Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Responding to December 26th - the first days

We inure ourself to agony to go on living.

I learnt to do that in the 1980's in Sri Lanka, as the civil war started little by little - you cannot carry all the the emotions, a few dead, then a dozen, libraries burnt, then a hundred killed in a bombing, in a landmine, a hijacking and so on.

We learn to put out such numbers hundreds, even thousands dead - we dealt with it - 60,000 they say is the cumulative toll of deaths in one of the two civil wars.

But its impacts sneaks upoun you when you listed to tales of torture (or do you call it abuse), sometime the cruelty that your friends are capable of or those you know are killed. You get blindsided by details. The killing of the judge of our drama in University - tortured and dumped into the western sea by helicopter. That shy and gentle guy who taught me to swim the sea in Trincomalee - because he dashed out of cover to save a child in the middle of crossfire leaving all his six feet many inches exposed - Sri Lanka's champion marksman leaving aside his guns to save a child. The eighteen torsos arranged like petals of a flower around the Universities pond - the pond was a dedication in a gentler time of the national University to that aesthete of an architect who bridged time and cultures and set a tone for the place from the beginning.

So I was slow on 9-11 to understand it all - it took me many hours - and during that time, we were all frantic just to get in touch with those close to the World Trade Center - and the absence of it in the horizon provoked a meditation for my commute to work. Perhaps it was best to grieve all at once.

So when the numbers of the dead from 12-26 started coming in at first, several hundred dead the first day, I was still functional and it was in this mode that I put together a website, trying to understand what this disaster was all about.

I was getting reports from home of people who were visiting the worst hit Eastern coast and also the north-eastern and southern coasts of the human cost.

The website that I put together in about 10 hours was picked up immediately. I had passed it on to scientists in Sri Lanka who obviously still had the job of trying to calm people. In calling home, people were not even sure that the whole island was going to fall apart in the first few days.

It was appreciated by disaster responders in Sri Lanka and Maldives in the first few days. Several of the scientists used it to provide accurate information that helped calm people over TV stations and in the media. Later when I visited Sri Lanka, I was told of its use in many instances.

It was picked up by the Earth Institute Website and then by many across the world and it was even highlighted on New York TV news. The Sri Lankan websites Lankatown and Lankapage helped propagate its contents.

In the third and fourth days afterwards, I just went numb. Even I could not deal with the scale as the death toll went about 7,000 and it was still climbing. There was so much that I wanted to say and do, but could not. I just scanned the world for all the news of Sri Lanka. And there was grim news from every side.