Capturing Nature’s Fury: Revisiting Asian Tsunami memories through photographs

Tsunami survivors look at an lbum of family photos in Telwatte, Sri Lanka - Photo by Shahidul Alam

Today marks the 6th anniversary of the Boxing Day Tsunami of December 2004. The occasion is being marked solemnly in many locations hit by the waves all along the Indian Ocean rim countries.

Among them is Peraliya, close to Telwatte, where the worst train crash in railroad history occurred that day — when an overcrowded passenger train was destroyed on a coastal railway in Sri Lanka by the tsunami. The government-owned Sri Lanka Railways will never be able to live down their day of infamy when a packed train headed to disaster with no warning… They have the gumption — and insensitivity — to operate a memorial train today along the same path that led more than 2,000 passengers to a watery grave six years ago.

After six years, most survivors have moved on and rebuilt their shattered lives. Memories are also beginning to fade a bit, but for those directly affected, they will remember 26 December 2004 for the rest of their lives. And we who shared their tragedy and misery will keep reliving the memories through photographs, videos and the growing body of creative writing that the region-wide disaster inspired.

Photographs stand out as possibly the most enduring memory aids of a disaster. As disaster survivors sift through what is left of their homes, family photo albums are among the most cherished possessions they seek to recover. Why are snapshots of frozen moments so powerfully evocative to individuals, communities and the world?

I posed this question in the introductory blurb I wrote for my friend Shahidul Alam‘s chapter on disasters and photography in our 2007 book, Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.

Titled Capturing Nature’s Fury, the chapter drew on Shahidul’s experiences not only with the tsunami, which he covered in Sri Lanka, but also the earthquakes in Bam, Iran (December 2003) and Kashmir (October 2005), and cyclones and floods in his native Bangladesh.

Shahidul Alam. Photo: Rahnuma Ahmed/Drik/Majority World
Describing the circumstances of the above photo, Shahidul wrote: “In the ruins of Telwatte, where the fateful train disaster had taken place, I came across a family that had gathered in the wreckage of their home. I wanted to ask them their stories, find out what they had seen, but stopped when I saw them pick up the family album. They sat amidst the rubble and laughed as they turned page after page.”

Zooming out, he further reflected:

“I had seen it before. As people rummaged through the ruins of their homes, the first thing they searched for was photographs. Years earlier at a disaster closer to home, I had photographed a group of children amidst the floods of 1988. The children insisted on being photographed. As I pressed the shutter, I realised that the boy in the middle was blind. He would never see the photograph he was proudly posing for. Why was it so important for the blind boy to be photographed?

“Though my entry into photography had been through a happy accident, my choice of becoming a photographer had been a very conscious one. Having felt the power of the image I recognised its ability to move people. The immediacy of an iconic image, its ability to engage with the viewer, its intimacy, the universality of its language, means it is at once a language of the masses, but also the key that can open doors.

“For both the gatekeepers and the public, the image has a visceral quality that is both raw and delicate. It can move people to laughter and to tears and can touch people at many levels. The iconic image lingers, long after the moment has gone. We are the witnesses of our times and the historians of our ages. We are the collective memories of our communities.

“For that blind boy in Bangladesh and for the many who face human suffering but may otherwise be forgotten, the photograph prevents them from being reduced to numbers. It brings back humanity in our lives.”

Read the full chapter: Capturing Nature’s Fury, by Shahidul Alam

Photographer Chuli de Silva’s memories of the Tsunami, recalled six years later

Dec 2007: Asian Tsunami: A moving moment frozen in time

Asian Tsunami+5: How a packed train headed to disaster with no warning…

Scene of Peraliya train disaster - in Dec 2005 and Dec 2009 - Photos courtesy AFP

We tend to think of trains and railways as solid, tough objects. When the Asian Tsunami’s killer waves started rolling in without warning, the coastal residents of Telwatte and Peraliya areas in southern Sri Lanka thought a passing train offered them relative safety. They were dead wrong…

The train’s many tons of steel were no match for the enormous seismic energy that the sea waves were transmitting that day. There is no precise estimate of how many people perished on that train, ironically named Samudra Devi (Queen of the Sea) on the morning of 26 December 2004. The estimate ranges between 1,500 and 2,500 – some bodies were never recovered and washed into the sea. They joined a total of nearly 40,000 people dead or missing in Sri Lanka.

This is how the Wikipedia introduces the incident: “The Queen of the Sea rail disaster, the greatest train crash in railroad history, occurred when an overcrowded passenger train was destroyed on a coastal railway in Sri Lanka by the tsunami which followed the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake. Up to 2,000 people were killed, making it the world’s worst railway accident and eclipsing the previous record set by the Bihar train disaster in India in 1981, when a train had derailed and fell off a bridge, drowning about 800 people.”

Peraliya, scene of world's biggest train disaster
My friend Chanuka Wattegama, engineer turned ICT researcher, has done a detailed analysis of how and why no early warnings were issued anywhere in Sri Lanka that day, thus allowing many preventable deaths to occur. The tsunami, though extremely forceful, impacted only coastal areas and rapid evacuation could certainly have saved lives. He summed up his findings in a chapter on the subject he wrote for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book that I co-edited with Frederick Noronha two years ago.

This is what he says about the train tragedy, which sounds every bit gripping like a disaster movie script (but alas, was every bit real):

The railway authorities realise that one of their trains is moving down south, towards a risk prone area. They attempt to call the railway stations en route. The train is parked at the Ambalangoda railway station, when the station master’s phone rings constantly. Nobody answers it. Both the station master and his deputy are busy supervising the unloading of some goods from the train. By the time they receive the message, the train had already left the station. They do not have any way of issuing a warning, as the engine drive does not have a mobile phone.

“The train stops sometime later, in the middle of a village that had already been hit by the first waves. Those who are running for their lives assume the train to be a shield against the waves. They are wrong. The next waves hit the train, carrying it away like a child’s toy. The railway tracks get crumpled like a Möbius strip. If it can be called a railway accident, this would have been the worst train accident the world had ever witnessed. It alone costs more then 2,500 lives. Perhaps many of those lives could have saved if only the engine driver has been given a mobile phone.

We didn’t hear of any responsible official resigning or being sacked even after such massive bungling. But now Sri Lanka Railway has the dubious distinction of allowing the biggest train disaster to happen, which could have been prevented with quick thinking and action. Think about this before you next board a train anywhere in Sri Lanka…

Read full chapter: Nobody told us to run, by Chanuka Wattegama

Peraliya train disaster - photo by Shahidul Alam, Drik