Choking back the horror
Five years have passed and I still find it hard to talk about the tsunami. When the subject comes up my throat still constricts, choking back the horror and raw pain that I saw and more shockingly, the way the rest of the world seemed to carry-on with daily life. Relief came – sometimes too much of it, but nothing prepares a photographer for the shock of returning to normality from a disaster zone.
I was in Phuket the day before Christmas, dodging the bullet perhaps as my ground floor room would certainly have become my tomb. Back in Singapore the news broke and I flew to Sri Lanka, arriving at the center of the destruction 24 hours after the waves. My first stop was a hospital outside Galle. Hundreds of bodies lay on the damp concrete floor, children in fetal positions next to what rescuers assumed were their parents. Some of them had bandages and IV’s telling the story of the pathetic struggle to save them, others just looked like they were asleep, still in pajamas but slowly bloating.
Blood and bodily fluid and the stark stench of decomposition. I worked the scene like a vulture, the lenses my shield; my shock at the scene my helmet; technical adjustments on the cameras my distraction from the horror. I edited on the fly, transmitting a few images via satphone and moving onto more death. It is only that night as I look through my day’s take that the tears come, as the reality of what I saw hits me – there is no lens now. Only the hard truth in 2 megabyte files on a dusty laptop screen.
The destruction was complete – nothing within a few hundred yards of the beach was untouched. As we drove into Galle, a few miles out of town, life was normal. Schoolgirls walked to school, mothers hung laundry outside modest homes and markets were open. The sheer contrast from the normal Sri Lanka I love and the damage was instantaneous and merciless. We moved north, meeting a diving buddy who had lost his dive school and all his staff; some Swedish friends who had lost their hotel and thousands more bodies. The Sri Lankans were stoic, burying the dead methodically, guarding their emotions – numb with shock.
Further north we entered a community of Muslims that has been completely flattened. Muslims buried Hindus, Christians and Buddhists – praying for them, hoping their onward journey was complete wherever they go. A stern-faced army general arrived to assess the damage and the security situation. The bodies were extracted from huge piles of concrete by hand and the mass graves were in shallow beach sand. “They are all Muslims now” said one of the grave diggers.
In Batticaloa we hitched a ride on a Sri Lankan army helicopter – unsure of its destination. My seat had no seatbelt and the old Huey had no doors. I hung on for my life while trying to shoot. Below us the land was flooded by heavy rains, adding insult to injury and a new toll of casualties. We landed at Ampara Air Force base and spent the day going up in helicopters, yelling passport details to the ground controller before each flight in case we went down. We delivered body bags, water and rations to several small villages. The Indian Air Force arrived in big Hinds helicopters to help the relief effort. It all seemed futile.
Ten days and one shower later I was back in Colombo. Journalists flooded the five star hotels – an army of beige photo vests and cameras. I was tired, heading directly for my flight to Singapore. I stunk, I had a throat infection, my shoes were moist with blood and old rotten water. At the airport I saw one of my pictures on the front of the Financial Times and thought back to the old man in the picture who lost most of his family, his head cradled in his hands, an IV plug still in his hand. My problems were nothing. They were embarrassingly trivial, but I was not getting onto the crisply sanitized Singapore Airlines 777 with my bloody sneakers. In Singapore an immigration officer saw me bare footed and broken. “You have been in Sri Lanka? Welcome home.” I broke down briefly – all around me people were buying duty free booze and watches. It didn’t seem right.