Rosie Fellner: What I learned in the face of disaster and tragedy

From vastly different beliefs, we were joined in fierce union as we pleaded for our lives
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The Independent Online

We had been in Sri Lanka for six hours, and at Hikkaduwa for even less, when Adrian, my husband, woke from our nap to the sound of screaming. He looked out of the window and said: "Oh God, oh my God, I think there's been a tidal wave."

We had been in Sri Lanka for six hours, and at Hikkaduwa for even less, when Adrian, my husband, woke from our nap to the sound of screaming. He looked out of the window and said: "Oh God, oh my God, I think there's been a tidal wave."

My first thought was: "Well, I'm glad I slept through it! Now let me get some more sleep." Then I heard the screaming. I looked out of the window: the once pretty town of Hikkaduwa was upside down; there was a boat on the road and a woman in a red sari was passing back and forth hollering for her child. The scene was chilling.

We now know it was a tsunami and thousands all over Asia are dead, but at the time we knew nothing - what it was, why it had happened or if it was going to happen again. We knew only that we were scared and absolutely helpless.

After the initial moments of panic, the water came rushing in again, bigger and stronger, sucking people and buildings with it, while we sat and watched. We had run up to the fourth floor where we and others stood like limpets looking out as a boat full of people was tipped upside down and the sea sucked out the life. At one point, I was sitting on the floor praying with a Muslim girl and a Christian lady and her baby. From vastly different beliefs, we were joined in fierce union as we pleaded for our lives. Suddenly, I fainted and, as I looked up, I saw the little baby staring at me with wide eyes. In the midst of all the chaos, others were worrying about me, laying me down, feeding me chocolate and water.

The kindness we were shown and the connections we made in that short time were astonishing. One family, in its own hour of need, opened its heart to us, two white tourists. I am Jewish by blood and Buddhist in practice, and I like to think I believe in humanity before religion. But over the next couple of days as we spent time with Ragifa, Isham and their family, who are Muslim, I realised that since 11 September 2001, at the back of my mind, I had been prejudiced against the Muslim religion. One thing this experience has taught me is that we are human before we are Christian, Muslim or Jew; and it is sad that it took these terrible events to make me realise that simple fact.

As the water kept coming in, our hotel became an island. Adrian and I went back to our room and started methodically to pack a bag. We didn't know where we were going; we just knew we had to do it soon. After we had left the room, Adrian would stop to help people, but I found that I could not hold eye contact with anyone. I didn't want to have to worry about them. I had to keep all my strength for us. I had always imagined in a situation of life and death I would be loving to everyone. And I am embarrassed at my lack of caring. All I could think of was keeping us alive.

On the stairs, we met Ragifa, Isham and the rest of the family we had been with on the roof. One of them said to us: "The next time the water goes out, we are going to run to the temple opposite, and we want you to come with us."

Adrian turned to me and said we had to make this decision together. We said a prayer while looking out to the sea. The Archbishop of Canterbury has since commented that events like these can make people question their faith, but mine deepened. Although it was an objective reality that we might die, I somehow knew through my prayers that we would get through. The next time the water went out, we left the hotel together - eight small children and nine adults.

As I sit in safety, writing this, I feel an overwhelming pressure to be worth this "spared life". How can I stop this from being just a story and, instead, make it an experience that makes me a stronger, more caring person. Although initially, my absolute helplessness in Sri Lanka made me feel that being an actress is a pathetic thing to do, I realise now that I will have to go on living my normal life. I am not a doctor or an engineer, but whatever my profession, I can do some good in the world.

I can take a basic first-aid course, so I know how to resuscitate somebody who is drowning. I can stop laughing at Adrian's interest in survival books and start to learn myself. I will always check the safety of a hotel before booking. These sound like stupid, small things, but they were the difference between me being here now and being dead. I have lived until now in a world of "it will never happen to me". That has now changed; it did. Next time, I will be better prepared. In the meantime, I will be helping those I left behind with cash and publicity. It is the very least that I can do for the people who cared for me.

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