The Digital Journalist
Sri Lanka
After the Wave
January 2005

by Elizabeth Dalziel

I thought the day after Christmas would be one of leisure, so I prepared a stack of music CDs to burn on my iPod. Headlines scrolled across the television screen: Sri Lanka was hit by floods.

Since the tropical island off the southern tip of India is part of my territory as South Asia Photo Editor for the AP, I called down to Colombo to check on the reports. By the time I logged on to the AP network to check the wire, the death toll had risen to 120 in Sri Lanka. Within an hour, I was booked on a flight from New Delhi to Colombo.

Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
Gemunu Amrasinghe, our chief photographer in Colombo, was down south to drop off his mother for a big Buddhist holiday in the area and got trapped. I tried to get in touch with Gemunu but he was out of range. A message popped on my computer screen that said he was in a house that had collapsed and might have been hurt.

As the death toll kept climbing, there was news that areas of southern India were also being hit by large waves. Our desk editor Sebastian John was on duty. Gurinder Osan, another New Delhi-based photographer, and I looked at the map to determine which photographers should go where. Our first call was to M. Lakshman, our photographer in Madras, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, and told him to get to the scene.

Gurinder booked a flight to join Lakshman; still no word from Gemunu.

Eranga Jayawardena, another Colombo-based AP photographer, traveled to the closest coastal area and came across with photos that we put out on the wire early, in time for Asian deadlines. AP was the first to have pictures out of Asia, and it showed in the play the next day, when Eranga managed to get 100 front pages with the first photos of the Boxing Day tsunami, one of the largest natural disasters of modern times.

Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
Logistics, mobilizing people and safety are major components of my job. Over the first few days of the unfolding drama, we would have to deal with Gemunu's digital camera body and wide-angle lens being lost to the sea, as well as Gautam Singh's camera also lost to the flood waters in Tamil Nadu. Eranga's camera stopped working and our sat phones would not connect properly to our laptops, forcing our photographers to drive for seven to eight hours in gridlock, back to Colombo to send images to our control bureau in Tokyo.

My first day on the ground in Sri Lanka came some 16 hours later. Pyasena, our trusted driver -- essential in such calamities -- picked me up at the airport with Malaysian photographer Vincent Thian at 2:30 a.m. on Monday. We first drove to Gemunu's house, who had managed to get back to Colombo. He wobbled down the stairs of his home with a bandaged knee that he had hurt when the house he was standing in collapsed. He briefed us on the situation and once again I was huddled around a map with colleagues.

We made a brief stop to buy a generator for backup electricity and set off for Galle, Sri Lanka's largest tourist town in the south. When we arrived about 8:30 in the morning, Vincent and I agreed to go to the hospital in Karapatiya, near Galle, where the bodies from the tsunami were being taken, and meet back at the car in half an hour.

When we walked into the hospital, we had to take care to not trip over bodies; dazed survivors streamed in like ghosts, stumbling through the maze of halls and rooms trying to recognize missing loved ones, or hoping not to.

A loud cry pierced the improvised morgue as a mother found her child, a curl of foam rising from her small, gaping mouth. A woman began to faint as she saw her father with a plastic tube still attached to his throat, a medical attempt to save the drowning man. He was dead.

Gautam Singh made this shot before his camera was drenched and ruined

Photo by Gautam Singh/AP
Vincent and I headed next to the beach, agreeing, as before, to meet in 30 minutes so we could get on the road to transmit.

Boats and cars had been flipped like bathtub toys, onto the road or on top of houses. Sea water had inundated living rooms and shops with mud, leaving furniture in disarray, driving palm trees through windows. In a very eerie way, one could get a glimpse of what people might have been doing minutes before the tsunami hit.

After a short ride along the coast we set up the sat phone and computers to edit and transmit. We managed to get a good signal from a French satellite over the Indian Ocean, but when we dialed up to connect, the line was dead. Murphy's Law: Logistics proved to be more challenging than shooting.

We set off again, back up to Colombo along a riddled road to get images out to the world of the tragedy that huge waves brought to Sri Lanka.

© Elizabeth Dalziel

Elizabeth Dalziel is AP's chief South Asia photographer and the New Delhi photo editor. She has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq.

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