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Sri Lankan Notre Dame student addresses tragedy, loss

Meghan Martin | Friday, January 14, 2005

Five weeks ago, Notre Dame junior Dinal Edirisinghe wanted nothing more than to spend Christmas at a beach in his native Sri Lanka, something that his family had done for years. His parents, however, had decided that they would celebrate the holidays in Amman, Jordan, where his father manages a textile factory.

“I complained to my parents about spending eight days in Jordan and not going to the beach in Sri Lanka,” Edirisinghe said. “If we were in Sri Lanka, we would have gone to our ancestral home in Galle [a city in the south of the country] for Christmas day. But we were lucky. We weren’t in the country that day.”

Instead, Edirisinghe and his mother were on their way to catch a flight to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, when they received a phone call from his father warning them not to board the plane. It was Dec. 26, and Edirisinghe and his mother turned on the BBC to learn that a tsunami had hit their country, devastating miles of coastline and instantly leaving tens of thousands of people homeless. Edirisinghe and his mother listened in shock.

“My initial reaction was, let’s see if we can get home and do something,” he said. “But if we did so, we would need to get back to the capital, and that would divert resources. We decided, why do that? So we remained in Jordan for a few more days.”

While the Edirisinghe family’s frantic efforts to contact friends and relatives in Sri Lanka proved largely futile in those first few days following the disaster, news reports provided them with information about the extent of the destruction.

Twenty-seven thousand Sri Lankans, they learned, had been reported dead.

“I’m sure there are 41,000 tragedies [now],” Edirisinghe said. “There are probably also thousands upon thousands of survivals. I had five cousins vacationing in coastal areas. One cousin held his twins and hung on to a tombstone as the waves went through. … Another guy held his son above his head … as the water was gushing [by]. Those are just some of the stories.”

More stories of both tragedy and survival revealed themselves after Edirisinghe and his mother arrived in Colombo – two days after they had initially been scheduled to return.

“There was a train we heard about called Queen of the Sea,” he said. “I rode on it when I was young. Waves came and took the train off its tracks. One boy survived – he was seven. … But he buried the rest of his family.”

While Edirisinghe and his parents had escaped the tsunami, they returned to Sri Lanka to find that close friends had been reported missing in the wake of the tragedy.

“Before Notre Dame, I thought about entering the law faculty in Sri Lanka,” Edirisinghe said. “A friend who had advised me on the decision was washed away. She was 28.”

Amid the loss and confusion of such tragedy, Edirisinghe said his first instinct was to do anything he could to help in the relief effort. His first task was to deliver more than 500 letters from Sri Lankan workers in his father’s Jordan textile factory to the company’s headquarters for distribution to family and friends at home.

“I have a little ritual when I get off the plane. I touch the ground and do the sign of the cross,” Edirisinghe said. “And then we [deliver] the letters.”

Edirisinghe’s house in Colombo was untouched by the wave, which allowed him and many of his friends to contribute to the relief effort.

“I went home and packed up all the clothes I had and sent them [to the places where they were needed],” Edirisinghe said. “Everyone did that.”

During his time at home before returning to Notre Dame to begin the spring semester, Edirisinghe said that he was rarely able to see friends who had also returned home for the break. Many of them had gone to the town of Beruwela to pass out dry rations and assist aid workers.

“It’s amazing to see how people are doing such things on their own,” he said. “And the way the international community responded was unbelievable … the whole world is helping out.”

The New York Times reported Wednesday that donor countries pledged $717 million to a relief appeal made by the United Nations after the disaster. Edirisinghe said that help from both outside groups and Sri Lankan citizens has combined to create a sense of hope amid the despair of his country’s situation.

“There are 25 people who work in my father’s factory whose families are no longer. They left the country for three years to send money back to their parents and families in Sri Lanka. What is the purpose of their [lives] anymore if their loved ones aren’t there?” he said. “The best way to honor the dead is to help the living. The worst moment is the turn of the tide.”

In a country as rife with political, ethnic and religious conflict as Sri Lanka has found itself in recent years, Edirisinghe said only hope would allow the divided nation to repair its differences and begin the slow recovery from this tragedy.

“I think the best way you can honor the people who have died,” he said, “is to make sure they have not died in vain – to make something good come from it.”

The northern and part of the eastern regions of Sri Lanka have been held for more than two decades by Tamil rebels, who have clashed with the Sri Lankan government over the leadership of their homeland in the north. The Associated Press reported that 65,000 people have died from the civil war alone, before the tsunami struck the island in December.

Edirisinghe said that the situation appears to him as though history is repeating itself.

“The last time something huge like this happened is in legend. Twenty-three hundred years ago,” he said. “They say the sea came into the land and the mother of Sri Lanka’s greatest king, Dutugemunu, was a sacrifice to the gods. … She was sent to another king and their son was the one who united the country, because it was then divided into four parts.”

The story, Edirisinghe said, gives people hope.

“A lot of people now say this is like history repeating itself. That incident was followed by Sri Lanka’s brightest time. It is when the sea came in that Sri Lanka found its greatest moment. So a lot of people are hopeful,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, though, they are still very depressed.”

Edirisinghe returned to Siegfried Hall to finish his junior year this month. His role now, he said, is to educate as many people as possible about Sri Lanka’s situation in the wake of the tsunami. He has already gathered a number of friends and colleagues to plan fundraising and awareness events on Notre Dame’s campus. A film screening is already in the works.

“I see myself as a messenger, as bringing out the message,” he said. “Here there are people who genuinely care. To see that, all I had to do was look in my e-mail inbox only four days after the tsunami. People even contacted my rector and have stopped me on the quad to see how I’m doing. … I feel fortunate and humbled.”

Still, the transition from the devastation of Sri Lanka to the everyday college life of Notre Dame has not been without its moments of tension.

“It’s like coming into two different worlds: you come to Notre Dame and everyone’s so happy and everything’s so ordered,” Edirisinghe said. “Sri Lanka was like one big funeral. There’s such a lot of sadness on an island that’s so beautiful.”

Yet, with the collective efforts of international aid groups and everyday citizens, Edirisinghe is hopeful for the future of Sri Lanka.

“It may be the darkest hour,” he said, “but it will pave the way for the brightest light.”