Tales of the tsunami

Over 280,000 people died and more than a million lost their homes and livelihoods, but in the aftermath of last December's tsunami, there have also been incredible tales of survival, compassion and hope, says Peter Stanford
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The Independent Online

Island hopping The tsunami caused tragedy for Mohamed Ibrahim's family, but it has also given the 18-year-old from the Maldives the chance to travel abroad for the first time

Ibrahim was serving breakfast to guests in a beachside open-air restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel at Kuda Huraa on the Maldives when the tsunami struck. "When I first saw the water in front of the swimming pool," he remembers, "I just thought that the pump must have broken and carried on serving. We had lots of children in that morning and it was busy. Then the next wave came across the whole restaurant and covered it. I grabbed on to some string and was OK."

No one was killed at the hotel, but in the frantic hours afterwards, in the midst of helping guests make plans to evacuate, Mohamed finally made telephone contact with his home island of Fonadhoo, several hours away by boat and one of the 1,200 or so low-lying coral atolls in the Indian Ocean 500 miles south-west of Sri Lanka that make up the Maldives. His father had been wounded, their family home washed away and his 12-year-old brother Ahmed killed. His body was found between two trees on the shoreline.

"Fonadhoo had been beautiful when I left," says Ibrahim. "White beaches, clear blue water, flowers. When I got back there on 29 December on the hotel boat, everything was grey. The salt had destroyed everything. It just looked like it had been burnt."

A quarter of all the houses on Fonadhoo had been smashed beyond repair. It was the same story throughout the Maldives. And back at the Four Seasons, staff were told it was going to take at least a year and probably more to reconstruct the hotel. They faced being laid off just when they desperately needed their wages to support their grieving families and rebuild homes. But the general manager, Armando Kraenzlin, sent out an SOS to the Four Seasons international network. As a result over half of the 400 Maldivians on his staff have been offered temporary positions in other hotels around the world.

Many had never left the islands before, including Ibrahim, a small, slightly built teenager with an oval-shaped face and a twinkle in his eye.

"I asked my father what I should do," he recalls. "I knew how much my parents and my sister were suffering after my brother died, but he said, 'It's a wonderful opportunity, go.'"

And so Ibrahim did - to the 18th-century stately home and 26 acres of parkland outside Farnham that make up the Four Seasons Hampshire. In June of this year he and three other Maldivians were picked up at Heathrow Airport by restaurant manager Angela Moore. "They were very excited that day," she recalls now. "But some, I think, were still in shock. Mohamed was the youngest and he was very shy at first. You could hardly get him to talk. But slowly his real personality emerged and now he is a waiter in our restaurant. I think the chance to come away and to do work he was very familiar with but in a totally different setting has been part of the process of healing."

The highest point of the Maldive islands, Ibrahim explains, is only 1.6 metres above sea level. Because of the damage done by salt in the omnipresent sea breeze, few buildings last for more than 10 or 15 years. And the largest animal the island chain boasts is a goat. "Then, suddenly here I was being driven up a steep hill to this big, very old house," he says, "surrounded by green grass and horses. The first thing that came out of my mouth was 'wow'."

The culture shock continues most days. When he first arrived he was so cold that he thought it was winter and was bemused to discover that this was an English summer. On the morning we meet, he has caught his first glimpse of frost on the grass and got excited because he thought it was snow like he'd read about in books. There have been visits to the pub - as a Muslim he doesn't drink, but he's determined to pass his wine-waiter exams - to a shopping centre and a circus. He's even tried his hand at horse riding.

The Maldivians on the staff are allowed free access to telephones and email so that they can call home. There is also a regular newsletter, Island Splash, to update them on progress at Kuda Huraa. Ibrahim 's father is still suffering with the knee damaged in the tsunami, but the money he has sent back is paying for a new family home.

Does Ibrahim look forward to going back? "I'd like to get more experience in other hotels for the good of my career, but I'd also like to see my family. Mostly I try not to remember the tsunami. Sometimes people ask me about it, but I try not to think too deeply. There is something stuck in my heart."

Common ground One man's vision inspired a unique link between two very different coastal towns

After seeing the first reports of the tsunami on television on Boxing Day, Iain MacKechnie-Jarvis looked out to sea from his home at Burnham Overy Staithe in north Norfolk. Gazing out over the marshes and dunes, he began to wonder what would happen if a 20ft wave were ever to hit this low-lying area. And from that thought was born a link between a group of villages on the North Sea coast and the devastated fishing village of Kirinda in Sri Lanka.

Not content with making his own financial contribution to relief funds, MacKechnie-Jarvis gathered like-minded neighbours and launched a community response - one group of people who are defenceless against the sea power reaching out to support another. It has been, he says, "a very quiet, very English effort with no back-slapping and very few events." But despite the low-key nature of the venture, the project has so far raised £50,000 to pay for 17 boats, sewing machines and diving equipment.

"While we have great respect for what the bigger charities are doing, it seemed to us that there was a lot of merit in going bottom-upwards," says Richard Worsley, one of MacKechnie-Jarvis's fellow organisers. We had no existing link with Kirinda but had a contact with Charitha Ranwatte, a retired senior Sri Lankan civil servant. He directed us to Kirinda because it was an isolated village and well off the main tourist trails and he has used his local knowledge to direct our funds effectively and quickly so as to restore livelihoods."

Fund-raising efforts began with the parish newsletter. Then there was a mail shot to homes. Donations began to come in. There was £450 from the proceeds of the annual flower show. A book by Worsley on local hero Horatio Nelson raised a further £16,500.

"The community has come together to help another that is different from our own in many ways but which shares some similarities," Worsley reflects. "We all realised that together we could achieve much more than we would as individuals. It gave us a pretext as a community to think outwards when often the tendency is to do the opposite."

Kirinda charity can be contacted at imj@waitrose.com

Band together Indonesian rock group Kande have put their own losses behind them by going on tour to spread a message of hope

Kande, one of the biggest bands in Indonesia, were recording in their hometown of Banda Aceh when the tsunami hit. The building they were in was swept away by the waves, along with their instruments and master tapes. The band's bass player, 27-year-old Amimllah Yusri, lost his life. The rest, like almost everyone else in the northern Indonesian province of Aceh, they were left with nothing.

"The people were despondent," says the band's 38-year-old lead singer, Rafli. "They'd lost everything and needed a symbol that life could return to normal again. Music can act like a medicine." Kande, which means Candle, were supported by Acehkita, a local charity funded by the British aid agency Cafod, to set off with new instruments on a tour of the devastated region. Over 50,000 people came to hear their mixture of rap, rock, R&B and traditional Acehnese music.

"We felt we had a heavy moral responsibility to heal the people of Aceh," he says. "We also hoped that through our music we could heal ourselves. My new songs explore why the tsunami happened, how the recovery process is going and pose questions we hope will be answered tomorrow. We hope to encourage a more optimistic vision of the future and to send a message to our government to act responsibly in Aceh." Before the tsunami, rebels in Aceh had been leading a separatist movement against Indonesian authority.

In the first days after the tsunami, the surviving members of Kande were given shelter by a small village community. As part of their tour, they returned to perform a thank-you concert. "I think we genuinely helped prevent depression setting in," says Rafli. "People told us that our music had dispelled suicidal thoughts."

Prior to the tsunami, Kande had sold over a million albums in Indonesia. Now their post-tsunami music has touched a chord and been used as the soundtrack to several films about the struggle to rebuild Aceh.