Andrew Buncombe: An epiphany born out of disaster

Galle Notebook
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The Independent Online

Amid the terrible tales of devastation from southern Sri Lanka there are also stories of hope. By his own admission, Sunil Wickramasinghe was somewhat at sea when the 2004 tsunami struck; he had several female partners, a clutch of children and was working as a sailor on boats that dock at the port of Galle.

"I did not want to think about my future," he tells me. The giant wave swept him up with its massive power but somehow, at some point, he was able to climb a coconut tree and cling on long enough for the water to subside. The aftermath of the storm was an epiphany; while some locals waited for handouts and compensation Mr Wickramasinghe found a sense of purpose. With a couple of hundred pounds in start-up money, he began his own business making hammocks, using his skill with sailing knots to good purpose.

Now he has his own store, sells to shops and boutiques across Sri Lanka, is listed in guidebooks and – with his old humour fully intact – advertises himself as "The Biggest Swinger in Sri Lanka". He does not mention God, but he talks about fate and karma when he thinks about what happens. "I saw many people get greedy after the tsunami. They could never have enough. Charities gave them lots of money," he says. "Afterwards I believed I had to be better."

I ask him how he will remember this fifth anniversary, whether there will be any sort of vigil. "It's deep in the heart – you don't need a candle," he replies. "I shall go to the beach and sit and watch by myself."

Statues of remembrance

Nearby, at the famous Unawatuna beach, another Sunil – this one Sunil Kaluarchchi – was also changed by the tsunami. In the days after the waves struck, he noticed many people sitting by the side of the road in despair, their head in the hands.

He started to carve such statues, unsure of whether they would be as popular with the tourists. "I used to carve happy things. After the tsunami I did not know what to do. One woman came here and said 'you have to start again'," he says. As it happens, the beautiful, melancholy carvings are popular with tourists. I too buy one, and we both smile.

Long road to rehabilitation

At the village of Peraliya, where 1,500 people lost their lives when a train was struck by the wave, a museum has been established in the ruins of Kamani Silva's house just 50 yards from the ocean. "Even now at night-time I will not stay here," she says. "People are still very scared."