Tsunami victims still suffering in Sri Lanka

Editor’s note: In mid-December, local photographer Larry Endicott visited the small South Asian country Sri Lanka with his girlfriend, Lauren Chism. He returned with these written and photographic observations. In 2004, a week before the tsunami hit, Endicott traveled to nearby Malaysia as part of a Creative Renewal grant from the Indianapolis Arts Council. Gunasena De Silvia poses in his shack converted into a small convenience store. After being in Sri Lanka for three days, we went to visit the coast of Hikkeduwa. We knew the tsunami had damaged the area, but we didn’t realize the extent. From the road we saw remnants from the storm, boats split in half, property damage. But it was raining and dark. We wouldn’t really get the larger picture until we returned later.

We discussed touring the damage later with our guide and taxi driver, Rajith, mainly to photograph the train where over 2,000 people lost their lives. Our driver cautioned us about going to the area. He warned us that things were really bad and we would likely be swarmed by the victims of the storm.

One man’s story

We spoke with Mr. Gunasena De Silvia. When we got out of the van we noticed that he, like many of the other victims, was living in a shack near the foundation where his house once stood.

We sat with him as he told his story of the tsunami — the wall of water coming from three sides, his wife clinging to a tree and how they survived in a shack built from scrap metal for a month. He talked until both he and his wife were in tears.

A kitchen counter is all that remains of the six-bedroom house he shared with nine family members. He asked us if we were there to build his new home. He now lives in a small shack that a Japanese corporation donated. And he has another small shack where he sells a variety of items to the locals. This is his only income.

These temporary homes built by the Red Cross are still in use in Sri Lanka. While his story was heartbreaking, he may be considered one of the luckier ones, if you can even say that. He had only one family member perish. He sat with tears in his eyes and said, if not for his wife and the children of his lost son in-law, he would commit suicide.

We sat with him and listened to his story and shot photos for about an hour. When we left we gave him the small amount of cash we had with us, about 1300 rupees or $12. It seemed like a fortune to him.

Many people in need

After we said goodbye to De Silvia, we drove down the road about a mile to the site of the train wreck. People climbed on top of the train, trying to get above the rushing waters, only to be swept away and crushed as the tsunami derailed the train. The train has now been placed on a new set of tracks and stands as a memorial of the tragedy.

People gather at the site where 2,000 tsunami victims died standing atop a train for protection. Several train cars from the tragedy remain in place as a memorial. As we examined the train and took photographs, we were swarmed by many people. They came from every direction: men, women and children with stories of their lost homes, children and other family members. We had to tell them that we had no more rupees. We decided at that moment that we would take their names, let the people in our country know about them and that we would send money later.

Our driver translated for those that could not speak or write in English. As we wrote in our journals, others took sheets of paper and used each other’s backs as a surface to write on.

One little boy asked us to send him a volleyball so that he and his friends could play. He said not to send money or they would spend it on food.

As we were taking names, a car approached with bags of groceries and people surrounded it. After the car left, one woman wanted me to take a picture of her and her remaining family members. As she told me about her old home, she led me to a small wood shack built by the Red Cross where she has lived for 10 months waiting for her new home.

Next to the house was a small wood structure the size of a doghouse with burnt wood and a frying pan. This was her kitchen.

What you can do

Assistance the families are receiving now is minimal, although organizations like the Red Cross and UNHCR are providing support. A Sri Lankan newspaper echoed the sentiment we heard from many: Much of the assistance has not found its way to the people. Apparently the government “strongly encouraged” non-profits to give assistance first to people on a list of names that it provided. These were mostly friends and family of government officials, many of whom were not affected by the tsunami.

We hope to collaborate with the Indianapolis non-profit cultural group Primary Colours to collect donations for the 30 families we met who are in desperate need of assistance. We realize the timing is not ideal, both for the story and fund-raising. After the holidays, most people feel strapped financially, but what they may not realize is their pocket change could help feed one of the families we met. One child asked us for 5 rupees — less than half a penny.

If you’d like to help by sending money directly to the 30 families Endicott has met, contact him at larry@modeonephotographic.com or 317-796-4508.