Scotland

Tsunami: The Scots couple who spent 10 years rebuilding Sri Lanka

John Purves and his wife Patricia had been working in Sri Lanka for a year when the tsunami struck.

Since then they have been involved at every stage in the rescue, recovery and rebuilding programme over the past 10 years. Their work was only completed a year ago, when John retired from his ministry at St Andrew's Scots Kirk in Colombo.

Bringing their unique perspective on Sri Lanka's story of recovery, the couple discuss what they witnessed, the work they were involved in, and how they've seen Sri Lanka change in the decade since the tsunami.


On the morning of the tsunami, John Purves and his wife Patricia were leading a church service in Colombo - the only coastal area in Sri Lanka not hit by the tsunami.

After the service the couple set off on the six-hour drive to Nilaveli on the other side of the island, for a week's holiday.

As they approached their hotel John was told: "There is no hotel! It's gone! There's been a big wave!"

Image copyright John Purves
Image copyright John Purves
Image caption Schools, homes and were raised to the ground, with only this single section of a school building left standing

Driving towards their beach hotel, John says it was as if "someone with a big wooden spoon had been stirring everything around".

"Nothing was where it should be," he says. "There were boats on the road, there were cars on roofs, there were sofas and beds on tennis courts."

Image copyright Adam Jones
Image caption The ruins of a hotel on Nilaveli Beach remain, as seen in this picture taken earlier this year

Patricia says they often wonder how differently things might have turned out had they not been at church that morning.

"Had our family joined us for Christmas, John would have taken that Sunday as one of his days annual leave and we would have been at the beach.

"We know now that the clue that a tsunami is about to happen is the receding wave, as the water is drawn back off the beach.

"We find ourselves thinking: 'Would we have gone out to see what was going on, or would we have realised something was wrong and taken flight from the beach front?' And we'll never be able to answer that question."

Image copyright John Purves
Image caption More than 1,000 drowned in the Queen of the Sea rail train after the overcrowded train was picked up by the wave, filled with water and smashed against the trees and houses

Relief

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Media captionThe couple were heartened by the 'tidal wave of love' that followed in the aftermath

Almost immediately, the couple began to receive information about the areas most in need, and they packed up vans with bedding, toiletries, clothing, food, clean water and medical supplies for those sheltering in refugee camps.

They soon began work in Mawella, a village in the south that had been devastated, setting up refugee camps and building toilet facilities to prevent the spread of disease through poor hygiene.

Image copyright John Purves
Image caption Some of those who had lost their homes stayed in community centres until designated refugee camps were set up

As most fishermen kept their boats on the beach, many were destroyed when the tsunami hit, resulting in a loss of livelihood.

John and his team provided nets and fishing gear for about 40 or 50 fishermen, as well as bicycles for selling and supplying the fish.

Image copyright John Purves
Image caption The devastated boats meant no fish to sell and no food for those in the villages

Recovery

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Media captionMany survivors have been left a visual reminder if the tsunami in their homes

During the recovery phase John, Patricia and their team were involved in building new homes for those who had lost everything they owned. On some occasions they were building individual properties, on others whole villages.

John says their policy throughout was not to do the work themselves, but to provide the local people with the necessary money and resources to be able to rebuild their own homes and communities.

Image copyright John Purves
Image copyright John Purves
Image caption The team built 50 new houses and rebuilt two preschools in the towns of Mawella and Hikkaduwa, using church funds until money for aid and redevelopment became available

After nine months working to help the fishing industry recover, John said it became very clear that lots of aid workers were doing the same thing.

He says: "It was thought that there were more fishermen after the tsunami than there were before, and that there was a danger of overfishing. "

After that they decided to stop supplying fishermen with equipment.

Image copyright John Purves
Image caption With new boats and nets the fishermen were able to return to their work

The lasting legacy

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Media captionJohn Purves thinks the tsunami reset the clock for Sri Lanka

John says: "To begin with there were rules that you couldn't build within 300 metres of the beach, and homes were built inland because that was where people felt safe.

"That rule was then changed to 100m, then 75, then 60 and was eventually abandoned.

"There was a migration back to the beach particularly by fishermen who needed to be where the fish were, and holiday hotels were rebuilt on the beach because of the income for everyone from life by the sea."

Image copyright Adam Jones
Image caption Since 2004 there has been a much greater awareness of the danger, with tsunami evacuation warning signs erected along the coastline

The tsunami is thought to have claimed the lives of more than 40,000 victims in Sri Lanka alone.

But the true death toll is likely to never be fully known.

Victims whose bodies were never formally identified were buried in mass graves. There are no names on their headstones, only case numbers.

Image copyright theplanetd.com
Image copyright John Purves
Image caption The 'D' on the gravestone to the left signifies the case was worked on by an Interpol team from Germany, and the grave to the right by the British team.

Five years after the tsunami, in 2009, Sri Lanka resolved its ongoing civil conflict. Almost half as many died in the tsunami in a single day, as died in the civil war - which spanned 26 years.

John says: "The after-effects of the tsunami - a natural disaster - and the civil conflict - a man-made disaster - are things with which people are still dealing with now, and will continue to deal with.

"But both form part of the history of the nation."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Every year on the anniversary, vigils are held in Sri Lanka and around the world, in memory of those who lost their lives

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