When Kamani D’Silva first saw the wave, she thought that it was the end of the world. “Run”, she heard her frantic neighbour yell. Within seconds, Kamani was out on the streets, running for her life. Later when she returned to her village, Telwatta, located in Southern Sri Lanka, nothing remained. Completely wiped out by the Tsunami, all that was left was the floor of her house and the bitter memories of December 26, 2004.
Today, these memories have taken a tangible form on the same floor, that is now the Tsunami Photo Museum of Telwatta. Situated only 15 minutes away from the tourist town of Hikkaduwa, this two-room museum facing the ocean is an effort to document stories, memories and narratives associated with the 2004 Tsunami and its impact on coastal Sri Lanka.
The 2004 Tsunami caused by an earthquake of a magnitude of 9.1, with the epicentre close to the Sumatra islands in Indonesia, killed nearly 30,000 people in Sri Lanka. Many villagers ran from their homes and boarded the halted train at Telwatta, thinking that it was strong enough to sustain the waves. “It tumbled like a matchbox. Almost 2,000 people were killed,” states the 44-year-old Kamani.
The train wreck has its own wall in the first room of the museum showcasing photographs of broken coaches and dead bodies. They are pasted alongside the sepia-tinted clippings from the newspaper detailing the statistics and horrors. It also has multiple satellite images of the ocean, the picture of the ‘first wave’ that looks like a cloud, along with photographs of rescue operations and relief camps.
While these exhibits provide factual and environmental perspectives, it is the stories that Kamani tells that truly capture the spirit of this community. “It took two years for me to rebuild my house and for my life to get back to normal. It took another year for this museum to take form,” she adds. The museum opened in April 2007, through the initiative of an independent Dutch volunteer, Jacky Van Oostwen, who was in Sri Lanka, helping survivors.
From a crayon sketch of people drowning in the sea, made by a 14-year old to stories penned by tourists who survived the disaster but couldn’t save their loved ones, to gut-wrenching accounts by fishermen who lost their boats and livelihoods; from poems and photographs of missing people to objects like balls, bags, boxes and frames found amidst the rubble and an ever-growing bank of intimate stories brought in by survivors, year after year, it all finds a place here. But there is a silver lining to all this darkness too: According to the website of the museum, a man was able to find his missing daughter after spotting her photograph here.
The museum brings to light the stories of loss, courage and hope and how Tsunami changed the life of the coastal communities forever. Fourteen years ago the villagers didn’t know what Tsunami was. Today they are prepared to identify warnings and evacuate with their emergency kits. Many have moved to the planes. Kamani who lost her brother in the Sri Lankan civil war says, “One can expect nature to be furious, but it really saddens me to see people killing each other. If only we could live and let live. The world will be a better place to live.”