The Digital Journalist
Village of Lost Souls
February 2005

by Doug Vogt

Heroes and victims need witnesses to tell their stories. One such place certainly had its heroes and victims but sadly almost no one is left to tell about it. I have been a professional cameraman for 25 years and knew well how difficult it is to illustrate scenes of natural disaster.

We arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka December 27th, part of the first wave of those dispatched to scenes of the tsunami, a word many have just learned, a word unlikely to ever be forgotten.

We weren't bringing medicines, food or aid, just our cameras and computers. Like my ABC News colleagues the enormity of the catastrophe had still to sink in and would only begin to when the count of victims climbed daily by the tens of thousands.

The actual event, captured by tourists or amateurs lasted only a matter of minutes. What we had seen when we set off from London was only the beginning of the stream of video that would later surface. We were dispatched to film the debris, the shattered remains of lives that were torn apart in short moments.

Doug Vogt

For a week we had filmed stories of loss, fear and heroism that inspired and shocked us. But nothing that would move me as much as I was about to see in the village of Navaladi, only 300 kilometres from Colombo but 10 hours by pockmarked road.

No one had told us of this village. We hadn't read about it in the local paper or the NY Times.. Even the local aid workers downplayed it when they mentioned it to us. I assume that the week's events had so overwhelmed them and now all they could do was to help those that were alive. The wave must have hit the village of Navaladi with unforgiving force. The palm tree fringed village just north of Batticaloa looks straight east into the Indian Ocean, straight into the waves unleashed over a thousand miles away.

There was no lens to see or a microphone to record what was about to take place.

The light was fading and we debated whether to search for a place to sleep or investigate the village before nightfall.

We parked the 4x4 and walked the last few hundred meters of beach to where the once noisy fishing village was erased from the face of the earth. It was silent, dead, not a wall remained, not a tree, not a bird, not a person. Of the 3000 Tamils living there almost all of them perished in the space of one hour. The only ones left from the village are those who were absent that morning.

All our guide could tell us was that there was once a village here where now only smooth sand remained.

The scene was difficult to capture, even more difficult to comprehend personally. I didn't need to capture a lot of images. The sound or silence, the stillness the lack of movement was obvious to me from the first slow pan of the smoothed wet sand. Often images like this simply need to be seen and not talked about with words that cannot begin to describe.

Silently walking along, trying to convince myself that this was once a village, I spotted, buried in the sand, a small plaster Hindu God from a demolished temple. The God was Viravar, worshiped by Hindus as the protector, himself broken.

As the sun sat and the light faded the only survivors of Navaladi emerged from the coconut groves that fringe the beach village. Three village dogs wandered the sands that once covered their homes. Then one by one they sat and started to howl painfully for their lost masters, crying to a moonless night, to a village that couldn't hear.

© Doug Vogt

Doug Vogt is a 3 time Emmy award winning cameraman from Canada, with 25 years as a professional cameraman, the last 20 based in Europe covering global events for CBC, BBC and now exclusively for ABC News. He is a nice guy as well.

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