The anniversary of the tsunami is always a bittersweet memory for me. While I will remember the lives of my family members who passed away on that fateful day, it also serves as a paradigm shift for me in terms of my career and thinking. It is as a result of getting involved in the post tsunami reconstruction that I am on the career path I am on.
I remember writing in 2005, the following:
“Word had come that there was ‘severe flooding’ in the east of Sri Lanka. The date was 26th December 2004…The rest of the day will always be a blur to me stationed in the confines of a friend’s place in Leicester on a snowy Boxing Day morning going on an emotional roller coaster ride as news kept coming in of the tsunami and family members who had been killed or survived. My grandmother had survived the tsunami but we had lost five other members of the family. I think we were fortunate since others lost more. I took one of the first flights out to Sri Lanka as a volunteer for an NGO. After an arduous 12 hour drive to the disaster area, what confronted us was beyond description. I was instantly reminded of a scene out of a world war two movie where a village has been bombed and all the villagers are streaming out with whatever they have, carrying their dead and wounded, houses destroyed, possessions lost. The body count proved greater than the amount of volunteers who were present. On one occasion, they had run out of burial cloth and had to make do with bed sheets and other bits of material. Eventually the number of bodies became so great, that excavators were used to dig the graves and dump trucks were used to bury the bodies. On average, everyone that day must have individually handled 100 bodies, from young children to pregnant mothers to old people. There is something humbling about visiting a refugee camp to hand out relief aid, and the person who receives it is a relative of yours or a friend whom you played with when you were young. How can you explain giving out clothes and food as charity to the people that you know? It is also very distressing. How do you comfort them? How do you explain to your family that some members had to die and others did not? How do you comfort parents who had a choice to make between which children to save? Unfortunately, I was only able to stay till mid February when all excuses for leave had run out and I had to return to the UK. I left with a heavy heart knowing that I was leaving unfinished business behind. By April, I was back in Sri Lanka, this time working for an NGO having packed up my belongings, resigned from my high paying management consultancy job and having put my house up for rent, embarking on a new personal journey of discovery and service as a tsunami programme officer. I would be returning to the land of my father, but not as a tourist.”
Ten years on, it is a bittersweet anniversary, yet how is it best to celebrate such a milestone? It is by reflecting on what we have learned from the event. In speaking to my spiritual mentor, the Secretary General of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (yes, as a Muslim, I have a Christian mentor), he reminded me of one of the lessons that we fail to remember from the tsunami. This in turn reminded me of one of the Chapters of the Qur’an (Chapter 55) where God talks about how He created the earth and its living creatures to be in balance and to “keep up the balance with equity and do not make the measure deficient.” The tsunami in this effect was a reminder of what could happen when this balance is disturbed.
As people of spiritual intellect, it is important to recognize how this balance can be disturbed. This balance is disturbed when there is scant regard paid to relationships between people. When there is a breakdown of human relationships then nature rebels. The tsunami reminded us of the value and vulnerability of human life. It reminded us that we have failed to really take this into consideration in our daily lives. Even though in the early stages of tsunami reconstruction and recovery, people transcended their ideological differences to help one another, this was not sustained and people returned to their silos of individuality.
We have failed to build relationships of worth between people who share similar ideologies to us as well as with people who may be different from us, in other words, to build the relationships of non-discrimination that the tsunami so aptly taught us that we need in order to survive. The tsunami did not discriminate, nor should we.
If after ten years, we have failed to overcome the selfishness that drives our lives and to let go of the opportunity to build relationships, then we have failed to really learn from the tsunami. We can not allow another tsunami to come once again to show us what we have failed to do in our daily lives.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.