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Tsunami upheaval: Family outing ends in tragedy & wariness

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (BP)–His father was in the driver’s seat of the family car Dec. 26 — the day the tsunami hit.

But now, at age 21, Nishan is head of the family. Responsibilities came quickly.

The day after the tsunami, a local newspaper published a front-page photo of his father’s body — along with others — strewn haphazardly on the floor of a hospital in Galle, a southern port city in Sri Lanka. Nishan had no time to recover from his own trauma of surviving the tsunami; he had to go and retrieve his father’s body.

Two weeks later, Nishan would make another trip to Galle. Police called to say they had found his 16-year-old sister, Dimuthu. Nishan needed to come and identify her body.

Dec. 26 was supposed to be a grand day, a holiday celebration. Eighteen family members drove in a caravan to Galle, a four-hour journey south of their home. Nishan’s father, Tiluc, drove the car. Two vans followed. Suddenly, fierce waves wedged the vans into a ditch, which turned out to be a cleft of safety. Nishan was in one of the vans.

The tsunami’s rage tossed the car, which held six people. Nishan’s mother, another sister, her husband and their 9-month-old baby managed to escape.

Nishan’s lifeless father was found about 650 yards from the mangled car. His beautiful and vibrant sister, Dimuthu, remained missing. The family ran an advertisement in the newspaper with her photo, asking anyone who knew her whereabouts to call. Then the police inspector from Galle called. They had found Dimuthu’s body on dry land, 275 yards from the beach.

Nishan wasn’t the only person who lost loved ones Dec. 26. Much younger men — and boys — have been forced into family leadership. More than 36,000 are dead or missing in Sri Lanka; up to 250,000 died throughout Asia in the earthquake and resulting tsunami. His loss is not unique -– but nevertheless personal.

“Nothing to think,” a numb Nishan said outside the morgue after identifying his sister’s remains.

“She liked dancing,” he added after a moment.

Nine months later, the intended fun of a family outing has long faded. The sorrow has not.

Large photos of Nishan’s father and sister, draped with flowers, dominate the sitting room in his home near Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. The family displays photos of the two funerals in an already-worn album. An altar to Christ sits on one wall of the room. A Buddha image hangs on another. Nishan’s father was Buddhist; Dimuthu was Catholic, as is the rest of the family.

Nishan must now do what he can to provide for his family and make his father proud. In April his mother had surgery to repair a heart valve. Since January, Nishan has tried his hand at many jobs, but nothing seemed to fit. Recently he reopened his father’s business as a driver and tour guide. He began by securing a bank loan to purchase a car.

A crucifix dangles from his rearview mirror. He has another cross attached to the white strings tied on his left wrist. As he drives a customer to the airport, he takes a route along Sri Lanka’s western coast — the same route his family took that dreadful day in December.

Avoiding even a glance at the ocean yards away, Nishan is quiet as he drives.

“I don’t like the sea,” he murmurs.
*Goldie Frances, whose name has been changed for security reasons, is a missionary and writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board serving in south Asia.

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  • Goldie Frances*