The Digital Journalist
Sri Lanka
January 2005

by Gemunu Amarasinghe

Gemunu Amarasinghe's first-person account was originally written for the Associated Press.

AMBLANGODA, Sri Lanka (AP) - The twisted limbs of the frail girl in a blue dress were caught in a garden fence by the sea. She may have already been dead, but no one stopped to check - there was too much tragedy going on all around, as the water kept coming.

When the tidal waves hit southern Sri Lanka, I had gone to the seaside to drop off my parents at a Buddhist ceremony. Sunday was the "Poya," or a full-moon day. We Buddhists believe that Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and died on a full-moon day, so such days are a time for his followers to spend in reflection.

It was after I dropped my parents off at the shrine in Amblangoda and I was driving back to the capital, Colombo, that I got a message on my cellular phone that some parts of coastal Sri Lanka had been hit by unnaturally big waves.

I didn't need the message to tell me. People were running everywhere, and the first waves hit the road. The first waves were not huge, not too destructive. They brought fish to the shore, and people rushed to collect them. Smiling young boys ran with fish dangling in their hands.

Swept away

Photo by Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP
But then another set of waves crashed ashore, much more powerful.

I parked my SUV and climbed on its roof, thinking I was safe there. I started taking pictures - my cameras are always with me in the car in case I stumble across a news picture. But the water kept rising. And rising. In a few minutes my SUV was submerged and I suddenly slipped into the water.

I struggled through the water, joining the crowds running for higher ground, some of them carrying their dead and injured. Whitecapped flood waters raced over the streets and between houses.

I counted 24 bodies in a stretch of just under four miles. Bodies of children were entangled in wire mesh used to barricade seaside homes. Bodies were carried up to the road, covered with sarongs and laid out for relatives to find. Rows and rows of women and men stood on the road, asking if anyone has seen their loved ones.

I was still in a daze, and the enormity of the tragedy still hadn't dawned on me until I came upon the girl in the blue dress, caught in a fence.

It was only when the flood waters began to recede, that it was possible to check and make sure. The girl, who appeared about 4 to 6 years old, was dead.

© Gemunu Amarasinghe

Gemunu Amarasinghe is an Associated Press photographer based in Colombo. His first-person account was originally written for the AP.

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