Return to Sri Lanka, 10 years after disaster struck

When Tal Abbady first visited the Sri Lankan town of Hikkaduwa, it was reeling from the devastating Boxing Day tsunami. This year she returned to see how it has changed.

The sound of reassurance can be many things. On the outskirts of one Sri Lankan town, it’s the noise of villagers rhythmically sweeping. Every morning, they bear down with their brooms on open verandas, clearing away stones and loose earth, and bringing in the day.

I recently found myself listening to this morning ritual while sitting on a terrace canopied by guava trees, remembering my first visit to the small coastal town of Hikkaduwa nearly a decade earlier. I had first been there as a reporter just days after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed more than 35,000 people and left the country’s southern coastline looking like a lunar wasteland. In the midst of the disaster, the simple sounds of day-to-day life were silenced by the effort to find survivors.

Sri Lanka’s situation was overshadowed by the more than 130,000 deaths in Indonesia, which drew global aid and media attention away from the Sri Lankan survivors. Nonetheless, on that first trip, I spent my days at the cluster of aid camps that had sprung up along the south-western coast. Survivors seeking food and water told me their stories: three children and a wife dead in one family, five grandchildren dead in another. Some people simply walked the broken streets in stunned, quiet drifts, as shirtless crews removed debris that entombed whole neighbourhoods.

Adding to the destruction, the country was in the middle of a civil war, which wouldn’t see an end until 2009, after 26 years of fighting and more than 70,000 deaths.

In the decade since the tsunami, Sri Lanka has seen rapid economic growth. The country’s southern coast brims with new tourism, and frenzied construction seems to have no legal constraints. Beach bars line the sand and tables sprawl into the tide. As the 10th anniversary of the disaster approaches, today’s Sri Lankans are looking to the future.

I had longed to return for years – to see the post-tsunami, post-civil war island and walk through its restored towns. So I booked rental about 100km south of Colombo on Hikkaduwa’s “jungle-side” – a crop of one-storey homes and shops built into the area’s dense wildlife habitat, far from the Indian Ocean’s grasp. The brightly painted structures, built by villagers fleeing inland after the tsunami, have become the town’s growing suburbs, a fresh antidote to the beachfront’s jolting congestion and overdevelopment.

Once a town that drew bohemian travellers such as 1960s London talent agent and memoirist Mim Scala, Hikkaduwa is a sobered version of its pre-tsunami self and reconstruction has been uneven. The occasional gutted, water-bruised structure – scarce remnants of the tsunami’s damage – still stands amid new development. But some things hadn’t changed, either. Walled-off boutique resorts still dwarfed friendlier beach bars and local rice shacks. And along the town´s main drag, the notorious Galle-Colombo road, cars, trucks and tuk-tuks still travelled at high speeds in delicately calibrated orbits of near collision.

Turning away from the beach and driving 3km inland, we found ourselves on a dirt compound of low-lying homes, amid the thick encroachment of trees. Our rental manager Udaya’s house stood in a shady clearing, and opposite it were our digs for the next 17 days – a tiny, terraced cottage with a beaded-curtain for a bathroom door. Beyond that lack of privacy, it was a lair of upscale comforts: cable television, air-conditioning, solar-powered hot showers, ceiling fans and beds made with the clean severity of any respectable hotel chain.

Loku, Udaya’s wife, served us breakfast on her days off from work. She recalled being at Hikkaduwa’s Sunday market, near the centre of town, when the waves came in. She remembered outrunning the water and scaling a wall. “So many other people, not so lucky,” she said. Loku still stops by the market weekly, its tableau of trays and spindly tables piled with plastic toys, papayas, imported underwear, dried fish, chocolate cupcakes, coconut sweets and all manner of vegetables. We went twice in our two-week stay to stock up on chillies, tomatoes, rice and miniature eggplants. Vendors wrapped fish and bagged bananas for customers. Blind women sang for coins.

Flagging down tuk-tuks and negotiating fares back to the bungalow became my husband’s new raison d’etre. One of them took us to the Tsunami Photo Museum in Telwatta, about 5km north of Hikkaduwa, where the ocean engulfed a train filled with hundreds of passengers. The museum is essentially a bungalow hung with newspaper photos of the disaster and relief effort, alongside handwritten placards and children’s art. The fast and robust redevelopment of Sri Lanka’s south-western coast left little room for physical tributes to the tsunami, but a Japan-donated Buddha statue that towers over a quiet lagoon makes for a quiet place of remembrance in Peraliya, a village 1km south of Telwatta. Near the statue, a haunting beachside relief depicts the chaotic dispersion of people and train cars.

The Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, a former Portuguese colonial port about 17km south of Hikkaduwa, had been a hub for reporters covering the tsunami’s devastation. After hours walking the city’s streets, through brackish water and torn buildings, I’d found the hotel to be an eerily untouched refuge; its elevated grounds had suffered little damage.

“Suddenly, this word – tsunami – came into our language,” recalled Dersica Dayananda, reservations manager at the Jetwing Lighthouse. Of its 250 staff members, one was killed. Others lost homes and relatives. Dayananda spent the feverish days after the disaster attending to dazed hotel workers, stranded guests and the sudden influx of media and aid workers.

Toward the end of my first trip to Sri Lanka, I’d visited the chief monk of the western Kalutara province. Survivors were trying to make spiritual sense of their losses and flocked to their local temples. The monk suggested the collective wrongdoings of all men might have “caused the plates to move.”

Ten years after this grim appraisal, a monk in Hikkaduwa had a far more optimistic outlook.

During a rainy summer poya (full moon) Buddhist festival at the Kumarakanda Vihara temple, we followed a barefoot procession around the large shrines and lit oil lamps. I thought about the survivors I’d met years before and what might have become of them.

Outside the temple, local trapeze artists and a pre-Raphaelite fire dancer roused the quiet crowd in a makeshift circus tent, and for a small donation, village singers offered customised songs on a small stage. When I’d asked about Buddhist notions of the afterlife, the temple monk had smiled with languid amusement, or perhaps reincarnation fatigue. We’d be back on this Earth for many more lives, he assured me. As the rain pummelled outside and the fire dancer swallowed another blue flame, I couldn’t think of a better prognosis.