The amazing serenity of that day was like the proverbial calm before the storm says this survivor who recounts her ordeal of December 26
Breakfast break and a run for life
By Varunika Sonani Hapuwatte Ruwanpura
December 26, 2004 started off as an idyllic day here in Sri Lanka. My husband Hela and I set off at 6.45 a.m. for Tissamaharama to visit his mother. We always take the scenic coastal road, as we love the island's beaches.

I comment as we drive past Bentota and Hikkaduwa as to how beautiful and calm the ocean is that day. I observe a fine hazy mist on the horizon that makes the separation between the sea and the sky indistinguishable. I have never observed such a mist before and I have driven down this route for the better part of my 27 years of life. Now I realize that this amazing serenity was the proverbial "calm before the storm".

We stop for breakfast at "Sun & Sea Hotel", Unawatuna - a beautiful natural bay off Galle. The restaurant overlooks the bay. I am just commenting on the magnificence of the reef when everything begins to change. The shoreline that was about 8 m away rushes up the hotel in seconds. The water churns and suddenly washes ashore at tremendous speed. Boats anchored in the bay begin washing in and knocking against the sand banks.

At first, time stands still and we merely gape in shock and amazement. Then the tables start toppling as water rushes in and we run through the bar and out onto the Galle road on the other side.

I scream for Hela to follow me and run out of the hotel. Hela shouts for other tourists to run across the road to a hill. We get into the car and reverse it out onto the road. Simultaneously, from the corners of my eyes I see water rushing in from either side of the road. Our car gets caught in the huge waves and is raised up about 3m off the ground. Water rushes into the vehicle at frightening speed.

I scream in terror and try to keep my head above the water now in the car. "Let's get out!" I scream but Hela's door jams. I bang with my elbow and open my door and swim out into the water with Hela behind me. Once I am out, water engulfs me and the current is too strong for me to swim, Hela holds me and pushes me forward towards a retaining wall on the land side. He tells me to hold on to this wall and tries to get on top of it. I desperately try to hold on but all I can reach is grass that tears off. Then, a man comes running down and pulls me up onto the higher ground. Hela cannot get near it as a floating lamp post bars his chest. I scream for the man to help him and he runs back and pulls him up too. He shouts for us to run up the hill towards safety.

The water rushes back to the ocean at twice the speed at which it came ashore. People walk around in a daze. We hesitantly go back in search of our car. Buildings have collapsed; fish flounder on dry land, my husband's body is covered with strange small animals. There is no Galle Road any more; it is an endless scene of death and destruction.

We have no shoes, no cell phones, and no money. We find our car full of sea water lying against a house next to the ocean. I struggle in and find a pair of slippers; there is too much broken glass and live wires to walk barefoot. Hela picks up an old man fallen on the road and miraculously my handbag with all our money is under his cycle! Before we can gather our wits, a great roar comes from the deep sea and the sea rushes in again! This time we don't look back but just run and run and run over walls, fences, drains and gardens uphill to the very top of the mountain as far away from that water as possible.

While we run the weak get swept away all around us. Hela carries a little boy who is standing in shock after losing his family. Those of us who survive reach a little temple on the mountain top. Many are injured or in shock, families are separated and many are dead.

Tourists, Sinhalese, Tamil, Christian or Buddhist there were no differences that fateful day as we ran to save our lives. We stay on this temple the whole day, helping the injured and traumatized without any medicines. The villagers cook for us. The monks do not eat but give their share for the people. All day survivors trickle in, each with their own tale of horror to tell. Miraculously the phone works and we call home and give our exact location. Our loved ones are terrified. Only then do we know that this is affecting the whole of South-East Asia. Strangely this gives us some sad comfort knowing that we are not alone in this calamity.

We prepare to stay the night in the temple in constant fear of the water coming in again. There is no way out but to go down again. We fall into an uneasy sleep. At about 11.00 p.m. I hear my father's voice calling Helaka's name and mine as if in a dream. I jump up in bittersweet joy thinking now they too are in our situation. My father hugs me and we quickly go down the mountain in pitch darkness to the coast again. I refuse as I am too afraid to see the ocean but they coax me on. We climb over the shattered remains of the coastal road for what seems like miles.

At last we each a security post but our car is driving away. We cry out but it disappears down the road. The security people have sent it to get their food and drinks. They are drunk and dangerous. We sit in fear and finally the car comes back. We get in and drive inland but run out of petrol in an inland village called Udugama in the Galle district. A small boutique offers us safe harbour to park and sit out the night. The night is dangerous with looters everywhere taking advantage of this tragic situation. In the morning we drive home in fits and starts buying petrol from small wayside shops as no shed will issue petrol. We reach home by 12.00 p.m. the next day.

As I write this I still marvel at our survival through this harrowing experience. I believe that we lived through the grace of God and the prayers of those who love us. I pray that our story will help the people of the world to come to terms with this disaster and encourage them to lend a helping hand to the countries brought low by the tsunami. The people of South-East Asia need the world now, please help them to get back on their feet.

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