Victor Sebestyen: The guilt feelings of the Western survivor

Tourists like me were treated differently from the mass of local people who had died in their thousands

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For the first few hours, in the grip of fear, I was gratified and impressed by the level of concern the Sri Lankan authorities were taking for my safety after the catastrophe that devastated the island. It was only later that a gnawing sense of doubt, tinged with guilt, began to creep in. Western tourists caught up in the disaster, like me, were being treated differently from the mass of local people who in their scores of thousands had either died or seen their lives wrecked forever.

For the first few hours, in the grip of fear, I was gratified and impressed by the level of concern the Sri Lankan authorities were taking for my safety after the catastrophe that devastated the island. It was only later that a gnawing sense of doubt, tinged with guilt, began to creep in. Western tourists caught up in the disaster, like me, were being treated differently from the mass of local people who in their scores of thousands had either died or seen their lives wrecked forever.

The tsunami, nature at its rawest, made no distinction between Western and Eastern, rich and poor, brown or white. Whoever was caught in its immediate wake suffered alike. But afterwards? That has been driven by the response of humankind, and is in many ways a crueller power.

My partner, Jessica, was lazing happily on the beach when the wave came at about 11.30 on the stillest, calmest morning we had seen since we had arrived in Sri Lanka. Our conversation, just before I went up to our hotel room, was of what a wonderful Christmas break this had been, how relaxing, just what we needed.

Then, as she tells it, she "saw the sea level keep rising and rising and coming towards me. I ran as fast as I could, completely unsure what was going to happen." A normally stoical Jess was trembling and terrified. In the security, so we thought, of our first-floor hotel room - and as we saw the sea level recede - we began hearing reports of what had been happening elsewhere in southern Asia. We thought ourselves lucky.

Twenty minutes later, as we looked out to sea, another wave headed towards us, bigger than before, bringing with it more wreckage. The ground floor of our hotel was flooded, the power packed in. There was flotsam everywhere - beach furniture and even a fridge in the pool, the detritus of that morning's breakfast strewn on the lawn. But the water stopped rising. We were safe, if frantically scared.

Negombo, where we were holidaying, is midway along the west coast of the island, about 25 miles north of Colombo. It was relatively unscathed. A couple of hours later, our hotel was evacuated. We were moved to a Roman Catholic school where, with a hundred or so other foreign tourists from three holiday hotels, we camped for the night, outside in the playground, eating by candlelight and sleeping on sun loungers. The authorities were warning that another tsunami was on its way and this was the safest place in the town to be. Staff from the hotel continued to wait on us, and we even got a visit from the opposition leader of Colombo to ask if we were as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

It was then, as we saw the death toll mount on a battery-powered TV, that the immensity of the disaster became clear. And the uncomfortable feeling grew that even amid this catastrophe we were profoundly privileged. Not just because we were alive. But because we were from the West. Sri Lankans were not being evacuated to this safe spot - or to anywhere, as it turned out. As rumours spread that another giant wave was imminent, they were fending for themselves, unvisited by dignitaries.

Of course it is understandable, from a Sri Lankan point of view. Local officials must have felt under extreme pressure to ensure, as far as they could, the safety of foreigners. After the ceasefire a couple of years ago in the two-decade Sinhalese/Tamil civil war, tourism had been growing fast. It is crucial to the country's economy, bringing in about £275m a year, roughly 15 per cent of national income. But something beyond economic common sense was going on here.

The Thai government has admitted that it initially downplayed the effect of the tsunami in holiday resorts because of fears of the effect on tourism. Something similar happened in Sri Lanka. Economic self interest? Perhaps. Hospitality? Partly. The welcome Western tourists receive in the East is one of the reasons we go there in our millions. But there remains a gnawing feeling - not entirely prompted by survivors' guilt - that deeper instincts were being displayed.

After a career in British newspapers, I am used to an ingrained attitude on most newsdesks: it is a given that the life of a Westerner is worth several brown and yellow ones. It is hard to work out a response when, in the middle of this week's unimaginable horror, you begin to feel that a similar assumption is being made by so many Asians in their own lands.

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