Today is the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which left a trail of destruction in many countries in South and Southeast Asia.
Today we remember those who perished and salute those who survived and endured enormous hardships.
We thank everyone everywhere who donated to help, and curse those who plundered or squandered the outcome of that generosity.
As I wrote in my only published verse, When the Waves Came, written on 28 December 2004 – when the disaster’s full impact was dawning on the world:
When the waves came
Roaring and moving mightily,
Unleashing the power of
A million bombs exploding at once,
They didn’t care
And just didn’t discern
Who or what was in their way.
My basic premise was that the killer waves had been a brutal ‘equaliser’ of all men and women. It no longer mattered on which side of law, morality, economics or social class they stood. This was particularly apt for Sri Lanka, a land divided for a quarter of a century by an armed separatist struggle that has hardened fundamentalist positions at both Sinhalese and Tamil ends of our ethnic spectrum. Towards the end of the verse, I noted:
As we in the aftermath tiptoe
Through endless depressing scenes
Of death and utter devastation
Can we tell the difference
Between Sinhala and Tamil,
Or Muslim and Burgher,
Or soldier and rebel
Or policeman and prisoner
Or rich and poor?
For a few days after the tsunami, there was a flicker of hope that the lashing from the seas might finally convince everyone of the complete futility of war. Political cartoonists in Sri Lankan newspapers were among the first to make this point. One cartoon, appearing two days after the disaster, showed a government soldier and Tiger rebel swimming together in the currents, struggling to save their lives. (Indeed, there were some reports of them helping each other in the hour of need.)
The cartoonists and other media commentators asked a common question: what happened to the land, and the dividing border that both sides had fought so hard and long for?
Alas, what Nature proposed we humans (Sri Lankans) disposed. While the tsunami helped usher in a negotiated settlement to the long-drawn armed struggle in Aceh, Indonesia, it only created a temporary lull in the Sri Lankan conflict. As soon as both sides recovered from Nature’s blow, they were back at each others’ throats again. (This contrast has been studied by various groups – see, for example, the summary of a Worldwatch Institute study Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace).
Looking back three years later, all I can say is that the land killer waves temporarily and forcibly united, killer human beings have managed to divide again for petty political, communal and personal gains.
This boy, Thillainayagam Theeban, epitomizes that bigger tragedy. He survived the tsunami — but not the escalation of Sri Lanka’s ethnically driven civil war, which consumed his life in March 2007.
Theeban was one of eight surviving children – from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand – whose remaining families we tracked and filmed for a year in Children of Tsunami media project, a citizens’ media response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami.
Theeban was murdered by unidentified gunmen who stormed into his ‘temporary’ tsunami shelter on 3 March 2007. The death was linked to political violence that has engulfed Sri Lanka since 2006.
When the shocking news reached us three days later, our Sri Lankan camera team at Video Image and we at TVE Asia Pacific just couldn’t believe it. We were all in tears, and some of us were also angry. Theeban, who survived the killer waves 26 months earlier (but lost his mom and kid brother in the disaster) suffered many indignities in displacement. And now, he is gone.
We still don’t know who killed Theeban. He was abducted by an armed group sometime in 2006, from whom he escaped in early 2007. It is believed that Theeban was killed as a punishment for running away — and as a warning to all others.
He was 16 years at the time of his death. It is unlikely that his killers would ever face justice.
As I wrote in my personal tribute to Theeban in March 2007, published by UCLA’s Asia Media and MediaHelpingMedia, UK: “The disaster’s Sri Lankan death toll (close to 40,000 dead or missing) shocked the world when it happened within a few hours or days. Yet, at least twice as many people -– most of them unarmed and uninvolved civilians — have been killed in over a quarter century of fighting. That doesn’t always grab headlines.
“Thillainayagam Theeban has become another statistic in a ‘low-intensity conflict’ (as some researchers call it). And while this war lasts, it will continue to consume thousands of other young lives — a grim roll call of Sri Lanka’s Lost Generation.”
The third anniversary of the tsunami is a reminder – if any were needed – that man’s inhumanity to man is often worse than Nature’s fury.