Former Greens MLC Ian Cohen, from Broken Head, was about to start a surfing safari in Sri Lanka in 2004 when he was caught in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people and devastated large parts of the country. This week, ten years after the disastrous event, he talked to Echonetdaily about his harrowing experience.
Video Sharon Shostak, story Ian Cohen*
It was end of year and desperate to escape the pressures of that year, I decided the perfect hideaway would be to return for a surf trip to Sri Lanka after 28 years.
I arrived in Colombo at 3am not expecting to get a vehicle to Hikkadua. The alternative was by local train the next morning.
A direct minibus to my accommodation on the beach. On arrival I found that my booking had been given to another and I was moved to the jungle side of the railway line. I was most put out. (The next day tourists died in those bungalows on the beach and over a thousand died in the morning train.)
In a room not too far from the beach, I could not sleep. I put it down to the expectation of the next day and surf in a tropical paradise with fond memories of decades ago.
What I did not realise was that animals were becoming extremely restless. In the east elephant herds were moving inland, most wild animals were seeking higher ground along the island.
The Sri Lankan navy up anchored and moved offshore having been notified by other SE Asian naval authorities that an earthquake off Sumatra had unleashed a massive tsunami that was travelling across the Indian Ocean. It was due to hit south-eastern India and Sri Lanka in a matter of hours. They neglected to inform other authorities or the media.
I walked the beach early, surfboard under arm and dressed for surfing the tropical reef, including helmet. Waxing up, I looked seaward and noticed the sea had retreated.
Then it hit, the water rose on the deck where I was standing, the sky went grey, water flowed over the deck up to my waist.
I threw boards and gear into a front room and held onto a coconut pole supporting the verandah which protected me from masonry as it flashed past, broken from the wall at front, now dangerous projectiles capable of breaking bones.
I entered the room but as the water rose a crack appeared in the wall, so out to the bush pole once again, climbing and hanging on the pole, using it as a narrow shield.
Still I did not know what it was. The sea remained high for what seemed like 30. It suddenly receded. I went down to the beach looking for casualties. There was an eerie emptiness, just debris with no sign of humans.
Then the wall of water came in again. Unaware that tsunamis come in two waves, I was just looking out at the sea in front of me with no idea that I was witnessing a global disaster.
Hundreds of people died in a market less than a kilometre away, unable to swim, women dressed in long flowing saris. Just two kilometres away, the morning train was derailed. Barred windows and locked doors trapped thousands. The disaster was made worse as the inshore reefs had been mined construction, reducing resistance to the tsunami’s rush inland.
Traditional housing with coconut poles survived best. Concrete buildings had sea facing walls blown as if bombed. Bodies were carted away and the walking wounded could be seen everywhere. Buddhist temples became refuges for those who had lost all. People talked of those who had bad karma being victims. Religion was turning my stomach.
People’s Republic of China tents sprang up but they were little more than advertising. Mainstream political parties vied for relief-supply badging and advantage with devastated communities.
I had a stark choice: evacuate from the disaster zone and go home thankful that I had survived, or stay and help without a clue as to what I could actually do.
I contacted Greens SL, a Gandhian-style group which supplied food, pumps and clean village water tanks. We travelled to Galle where Russian sniffer dog teams were searching house-to-house in the vain attempt to find survivors.
The Green Team took me to Sambodhi, a public level disability centre, where around 50 residents drowned and those who survived had clung to their wooden beds with foam mattresses which had floated to the ceiling during the flooding.
The grounds were caked in mud and debris. Smashed wheelchairs were piled up against the walls from the weight of the water. It was a stinking bizarre scene of carnage. We cleaned the grounds with a bulldozer. Inside teams washed and painted floor to ceiling.
I undertook to go to Colombo to seek financial support from the embassies. The Australian ambassador was very helpful supplying funding to purchase 50 new beds, mattresses and mosquito nets at Sri Lankan prices.
First snag: the Australian government could not give relief money to me or my organisation directly. It had to go through the Southwest Disaster Relief Department which demanded 10 per cent of any funds to just hand it over. On top of that, the Australian government would not release funds if any profiteering was part of the transaction. I was clawing the walls.
Eventually solutions were found. The embassy was able to donate a security fence for the compound to balance the ledger. One of the major problems was bands of men preying on the residents at night.
Sambodhi was re-opened with great fanfare two weeks after the disaster.
It was a month of abject failure as an escape. I survived and learnt much about another society, the best and worse of humanity in a state of anarchy and how effective international aid could be if representatives are on the ground in disaster areas.
After I returned home, the Byron community raised more than $100,000 for tsunami victims.
* Ian Cohen is an environmental activist, former Greens MP and author of Green Fire – An Account of the Australian Environmental Protest Movement.’