The day after Christmas

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:55

    On the morning after Christmas, while still lying in bed, I turned on the television with the hope of hearing some good news. Over the past year, most news commentaries have opened like an obituary notice. Even before the reporter's words registered with me, I saw a map of Southeast Asia, with all the countries colored in green and the ocean in blue. But as my blurred morning vision cleared, I saw that some parts of the map, including Sri Lanka, my birth country, were colored in yellow. Since Sri Lanka has been involved in a civil war for more than 20 years, I had gotten used to hearing its name on television or radio in conjunction with tragedy and heartbreak. But what followed next on the television screen was like nothing I had ever seen or heard before, except in movies or novels. A tidal wave caused by a huge earthquake in Indonesia had traveled at a speed of a jet plane and destroyed the coastal areas, killing many thousands of people in about 13 countries, including Sri Lanka. I immediately tried to get in touch with my family in Sri Lanka but was unsuccessful, presumably because people trying to get through to their loved ones were jamming the phone lines. But, I reasoned, other parts of the world had received this horrific news while I was still asleep. So I tried calling my sister and cousin, who live in Melbourne, Australia, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. If my calculations were correct, the tidal waves must have hit the Sri Lanka shoreline at around 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Christmas day. My family in Sri Lanka had talked to my sister a couple of hours earlier, and she assured me that all my relatives in Colombo and its immediate vicinity were well and safe. They live about four miles inland from the shoreline, and the water never went that far. As I learned that the devastation had affected mainly the south of Sri Lanka, I started sending e-mails to my friends there, asking about their well-being. Even if some had lost electricity, I hoped others might still have it. The news I received was a mixed bag. A distant relative, who is about 46 years old, had been swept away into the sea with her three children. The only survivor was her husband. Four hotel managers who had graduated from the same institute as I did, and were on duty that fateful day, too had lost their lives. From all the responses I received, the one that touched me most was from my friend Kamal Hapuwatte's daughter, Varunika Hapuwatte Ruwanpura . I have received countless phone calls and e-mails from friends from everywhere asking how my family is faring. Sri Lankan expatriates, along with their friends and neighbors, have collected medicine, food, clothes, and other needed supplies to send to Sri Lanka. Many doctors who were educated in Sri Lanka but now have thriving medical practices in the United States, have stepped up to the plate to send medical and other assistance to Sri Lanka through their organization, the Sri Lanka Medical Association of North America. In Orange County, Dr. Joseph Jayawardene, DDS, has been collecting canned food, bottled water, clothes, medicine, and other supplies to send to Sri Lanka. The response he has received from local residents, businesses, churches, and other groups has been phenomenal. Most contributions, in the form of goods and other help, are coming mainly because of the personal affiliations people have with the country or its people. Dr. Joseph Jayawardene may be reached at 845-561-1969, or, for New Jersey residents, through the web at However, people interested in helping all the nations harmed by the disaster may choose to donate to other reputable organizations, such as the Red Cross of America, Oxam, and Americrest, to name a few. It is hard for me to imagine the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean, to which I had grown so accustomed while living in Sri Lanka, turning into the murderous wave that killed thousands of innocent people within minutes. Since this horrific disaster, the whole world has joined to help the affected nations. We can see truth and hope in this quote by Shakespeare: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." [Editor's note: Nihal Mahawaduge is photographer who lives in Newburgh, N.Y. Many of his photographs and articles have appeared in Straus Newspaper publications.]