Aid workers remember the Boxing Day tsunami 10 years on | ActionAid UK

Ten years ago on 26 December 2004, tens of thousands of people lost their lives in what has been described as ‘the deadliest tsunami in history.’

I spoke with two of our team who were part of the frontline response, both on the ground in Sri Lanka and heading up the tsunami appeal here in London.

A woman sits in front of her ruined home in a fishing village in India
A woman sits in front of her ruined home in a fishing village in India

Facts about the tsunami:

The Indian Ocean tsunami:

  • was caused by an earthquake measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale in the Indian Ocean.
  • created a wave 100 meters high which devastated 14 countries.
  • left 230,000 people dead or missing.
  • destroyed the homes of over 2 million people.
  • destroyed or damaged 3000 km of roads, 120 bridges, 11 airports and 14 ports.

 

Anjali Kwatra was deployed to Sri Lanka two days after the tsunami struck, to assist the aid effort

Tell me about the moment you were deployed?

On Boxing Day when it happened I was with my family. We saw on the news that something had happened in Sri Lanka. Then the phone calls started coming in from work. I spent the whole day on the phone in emergency calls with others in London and our team in Asia. It was decided fairly quickly that I would be deployed and that I would leave the next day. 

Two days later two colleagues and I landed at Colombo airport and met up with our teams on the ground. As soon as we arrived we could see that this massive aid operation had swung into action. It was organised chaos at the airport. There were boxes and people everywhere.

What were your first impressions?

Actually at that point Colombo seemed quite normal. After we picked up some aid supplies, we left the city and drove for about six hours to the worst hit areas in the East.

On the road, we were following trucks that were full and I asked someone ‘What are they carrying?’ I was told ‘they are full of bodies that they are taking away to bury.’

Then when we arrived in Batticaloa, I saw the devastation. It was really weird because about a kilometre back from the shore it looked quite normal and then you drove a bit further towards the sea and there was nothing but rubble.

To me it looked like there had been a hurricane because everything was flattened. There wasn’t any indication that it was the sea that had done it. It just looked completely crushed.

Who were the first survivors you spoke with?

I came across people picking through their belongings in the wreckage of their homes. Some people were obviously upset, but mostly people looked shell shocked. I would see things on the ground like a child’s toy, dressing gown, shoe or a photograph of someone and think ‘Oh my god, people actually lived here, in these houses, and now they’re all gone’.

A wedding picture discovered among the rubble in Hambantota, after the tsunami, Sri Lanka

^ A man shows a wedding picture he discovered among the rubble in Hambantota.

We were all trying to piece together what had happened, because actually at that time it still wasn’t very clear. No one knew what a tsunami was.

I visited camps where people had gathered. Every school, temple and government building was turned into a temporary camp and people were there with what little they had. People were saying ‘We have nothing. Everyone has died. We need help.’ 

What was the toughest story you heard?

The story I heard repeated most often was from mothers saying they had been holding onto their children and the wave had pulled them out of their arms. They never saw them again. It was heart breaking.

But for every story of loss, there was also one of survival. People told me about holding on to trees for ten hours and about being miraculously reunited with family members who had been scattered in all directions.

There was a nine year old girl I met called Sylvia who had spent 24 hours swimming in the sea and survived. The tide had swept her really far down the coast, but she was eventually reunited with her parents.

A relief camp in the aftermath of the tsunami

^ A relief camp in the aftermath of the tsunami in India

How were you affected by the things you were witnessing?

It was traumatic to hear so many stories of loss. To be there, see what had happened with your own eyes, talk to people who were so traumatised and then to have to leave.

But my job was to get those stories to send back to the UK because, although it was huge news, the media attention was initially very focussed on Thailand where all the tourists were.

The island of Sri Lanka was affected all along the coast from the top to the bottom, but wasn’t getting much media attention. So although the experience was traumatic, I felt like I was being useful.

What was the most surprising thing you saw?

I remember when we were trying to drive to the North of the country, every few minutes there would be an elephant in the road. They were so disturbed that they didn’t know what they were doing. They were getting in the way and nearly causing accidents everywhere.

It was utterly surreal. I remember thinking ‘even the animals are affected by this.’  Apparently every animal was coming out of the jungle, confused. It made you think about the power of nature and that even though this thing had stopped physically about a kilometre inland, the effects were felt all over the island.

What did you see aid agencies doing on the ground?

There was so much work going on. For the first ten days a lot of it was getting basic supplies to people who were in the camps, like food and clothes. People had run from the wave with just what they were wearing. Literally everything else they owned had gone.

There was also a lot of tracing going on. Nobody knew where anybody was

When I went back to Sri Lanka in June 2005, temporary shelters were being built with plans to build permanent houses. There was a lot of emphasis on helping people back to work.

Aid agencies supported fishing communities who hadn’t worked in months because they didn’t have boats, and farmers whose land was completely ruined by the salt water.

Many people, including the fisher folk, were very scared of the sea. So there was a lot of counselling being provided to help people deal with their trauma.

Fishing family in Thailand

^ Yanat and his wife Chil lil, from Koh Lao in Thailand, with a fishing boat given to them after the tsunami to help them start fishing again.

Did you experience any aftershocks?

Yes and everytime there was one, everybody panicked and was shouting ‘there’s going to be another tsunami.’

Everyday there would be a new rumour. A car would drive past and people would shout out the window ‘there’s a tsunami coming’. It was weird, because although I knew from a scientific point of view that it wasn’t going to happen, because everyone there was feeling it so much, I kind of felt it too. 

People were really traumatised. Many people didn’t even want to go back to see what had happened to their houses because they were too scared there would be another wave.

How did this humanitarian disaster compare to others you had been in?

As a journalist I’d covered the earthquake in India and conflicts in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but this was my first deployment for an aid agency. I’d joined Christian Aid in September 2004, so I was very new to the aid world. It was a baptism of fire because the disaster was so huge and covered so many countries.

How did you feel about coming home?

Coming home was weird. Even though I’d only been gone two weeks it felt like I’d been away three months. I remember coming into Heathrow airport and seeing people there with collection buckets for the DEC Tsunami appeal. I knew people cared and it was on TV, but it felt so surreal. It was amazing to see, but I felt like I wanted to go back and do more.

How do the photos of then and now make you feel?

It’s amazing. When I was there I was completely taken aback by the devastation and I thought ‘will this ever be ok again?

There was a lot of criticism of aid agencies in the first two or three years. We kept saying ‘it’s like building Birmingham from scratch. It will take years’. Now in some places you can’t even see that anything happened and everyone who lost their home has a house.

Jane Moyo headed up the London media team for the Disaster Emergency Committee Indian Ocean Tsunami Appeal

What was your role in the appeal?

I was seconded from ActionAid to the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC)’s London office to lead the tsunami media response. After getting the initial phone call on Boxing Day, I didn’t stop once for a month.

I remember the first day walking into the press office and having the shock of my life because there was only one computer! The DEC operates on a system where capacity, including computers, is brought in when an emergency happens and they didn’t arrive until the next day. I was initially manically manning one phone and desktop!

What was the atmosphere like?

It was the most unbelievable experience, probably of my life. The tsunami hit a chord with everyone. The DEC had people knocking on the door from other charities who weren’t part of the appeal but wanted to do something to help.

The atmostphere was incredible, everyone from many different organisations was working so hard together for a common goal. It was adrenalin that was making us work. We were taking phone call after phone call. We had the BBC camped out at the office.

It was quite noticeable that, for the very first time in a major appeal, the media were interested in the full background of this humanitarian disaster. I rapidly became an expert on tectonic plate theory!

What about the aid workers on the ground, what was the DEC’s role in connecting with them?

My job was to help the DEC raise money by ensuring that the stories the public needed to hear, the latest facts and the spokespeople on the ground were all available to the media. At first no one realised how dreadful the situation was, but then reports from our aid workers started coming through. 

The aftermath of the tsunami in India

^ Health workers pick through the rubble in India

On a daily basis we’d hear heart-breaking eye witness accounts, for example, of a train load of people drowning in Sri Lanka, or entire families being washed out to sea, or horrifically, parents having to choose which child to let go and which to save.

How did it feel doing this every day for a month?

It galvanised me. We were so busy, but it was all about doing a job to the best of your ability, so that the agencies would have the money to help people on the ground.

It was about being very thorough, about not letting anything slip, and being on top of everything. At the end of it all, I completely collapsed from exhaustion. I slept for about three or four days.

Did you anticipate how large the humanitarian response was going to be?

In the first two or three days, information was slow coming through. However, once the scale of the disaster was known, the UK public’s response was completely phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The aftermath of the tsunami

^ A group of young boys inpect the aftermath of the tsunami in India

People realised how dreadful it was that this 100 metre wave had destroyed everything in its path, affecting the very poorest people. The money raised was the largest amount ever donated to an international appeal, doubling every day. People didn’t stop giving.

I remember going to Mount Pleasant, the major post office in London, for the first batch of cheques from the public. There were sack loads of them and a group of celebrity supporters helped us open them. Often we approach celebrities to support an appeal, this time we had agents ringing us, with big names offering to do anything to help.

Is there any part of you that wishes you had gone to any of the affected countries?

No. The skilled aid workers on the ground were doing a brilliant job and I knew that the job I was doing was also vital. We helped raise a huge amount of money for one of the worst disasters the world has ever seen. 

Now, seeing the difference the aid operation has made, it makes me really proud.

The Disasters Emergency Committee Indian Ocean Tsunami Appeal generated an unprecedented £392 million. It remains the biggest humanitarian response in history.

Photos: Michalis Sourlis/NB Pictures/ActionAid; Patrick Brown/Panos Pictures/ActionAid; Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures/ActionAid