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Boxing Day Tsunami Anniversary - When the Impossible Became Possible

Tearfund - UK - Wed, 26 Dec 2012 13:07 GMT
Author: Oenone Chadburn
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Looking back, all the days are merged. I don’t remember dates, or days of the week - just onwards from Day Zero.  We were in Colombo when the wave struck and right from the start there was a growing revelation that this was something different and overwhelming.  Within the first hour, my fiancé went to his office at the Sri Lankan Tourist Board, not understanding that the second and third waves were still hitting the shores nearby.  He launched into setting up a crisis operations room from scratch - no template to work from, and no contingency plan had ever anticipated or prepared for this. 

Initially, I felt helpless.  Here I was, a relief and development professional, scared to know where to start.  It’s not often you find yourself on holiday on location of a major disaster event.

In the following hours, I remember my feelings changed from inadequacy to frustration while I scrambled around for information to determine the scale and impact of the tragedy.  I managed to get calls out to the UK to tell family I was alive before the lines got jammed, but I longed for any snippet of knowledge that my friends were safe.  They were scattered from west coast to east coast, both working and holidaying, both Sri Lankan and international.

Over the following 10 days when I did locate my friends, I heard tales that could fill a book – some trapped in floating cars, some swept over a mile inland only to walk back and start work on responding straight away. When I unexpectedly bumped into friends I’d been worried about, we would embrace and share the same words “thank God you are alive”.  The unity of just being present in the country was binding.

I didn’t need to be on the beach to feel a massive sense of grief.  I had worked in Sri Lanka for 5 years, and my fiancé and his family were there. It was, in my mind, my second home.  Later on, I found it hard to be gracious to those who landed in to support the disaster, who had no understanding of the island.  I knew the people, I understood the tragedy of the conflict, I knew intimately a large number of locations which were wiped away – what did they know?   

Sri Lankans are the kind of people who in those first hours started buying out the supermarkets. We didn’t wait for co-ordination.  Large corporates stopped work and insisted that their employees use company vehicles and money to bring supplies to whoever they reached.  On the second and third days, I found myself in a supermarket buying over 100 mens’ sarongs, and pushing trolleys with massive sacks of rice.  I had joined with my local church and with ex-colleagues to do our own distributions, all equally traumatised about what had happened to the country that had stolen our hearts.

My feelings by then had turned to a combination of disbelief and determination.  I visited emergency shelters to listen to the stories of tourists who sat in conference halls with just their swimming costumes, with deep cuts from the debris waiting for their embassy to support them.  I attended all the co-ordination meetings I could find to help build that picture of who was doing what and understand where my skills and knowledge could be best used.  

Soon after, I was seconded by Tearfund, the international aid agency I work for, to one of their local partner organisations.  To have the privilege to work alongside a local partner who had the relationships and the knowledge of the local communities was an honour. The energy, the compassion, the commitment to getting it right and the prayer all gave us the momentum we needed to get through each day.

So when the trailer for the film The Impossible came out earlier this year, I found it hard to watch, even eight years on.  Since that time I’ve been based in Afghanistan and worked on several other disasters and multiple international projects, but the tsunami is my benchmark.  It’s my benchmark for understanding that it should be a priority to listen to disaster affected communities; to realise that psycho-social support is just as important early on as food, shelter and cooking utensils; that communities themselves have the best knowledge for recovery; that local partners are truly cost effective; that all response contingency planning should be born out of good disaster risk reduction and resilience approaches – not as a stand alone humanitarian planning exercise.  Most importantly, an understanding that all aid workers should have a basic knowledge of the culture and the socio-economic and political context they will be working in.  It still haunts me when I remember giving a briefing to a ‘fly in’ altruistic self-financed relief worker who said, “I didn’t realise there is a conflict here - but we are here to respond to the disaster so that won't affect us”.  My swift correction with a strong tirade of supporting information soon subdued him.

We’ve got a family now, and our two little boys will play on the beach in Sri Lanka on Boxing Day this year.  I’ve read my 4-year-old the children’s books written about the tsunami, possibly for my own consolation and emotional processing.

Will something as tragic again hit Sri Lanka? Unlikely. Communities have better knowledge of what a tsunami is, there are better co-ordination mechanisms, much of the recovery work integrated sound disaster risk reduction approaches into their programmes and communities are better prepared.  Will the international aid community become more sensitive to the emotions and needs of local communities affected by disaster?  The jury is out.  But this I know - I will do everything I can in my role as Tearfund’s Head of Humanitarian Support to ensure we build up the local communities and national government’s ability to be able to respond to disasters for themselves.  Because ultimately, they need to serve each other to be able to reconcile their grief.

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