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2004 Tsunami


My TSUNAMI story. Jan05

My childhood friend was getting married on the night of 26th December 2004. We were enjoying the merriment by a lakeside on a cool winter evening when someone mentioned 'Tidal Wave'. Natural and 'artificial' disasters have become so commonplace that it did not even register a sympathetic break in our celebrations. The full impact of the disaster only became clear when I saw a copy of the Straits Times while returning to Singapore on the 28th. 


I needed to do something almost as if to drown the guilt of being so happy while so many cried. The fund-raising started immediately, I have the advantage of knowing a pool of generous friends who support my aid organization in India. So with blind trust they donated to my fund. I knew good colleagues already working in Aceh and Sri Lanka so my destination became Southern India. I flew into Chennai on the 2nd Jan 2005 with money, water purification tablets, 6 cartons of chocolate and 2 bags of old clothes. 


The first day was spent with an organisation already doing relief work in Chennai. I realized that in metropolitan areas the victims had enough aid and relief, if I were to see the real damage; I had to go to Nagapattinam-300 KM south. 


I rented a car. Babu the driver is a gem of a man, moreover he spoke the language. Our journey took us south along the coastal highway. Little fishing villages had disappeared to be replaced by tacky colourful plastic tents. Lakes had appeared far from the sea shore and there was a heavy weight of grief that I could feel from the faces that I passed. It was surreal- the day was beautiful yet so ugly. I stopped at a little town called Pondicerry- famous for its ascetic lifestyle. The signboards said 'www.Pondicerry.calm'. 


People speak French, there are cafes, spas and ashrams but we were here to spend money on other things. Babu took me to this tiny shop; we loaded our Ambassador car with blankets, sarees and sarongs (called loongis). With every inch of our car utilised we once again took the road south. We travelled through the night. I had not seen such a beautiful sky dotted with twinkling stars yet I felt overpowered by a sense of doom. I imagined gigantic waves coming to engulf us from the darkness of the sea-shore. That is exactly what happened to the residents of the tiny villages that we were passing. 


We arrived in Nagapattinam at 6 AM. Nothing prepared me for the scene. I have seen poverty, disease, even violence. The whole area was reduced to a wasteland- muddy, littered with debris and an unholy white powder sprinkled on the surface to disinfect the area. Fires burnt unceasingly, devouring what the waters had left behind. 


There was no emotion because I did not know what or how to feel. At one point I saw 6 or 7 boats piled on top of each other next to an overturned, brilliant yellow truck. I felt as if I was in an outdoor gallery where an artist had created a piece of modern art. Except the smell, I don't know that smell but I felt its evil intentions. And the sounds- a mother's tears and cry for a missing child transcends language and cultural barriers. I am a father, I recognised it. 


I went from camp to camp distributing what I had. One camp was run by this young man. He had a hand-written list of 360 families in his care. People were moving from camp to camp to search for missing relatives. He was helping to make the process easier. I left the bulk of my things with him to distribute. 


I met a young mother with a little baby, she was searching for her husband and 10 year old child. I gave her some of my money. It wouldn't help her in her futile search but I hoped it would buy her food. But I doubt she even realised what I had given her because she was still rummaging through a pile of debris where her home once stood. 


Even after I came back home friends still added to my fund. I'll use  my registered aid organisation in India- Isonfund Trust to help one mother support her child through childhood and school or perhaps buy new fishing nets and repair boats in a small fishing village.


I met heroes on my trip. Young men and women who have suffered tremendous personal losses yet stand strong to help their communities recover, parents who lost their own children yet find enough love to pick up an orphan, poor families who forgo a meal so they can donate their share to the victims. 


I salute men like Captain Soehardi and Captain Elmo who have jumped in the midst of the disaster areas and laid plans and the foundations for rebuilding- even while governments wrangle and the media judge. 


I returned home humbled.

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