‘No one goes near the sea’

At 9.18am, 26 December, when the first tsunami wave hit Hambantota
City, in southern Sri Lanka, the market along the seafront was in
full swing. Four minutes later when the second wave arrived, it
swept away many of those who had escaped the first time and gone
down to the beach to look. In just eight minutes Hambantota lost
2,500 of its citizens; a further 1,500 are still missing.

Many children lost one or both parents in the disaster. As part of
the international effort to help them and their families in the
wake of the tragedy, a team of social workers from Hampshire
Council spent three weeks in Hambantota, running workshops and
carrying out one-to-one work.

The tsunami is still very much apparent. Hundreds of houses were
washed away in the waves, and although semi-permanent wooden huts
are starting to be erected, 200 or so families are still living in
tents, sharing cooking and washing facilities. Tidemarks from the
35ft wave can be seen on those concrete buildings that remained
intact, and debris is all around – clothing and fishing net caught
in the trees, the odd shoe or sock here and there. The metal
telecommunications pylon remains a mangled wreck.

Since the tsunami the level of the beach has risen by 2ft,
resulting in a steep incline going down to the sea. This has made
the water’s edge a dangerous place to be, say the social workers.
Only the fishermen, who depend on the sea for their income, have
ventured back.

“It’s very noticeable that there are hardly any people on the
beach, and certainly no children. You don’t see people playing or
near the water at all. The local residents are very frightened of
the sea and fear another tsunami,” says Lynn Ludford, Hampshire’s
family support service manager, who led the team in Sri

“Children talked about nightmares of being swept away and of seeing
their brothers and sisters swept away.”

Such is the extent of their fear, some people start crying if they
hear the sea; others cannot sleep because they are worried that
another tsunami will come at night.

To communicate with the people of Hambantota the social workers
used translators. One had been at a Sunday school when the wave hit
– where the initial alarm call was thought to be a hoax – and then
spent three days pulling out bodies. Good communication was
essential from the start as the social workers needed to explain
why they were there.

“We were the only people who had been there who stopped and talked
to them. Others had dropped off things like food, clothing and
bikes but nobody had said, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Tell me about
your family’,” says Caroline Munro, an HIV development worker. She
had a particular desire to help in Sri Lanka – last year she won a
trip and went to work in the Pinnewalla elephant orphanage, staying
with local people while she did so.

During their time in Hambantota the social workers ran workshops
for teachers and community workers to help them in their work with
the children. They suggested ways of bringing the tsunami up at
school, such as by asking the children to write an article about
what happened in an English lesson, or by calculating the wave’s
speed in maths. They also devised games that would help initiate

However, much of their time was spent talking about the cycle of
grief and warning about potential problems. They suggested making
up memory boxes, whereby a bereaved person puts objects that remind
them of the person who has died into a box which they can then get
out when they want to remember. It is a concept often used in the
UK, but one that was not so straightforward in Sri Lanka.

“It was difficult to do memory boxes because they had nothing
left,” says Munro, adding that one way around this was to include
items that may not have belonged to the dead person but that still
conjured up memories.

But it was not only around memory boxes that creative thinking was
needed. Munro is visibly moved as she recalls speaking to one
woman, who was already widowed, who then lost in the tsunami her
mother, father, sister, sister’s children, and her own two
children, one of whose bodies has not been recovered.

“She was living in a tent on her own, surrounded by 200 families.
All she had was a few photos. That was her entire history,” says
Munro. Usually when she works with bereaved people she is able to
latch onto something positive for them, but in this case it was
hard to know where to begin – until she noticed that there was a
plant in the tent. “I said, ‘Why don’t you plant a tree for each of
your relatives and watch them grow. They can then protect you from
the sun.’ She really loved that idea.”

The social workers found that people were not talking to each other
about their sadness, partly because it was too overwhelming but
also because they felt they didn’t need to as they had all been
through the same experience. It soon became apparent that they had
been encouraged to get back to normal life as quickly as

“They had been told to forget and to move on. They said ‘you’re
telling us something different and that we should be talking and
thinking about it,'” says Lorraine Hopkin, the project’s deputy
team leader.

Once the residents had acknowledged that they would never forget
what had happened the social workers encouraged them to think of
ways of acknowledging the events, and to prepare for anniversaries,
perhaps with a memorial service on 26 December. Another idea was
for the children to create a memory walk – a walkway made up of
squares depicting the events before and after the tsunami.

“We were trying to give them tools so they had ways of addressing
the issues in a non-threatening manner,” says Hopkin.

This included devising different activities that could be used to
draw out thoughts and feelings. In an attempt to help them overcome
their fears about water – many people were caught under the wave –
the social workers organised a game where they had to burst
balloons filled with water and get wet. In another, a parachute was
used to recreate the motion of the wave. A different game required
people to carefully remove eggs that were precariously balanced on
poles, to highlight how the community needs to work together and
recognise that people go about things, including grieving, in
different ways. Only local resources were used so that the
activities could be continued once the social workers went

During the time they were in Sri Lanka the social workers worked 12
hours a day and had just three days off, and it is obvious that the
trip has had a profound effect on each of them, personally and
professionally. As yet, no decision has been made on whether they
will make another trip to the area, but from the stories they have
to tell, their help is very much needed.

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