in pitch darkness to the coast again. I refuse as I am too afraid to see the ocean, but they coax me on. We climb over the shattered remains of the coastal road for what seems like miles. At last we reach a security post, but our car is driving away. We cry out but it disappears down the road. The security people have sent it to get their food and drinks. They are drunk and dangerous. We sit in fear and finally the car comes back. We get in and drive inland but run out of petrol in an inland village called Udugama in Galle district. A small boutique offers us a safe harbour to park and sit out the night. The night is dangerous with looters everywhere taking advantage of this tragic situation. In the morning we drive home in fits and starts buying petrol from small wayside shops as no station will issue petrol. We reach home by 12:00 p.m. on the 27th of December 2004. As I write this I still marvel at our survival through this harrowing experience. I believe that we lived through the grace of God and the prayers of those who love us. I pray that our story will help the people of the world to come to terms with this disaster and encourage them to lend a helping hand to the countries brought low by this tsunami. The people of South East Asia need the world now, please help them to get back on their feet.