Can cricket unite a divided Sri Lanka? Answer is in the air…will it be caught?

Boys playing cricket on tsunami hit beach in eastern Sri Lanka, January 2005 (photo by Video Image)

Two boys playing cricket on a beach, with a makeshift bat and wicket. What could be more ordinary than this in cricket-crazy Sri Lanka, where every street, backyard or bare land can host an impromptu game?

But the time and place of this photo made it anything but ordinary. This was somewhere along Sri Lanka’s east coast, one day in mid January 2005. Just a couple of weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami had delivered a deadly blow to this part of the island on 26 December 2004.

My colleagues were looking for a survivor family whose story we could document for the next one year as part of the Children of Tsunami media project that we had just conceived. On their travels, they came across these two boys whose family was hit hard by the tsunami: they lost a sibling and their house was destroyed.

They were living in a temporary shelter, still recovering from the biggest shock of their short lives. But evidently not too numbed to play a small game of cricket. Perhaps it was part of their own way of coping and healing.

More than six years and many thousand images later, I still remember this photo for the quiet defiance and resilience it captured. Maybe that moment in time for two young boys on a devastated beach is symbolic of the 20 million plus men, women and children living in post-war Sri Lanka today.

We are playing cricket, or cheering cricket passionately and wildly even as we try to put a quarter century of war, destruction and inhumanity behind us. And at least on the cricket front, we’re doing darn well: the Sri Lanka national team beat New Zealand on March 29 to qualify for the ICC Cricket World Cup finals on April 3 in Mumbai.

We’ve been here once before – in March 1996 – and won the World Cup against many odds. Can we repeat or improve that performance? We’ll soon know.

Of course, rebuilding the war-ravaged areas and healing the deep-running wounds of war is going to be much harder than playing the ball game.

My friends at Groundviews is conducting an interesting informal poll: World Cup cricket aiding reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Fact or fiction?

A few days ago, Captain of Lankan cricket team Kumar Sangakkara described post-war northern Sri Lanka as a scene of devastation after paying his first visit to the region. People of the north have been deprived for 30 years of everything that is taken for granted in Colombo, he told the media.

He toured the north with team mate and wiz bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, who is patron of the Foundation of Goodness. The charity, itself a response to the 2004 tsunami, “aims to narrow the gap between urban and rural life in Sri Lanka by tackling poverty through productive activities”.

Earlier this month, Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka wrote a highly moving essay in the London Observer titled ‘How cricket saved Sri Lanka’. The blurb read: “As co-host of the current World Cup, Sri Lankans are relishing their moment on the sport’s biggest stage. And no wonder. For them, cricket is much more than a game. After years of civil war, the tsunami and floods, it’s still the only thing holding their chaotic country together.”

In that essay, which is well worth a read, he noted: “Many of us believe in the myth of sport; some more than others. Clint Eastwood and Hollywood have turned the 1995 Rugby World Cup into a sport-conquers-apartheid fantasy in Invictus. CLR James believed cricket to be the catalyst for West Indian nationalism. A drunk in a Colombo cricket bar once told me that Rocky IV had hastened the fall of the Soviet Empire.”

He added: “Let’s abandon the myths for now. Sport cannot change a world. But it can excite it. It can galvanise a nation into believing in itself. It can also set a nation up for heartbreak.”

Cricket has indeed excited the 20 million Lankans from all walks of life, and across the various social, economic and cultural divides. It has rubbed off on even a cricket-skeptic like myself.

We will soon know whether the Cricket World Cup will be ours again. Whatever happens at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on April 2, we have a long way to go on the road to recovery and reconciliation.

Colombo, 29 March 2011: When Sri Lanka beat New Zealand to qualify for Cricket World Cup 2011 Finals

Asian Tsunami+5: Revisiting survivor Heshani Hewavitharana of Sri Lanka…

Heshani in Feb 2005: Creative and reflective - Photo courtesy TVEAP

Heshani Madushika Hewavitharana, 13, was an eager student in school who also excelled in creative writing, in which she’d won certificates and awards. All of these, along with her school books and everything else her family owned, was lost in the Asian Tsunami of 26 December 2004. Their beach front house, in Suduwella in Sri Lanka’s southern district of Matara, was badly damaged. They escaped with their lives — and were among the luckier ones.

When we found Heshani and family a few weeks after the tragedy, they were taking refuge in a friend’s house. Her fisherman father could not immediately return to his work without his boat and gear, also washed away by the waves. The family was living on the mother’s meagre income from spinning coir ropes.

Despite their plight, Heshani and family agreed to participate in the Children of Tsunami media project, where local film crews in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand tracked how eight survivor families were rebuilding their lives and livelihoods after the Asian tsunami disaster.

We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in these worst affected countries for one year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

Watch Heshani’s first monthly video update, February 2005:

Not all our participating families recovered from the tsunami’s mighty blow within one year, but we ran out of money and had to stop capturing their stories by the end of 2005, which I called Asia’s longest year. In a goodbye tribute to the courage and resilience of these families, I wrote in December 2005: “Our journey with the eight families ends with the first anniversary. We know their own journeys to recovery are far from finished. We can only wish them well.

Heshani in Nov 2009 - Courtesy Xinhua
Since then, I have often wondered how the eight children were faring. (In March 2007, it suddenly became seven when the Theeban, the boy in Sri Lanka’s east whose story we tracked, was brutally murdered.) However, I have resisted the temptation to revisit the children as I felt we had been intrusive enough already during that first difficult year after the tsunami. They must now be allowed to continue their lives in private.

Yet, I was intrigued by a recent report where two correspondents working for the Chinese news agency Xinhua, Chen Zhanjie and Liu Yongqiu, tracked down Heshani and family. They wrote a story on Xinhua’s website for the Universal Children’s Day in November which focused attention on the protection and welfare of children. Heshani is now 17, and her younger sister Dimalka, 12. Already having passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam, Heshani is now preparing for her Advanced Level exam slated for August 2010.

While Dimalka aspires to be a doctor, Heshani wants to become a banker. Their father believes the tragedy has added a new dimension to the girls’ lives: “They have leant their responsibilities from the tsunami. Now the two girls have no fears.”

Read the full story on Xinhua website: From tsunami to trauma to trek ahead

Remembering the Children of Tsunami, four years later…

Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam
Jantakarn Thep-Chuay, known as Beam

For many weeks, Jantakarn Thep-Chuay — nicknamed Beam -– did not understand why her father was not coming home. The eight-year-old girl, in Takuapa in Thailand’s southern district of Phang Nga, had last seen him go to work on the morning of 26 December 2004.

“On that Sunday, the day there was a wave, my dad wore his tennis shoes,” she recalls as she gets into his pair of sandals. “My dad didn’t have to do much work — he just walked around looking after workers.”

Beam’s father Sukaroak –- a construction supervisor at a new beach resort in Khao Lak –- was one of thousands of Thais and foreign tourists killed when the Asian Tsunami hit without warning. His body was never found.

For months, Beam would draw pictures of her family. These, and family photos of happier times, helped her to slowly come to terms with what happened.

The first year was long and hard for the family Sukaroak left behind: Beam, her two-year-old brother Boom, and mother Sumontha, 28. The determined young widow struggled to keep home fires burning -– and to keep her troublesome in-laws at bay.

As if that were not enough, she also had to engage assorted bureaucracies: even obtaining an official death certificate for her late husband entailed much effort.

Just a few weeks after the disaster, the local authorities approached Sumontha suggesting that she gives away one or both her children for adoption. Apparently a foreigner was interested. She said a firm ‘No’.

“Her dad wanted Beam to become an architect. He was hoping for a day when he could build something she draws,” says Sumontha. “If I am still alive, I want to raise my own children. I am their mother. For better or worse, I want to raise them myself.”

The Tsunami destroyed Beam’s school, but she continued to attend a temporary school set up with local and foreign help. Before the year ended, she moved to a brand new ‘Tsunami School’ that the King of Thailand built to guarantee education for all children affected by the disaster.

Sumontha, Beam and Boom are three ordinary Asians who have shown extraordinary courage, resilience and resourcefulness as they coped with multiple challenges of rebuilding their lives after the Tsunami. Theirs is one of eight families that we followed throughout 2005, under our empathetic communication initiative called Children of Tsunami: Rebuilding the Future.

It was a multi-country, multi-media project that tracked how ordinary Asians rebuilt their lives, livelihoods and futures after one of the biggest disasters in recent years. We at TVE Asia Pacific documented on TV, video and web the personal recovery stories of eight affected families in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand for a year after the disaster. Our many media products — distributed on broadcast, narrowcast and online platforms -– inspired wide ranging public discussion on disaster relief, recovery and rehabilitation. In that process, we were also able to demonstrate that a more engaged, respectful kind of journalism was possible when covering post-disaster situations.

where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005
Four countries, eight locations: where Children of Tsunami stories were filmed for much of 2005

Meet the Children of Tsunami

They have never met each other. Yet they were united first in grief, then in survival. Five girls and three boys, between 8 to 16 years of age, living in eight coastal locations in four countries. Their families were impacted by the Asian Tsunami in different ways. Some lost one or both parents -– or other family members. Some had their homes or schools destroyed. Others found their parents thrown out of a job. During the year, these families faced many hardships and challenges in rebuilding their futures.

These remarkable children were our personal heroes for 2005:
Selvam, 13, Muzhukkuthurai, Tamil Nadu state, India
Mala, 11, Kottaikkadu, Tamil Nadu state, India
Putri, 8, Lampaya, Aceh province, Indonesia
Yenni, 15, Meulaboh, Aceh province, Indonesia
Heshani, 13, Suduwella, southern Sri Lanka
Theeban, 14, Karaitivu, eastern Sri Lanka
Bao, 16, Kuraburi, Phang Nga district, Thailand
Beam, 8, Takuapa, Phang Nga district, Thailand

With their trust and cooperation, we captured their unfolding realities unscripted and unprompted.

Read and experience much more on the Children of Tsunami dedicated website

Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri only a memory
Filming with Theeban in eastern Sri only a memory

As I recalled in early 2007, when we tragically lost one of eight survivor children – Theeban – to Sri Lanka’s civil war: As journalists, we have been trained not to get too attached to the people or subjects we cover, lest they affect our judgment and dilute our objectivity. The four production teams involved in Children of Tsunami initially agreed to follow this norm when we met in Bangkok in early 2005 for our first (and only) planning meeting. We also resolved not to reward our participating families in cash or kind, as they were all participating voluntarily with informed consent.

“But the ground reality was different. 2005, Asia’s longest year, wore on. As survivors slowly patched their lives together again, our film teams found themselves becoming friends of families or playing Good Samaritan. Sometimes our teams would find a survivor family close to starvation and — acting purely as human beings, not journalists — they would buy dry rations or a cooked meal. At other times, finding the children restless or aimless, they would buy them a football, kite or some other inexpensive toy that would produce hours of joy and cheer.

“As commissioners and publishers of Children of Tsunami stories, we didn’t object to these acts of kindness. Journalism with empathy was far preferable to the cold detachment that textbooks recommend.

In 2007, my colleague Manori Wijesekera – who served as production manager of this challenging effort – and I wrote up our definitive account of the project for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book. That chapter can be read online here.

Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues
(25mins) was the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. It can be viewed online at the Children of Tsunami website.

Children of Tsunami: No More Tears (25 mins) was the shorter version of the end-of-year film that captured the highlights and ‘lowlights’ of our families’ first year following the disaster. We co-produced it with the Singapore-based regional broadcaster Channel News Asia.

Watch the first few minutes on YouTube:

All images courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Children of Tsunami go to Washington DC


I was at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC on Friday, 16 March 2007, introducing our documentary film, Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues.

This was part of the 15th Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, held at multiple venues showcasing a total of 115 films from all over the world. Good friends at the World Bank had recommended and sponsored the screening of our film.

Despite rains lashing the US capital and in the freezing cold, close to 80 people turned up to see the film, which was very encouraging. The compact auditorium was virtually full, and practically everyone stayed for the entire one and a half hour event. At the end, many of them made supportive remarks or asked good questions. It was very gratifying to present our work to such an appreciative audience.

Nalaka Gunawardene introducing Children of Tsunami

Introducing the film, I said:

“Children of Tsunami is different from most other films in this festival. It’s not an environment film, nor is it a wildlife film. Yet it’s all about wild…life!

This film is about the aftermath of a mega-disaster, when life itself went wild, shattering the futures of hundreds of thousands of people across South and
Southeast Asia.

The Asian Tsunami of December 2004 triggered one of the biggest humanitarian relief efforts in history. It also inspired an unprecedented volume of donations and aid to the affected countries and people.

Our film begins when the media frenzy had begun to die down. We take over after most news cameras left the scene.

Indeed, Children of Tsunami started out in some anger and frustration. We were deeply concerned that most news media coverage focused on death and destruction, or doom and gloom. For sure, it was a large scale tragedy, but there were stories of courage and resilience, which we felt didn’t get the coverage they deserved.

In most post-tsunami media coverage, the affected people were portrayed as ‘victims’ rather than survivors. They were also reduced to nameless, faceless statistics. Whole countries or regions were reduced to simple blips on a map.

And then, after a few days and weeks of saturation coverage, the news media started to move on to other breaking stories. That’s the nature of our media.

But we who live and work in Asia knew the story was far from over. We knew the recovery stories would unfold for months and years to come. We wanted to keep these stories alive. We were keen to stay and move with the stories.

So in mid January 2005, we started the Children of Tsunami media project….”

Here’s the text of my full remarks:

Introducing Children of Tsunami at DC Environmental Film Festival, 16 March 2007

See synopsis at the film festival website

Visit Children of Tsunami website where you can watch this film – and many other related films – online