Eyewitness account brings the tsunami tragedy home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE TSUNAMI horror will fade from our national consciousness soon. Americans have such short attention spans. The worst of the disaster has already taken up so much of the TV time, with the nightly tally of the dead and the missing quickly replaced by the triumphant vignettes of hope and determination. The narrative arc is playing itself out quickly, at least from this distance.

But it isn't that way up close. Chandra Fernando arrived here from Sri Lanka three decades ago and until a few years ago was education director at Baltimore's Montessori School. The gentlest of souls, she shepherded untold thousands of children here.

When the tsunami hit her native land, she packed her bags and went back to help. The region's destruction has now taken more than 160,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more. On Sri Lanka, an island of about 19 million people, it has taken an estimated 31,000 lives.

Before she left, Fernando agreed to send e-mail messages to an old newspaper friend.

Here are some excerpts:

Jan. 13: "The faces of innocent, beautiful children flash across a TV screen. They do this at different times of the day because they are missing. Forty percent of those killed were children. Their innate curiosity and wonderful sense of adventure contributed to their fate. They were struck by the unusual behavior of the sea and went forward to take a second look. Most of the deceased were the poorest in the nation -- fishermen trying to make an honest living to feed their children.

"Every day we hear of miracles. Toddlers found by relatives, one man who survived 12 days under the rubble. I see hope in the little faces in orphanages. I see a little girl sweeping the front steps of one orphanage. I hear the mischievous laughter of two little boys pumping water to help the families in another orphanage. I tearfully listen to stories of unbearable grief but recognize courage in the human spirit."

Jan. 15: "The coastal towns and villages are so badly damaged that people cannot live there. There were some 700 refugee camps a few days ago but they have been reduced to some 400 now because the people are not used to living in camps. Many are leaving to be with extended families or friends and many have put up makeshift shacks. Camps have thousands of refugees and the conditions are appalling.

"I spent today in the most damaged areas. I visited four camps and saw first-hand the sadness and pain. At one camp I spent time with children. I had to stay strong so as not to sob. Several children wanted to sit on my lap and cuddle. They were around 3 and 4. Some of them could hardly speak properly but told me about how the water rushed so much they fell to the ground. Some were very quiet and I worry about them. I just wanted to take them all home with me. They were so beautiful and innocent.

"I saw the train which used to take me to the countryside in the south. As a child I rode a train, the Southern Princess, to the coast. Today I saw the mangled rail track and the train that carried an overload of families for the holidays. Fifteen hundred people were killed together inside the train, on it and around it. Many on the beach a quarter-mile away had run toward the train to get away from the tremendous waves of the tsunami and were crushed to death.

"I saw the dented and broken train, the mangled track and loads of clothes, shoes, children's backpacks, and even a baby pillow. I can't forget the image of that baby or the children who wore those shoes."

Jan. 16: "During a period of 5 to 20 minutes in some places, whole towns and villages were flattened. There are no buildings left in some of these places, but some of the religious symbols are intact. Temples, Buddhist statues, Christian churches, Hindu temples, etc. stand erect among a rubble of buildings. Also, in one of the national wildlife parks, all the wild elephants and other animals were spared while 200 people perished and only 20 survived."

Jan. 17: "Many of the early camps were in temples and churches. The people sleep in the halls used for religious sermons. Crowded conditions do not give people any privacy. We gave them huge bags of rice and sleeping bags for the children. We felt inadequate. You can't get to a lot of these camps because of damaged roads.

"The need for food, clothing and shelter is so great that you don't know where to begin. Some of the people were quite affluent but are now reduced to begging a meal from the temple. They are embarrassed and have lost their dignity. Even the people who have money can't buy things because stores in those areas are quite empty.

"I got a call from one of my kids in the first Montessori class [in Baltimore] when we had it at Beth Jacob Synagogue in 1973. She is in China and called me about helping out. She will be airlifting toys, school supplies, etc. from China. Just before she hung up she asked me, 'Miss Chandra, do you have enough money to survive? Shall I send you some?' I told her I was fine because my family is providing for me. Then I broke down and cried.

"Today I spent many hours at police stations inquiring the whereabouts of people. By going through hundreds of names of the deceased in just one neighborhood makes you feel so drained because each one was someone's loved one and each was a member of our human family."

Jan. 20: "A grief-stricken country is turning to religion to heal the pain. A big bus has been converted to a 'prayer mobile.' Groups of Buddhist monks take turns chanting prayers for all people -- Buddhists and non-Buddhists. There are special prayers in churches, temples and mosques. In a camp in the south, a 75-year-old monk spends many hours day and night comforting the bereaved with stories of how Buddha overcame hardships. Adults bow their heads in reverence and children listen with wonder.

"Among all this we hear stories of unparalleled valor and altruism. There was a lifeguard at a hotel where I stopped for lunch on my way to a camp. The hotel is on solid rock and overlooks the sea. There were about 60 huts of fishermen very close to the hotel but at sea level.

"The huts and their inhabitants were dragged by the first waves. About 30 children were among them. Before the second wave came in, the lifeguard jumped in and saved people. But he succumbed to the second gigantic wave. Now there is only a heap of debris where once families enjoyed a carefree life by their beloved sea."

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