Sinnathamby Ponniah's family have lived in the southern Sri Lankan village of Alliyawalai for 15 generations. Traumatised after years of civil war, they thought it was their fellow man that posed the biggest threat. But it was nature that was their undoing. "The sea snatched everything," the former fisherman now living in Britain said yesterday as he explained how more than 100 of his relatives, including his wife, Nagalauxmy, 32, and two daughters, Yasintha, 13, and Yasotha, 11, were lost in the tsunami which followed the Indian Ocean earthquake on Boxing Day.
His 15-year-old son, Thanis, was one of the extended family's few survivors, eluding death by grabbing hold of a tree. It was three days before his father knew he was safe and a further two before they could talk to each other. Gone, however, are brothers, sisters, parents, cousins and grandparents. From the village's population of 17,000, some 3,000 are confirmed dead. Another 2,500 are still missing, with little hope they will be found.
Mr Ponniah, 38, a Hindu from the Tamil-controlled area of southern Sri Lanka, came to Britain three years ago claiming political asylum. More than 60,000 people have died in the long-running civil war between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese government and the mainly Hindu Tamils.
As he struggled to come to terms with the scale of his loss at his new home in Elephant and Castle, south London, yesterday, Mr Ponniah said his only wish was to be reunited with his son, who is being looked after by the aid group the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) until they are reunited.
He described how when the wave came, the family feared it was an army bombing raid and cowered under a table at their home. They had been awaiting visas to come to Britain so they could start a new life together here. But as news began to filter through, it was clear their dream was never to become a reality.
"The seas snatched everything from us," he said. "We heard on the television early on the 26th that something had happened, that there had been floods in the area, but we didn't really know exactly what had happened."
Eventually, after being contacted by friends and finally getting to talk to Thanis on 30 January, he was able to piece together the family's last moments. "All four of them were in the house having breakfast, then my wife heard a big noise," he said. "When people hear big noises they think it is the Sri Lankan army on a bombing raid.
"My wife told the children to lie down on the floor - they thought it was the army coming and he [Thanis] said they heard a firing noise before that. But after two or three minutes there was a flood in the house. After that my son said he didn't know what happened. The water pulled him almost 500 yards away then he found a tree and he caught on to the tree.
"He was there for 20 minutes, he was frightened to come down even after the water left. Some people told him to come down and run in the opposite direction of the sea.
"People were trying to help other people. Then some people found him and took him to hospital. He was in hospital until yesterday - he had bruises and cuts.
"When he was in hospital he saw some relatives and they told him his mother and sisters had been killed. They found their bodies about half a mile from the house."
Mr Ponniah's brother, Thangarajah, a 45-year-old minicab driver who has been in Britain for 16 years, said: "Even in my great grandfather's time we have had no experience like this, there is nothing we can say. It was hard for him [Mr Ponniah] - friends called him on his mobile and told him his daughters and wife were dead. He just started crying. We didn't know about Thanis until the 29th, when I called the TRO and we found out he was alive. My brother was so happy to hear that and we asked them if we could speak to him. They tried twice for him to call us that day but he was just crying all the time."
Mr Ponniah and his brother plan to fly to the village and bring the young boy to Britain, where they will seek residency status.
They will meet their local MP, the Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, today to discuss his plight.Reuse content