After the tsunami: the survivors' guilt

Sophie Radice and her family escaped the disaster with their lives. But along with thousands of other holidaymakers, they now face the psychological fallout of simply being alive

It was unusual for us to be asleep at 9am on our idyllic Sri Lankan holiday. Christmas night had been spent at a turtle watch at a beach the other side of Tangalle and we had come back at 1.30am. None came to lay eggs but a few baby turtles were released from the hatchery at midnight by the light of a nearly full moon. When the tiny turtles tottered down the beach and were finally swept up by the dark waves, I said: "It's not so much the test of the fittest, is it? What did Darwin write about luck?" The next day we were all to begin to try to learn the meaning of sheer luck, a concept that is hard to grasp even two weeks after the tsunami.

It was unusual for us to be asleep at 9am on our idyllic Sri Lankan holiday. Christmas night had been spent at a turtle watch at a beach the other side of Tangalle and we had come back at 1.30am. None came to lay eggs but a few baby turtles were released from the hatchery at midnight by the light of a nearly full moon. When the tiny turtles tottered down the beach and were finally swept up by the dark waves, I said: "It's not so much the test of the fittest, is it? What did Darwin write about luck?" The next day we were all to begin to try to learn the meaning of sheer luck, a concept that is hard to grasp even two weeks after the tsunami.

I am ashamed to admit that my first reaction to my two children shouting, "The sea's coming in," from the window of their cabana (beach hut on stilts) was irritation at having been woken up. I soon saw that there was no longer a beautiful, white, sandy beach, and that the sea had destroyed three cabanas and was fast approaching the children, so I ran to them, sent them up the hill and flung their things into their bags. My husband, Dan, followed, having struggled to find anything to cover his naked body. The children told us that they had been woken up by the crows making an unusual noise and the roar of the sea as it came in. The heroic Sri Lankans who worked at the hotel had pulled off the back of one of the beach huts and lifted a baby to safety. A stoical German couple had lost some of their stuff and another couple had loads of wet clothes.

The wave receded much further back than usual and we went to comfort the weeping restaurateurs. We all thought that it was a local high tide, something to do with the full moon, perhaps. I only realised our irresponsibility in encouraging our children to go down to the water-side to help pick up plates and chairs a few days later, when my stepfather (a seismologist) told us that more people are killed by the second wave because everyone goes down to look at the unusually long beach. That, as well as their beach hut being nearer the sea, haunts me when I try to go to sleep at night.

The second wave came about 20 minutes later, faster than before. With my husband and son, Louis, accounted for, I momentarily lost sight of my 10-year-old daughter, Ella. I was screaming her name increasingly shrilly; she shouted back from the top of the hill and couldn't help laughing when I burst into tears. It seems incredible now that the tourists who had just run for their lives went to the undamaged hotel restaurant. I think some of us even ate scrambled eggs and toast.

When we saw boats and a lorry come crashing into the hotel complex, it dawned on us that it was a bit more than local flooding. The hotel staff started to receive calls on their mobiles from the local town with news that thousands had drowned in the Sunday morning market place in Tangalle, which was five minutes away. On the other side of us, hotels had been swept away. We realised with horror that many of the victims had been children, because the Sri Lankans told us that "no one could hold on to the babies".

All we could think of now was the family that we had stayed with before coming to Tangalle. Sunil and his family lived close to a flat beach in Polhena, near Matara, and it sounded as though everywhere else apart from our beach had suffered from a wall of water, rather then a flood. We had loved staying in the two small rooms in their house. We went on bike rides and crocodile hunts with them. One of the brothers showed off his baby, born premature but now thriving. Ella played with Sunil's two nieces, who drew hopscotch ladders in the dust of the courtyard. My children kept asking us to phone them, but there was no answer. Ella cried all the time and said that she couldn't bear it if she was all right and they were not.

An elderly American hippie led all the stunned tourists further up the hill and we sat - Japanese, Americans, French, English and Sri Lankans - in a restaurant on a small cliff-top looking at the sea. The smell of diesel from the ships was overwhelming. There were bodies in the sea, which I told my children and myself were coconuts and driftwood. A Canadian lady who had been sitting in silence among us started to speak. She had been on the beach at Tangalle when she and her friend had been swept right through the town by a fierce wall of water. Now naked, she had been too tired to hold on to the side of a roof when a 10-year-old Sri Lankan boy had leant down and tried to pull her up. Another selfless Sri Lankan had picked her up and brought her to the hill. Someone had lent her a shirt and a velvet skirt. I cleaned the cuts on her legs, feet and face, and, with Mikey from Hay-on-Wye, tried to pull a chest wound together with plaster stitches. She kept saying that she didn't want us to help her because she had seen so many children die and she didn't deserve it. Later, her friend turned up - another tough 60-year-old who had somehow survived. They didn't embrace but the friend simply said in a soft voice: "I knew you wouldn't die."

We spent an anxious night at a guest house a little further up the hill, with Dan sitting up with a Sri Lankan teacher to make sure that the sea didn't come in. I don't think my daughter will ever want to hear the sound of the sea again. After much negotiation, a lovely man called Sriyanga, whom I had met on the beach on Christmas Eve, flagged down a car and persuaded the driver to take us and another British family to the mountains. Our instinct was not to go to Colombo to fly out, because we knew that people who had lost someone or who were badly hurt would be taking those early planes. We desperately wanted to stay to help, but not with the children there. I had to stop my husband rushing off to look for Sunil and his family. Towns we had been through on Christmas night did not exist anymore. The children pointed out a tiny shop we'd visited before. This time, we practically bought up a pharmacy and sent boxes of antibiotics, bandages, plasters, antiseptic, gloves, masks, syringes and sanitary towels to the coast. Buddhist prayers for the dead echoed through the mountains.

We arrived home almost a week later on 1 January. We were greeted by teary family members, a distraught neighbour and the local newsagent, who together had put us on one of the missing lists. We were ecstatic when, on the first day back, we heard that Sunil and his family were fine. Much of our efforts are spent raising money to get them back on their feet.

Now, we all dream of water and emergencies, and have the feeling of being separate from everyone else who has not gone through the experience. Both children tell me about their dreams in detail. It is much more difficult being home, and my husband and I have a strong instinct to get on a plane and go back there. If I hear anyone complain about a cold or how awful their Christmas was, I feel anger.

A friend told me that I should look out for post-traumatic stress disorder in my family. I dismissed the idea because we hardly witnessed anything compared with so many people we met - the driver to the mountains turned sharply because he didn't want our children to see the piles of bodies that were ahead. I am acutely aware that people who have lost their families, their livelihoods and their homes are the ones who need support, and that it would only add to my sense of guilt if I reacted like a lily-livered Westerner and got "professional help". This friend said that my children might seem to be coping well, but that it could be a good idea to get some advice about it.

She gave me some names, including William Yule, who is professor of applied child psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry. He told me: "Even though your experience may appear less severe than that of many others, it was still a horrible one in which your lives were threatened." So what kind of reaction should I expect from my family? "I would fully expect some sleepless nights and intrusive images. This should settle in a couple of weeks, otherwise you should ask your GP to refer you to your local child and adolescent mental health services." Yule says that symptoms of numbness, feelings of impending doom, intrusive thoughts or hyper arousal (being constantly watchful) are common.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is only considered if these continue after four to six weeks. Chris R Brewin, professor of clinical psychology at University College London, agrees that "it is still early days and it is good that your children are talking about what they saw. Their reactions are entirely normal and it is best not to pathologise them but to allow your children to deal with things in their own way."

And Yule gave me some particularly useful advice. "Ration the amount of time everyone spends watching replays of the disaster on the television," he said. "After September 11, colleagues in the States noticed that the more children watched the replay of the attack, the more distress they showed." And the feelings of incomprehension about why we escaped and the inevitable guilt that my daughter and I in particular seem to feel? "Feeling guilt at surviving when so many others were maimed or killed is very understandable. Harder than that will be the acknowledgement that you were just very lucky when others were not. Luck is not an easy idea to assimilate when we are so used to order in our lives."

Meanwhile, my stepfather says the spit of rock that jutted out to the left-hand side of the beach where we stayed would not have been enough to limit the tidal wave. He is looking into there being a deep area further out to sea that somehow protected us.

I have given up on trying to explain it because, as Yule says, we will just have to accept that we were fortunate and others were not. Perhaps that, and raising as much money as we can for our friends, is the only way we will come to terms with what happened.

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