The Greatest Loss

January 8, 2005

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, 8th January 2005: By the ruins of his Habitat for Humanity house sits K. Vaoivel (55). He stares into the distance, reliving the events of December 26th, when two waves slammed into his family home and destroyed his world.

Swept away: K Vaolvel suffers the loss of a loved one, his livelyhood, his property and his Habitat home

That day, as usual, Vaoivel and his son Sivaneshan (27) went to the lagoon near their house, to fish in their small boat. The lagoon is separated from the open seashore by a few hundred meters.

As they threw out their nets, Sivaneshan looked towards the ocean side of the lagoon.

“At first I couldn’t believe it, but then I realized the danger. A huge wave had just come over the distant beach and was heading in our direction. It was over six meters tall. I knew we had to get back to warn my mother, my brother and sister. We just dropped the lines and paddled fast.”

As they neared the shore, Sivaneshan jumped out and ran to the house. His father grabbed a hold of a tree trunk along the shoreline and held on tight. As Sivaneshan reached the house, the first massive wave swept across the road.

“I yelled to everyone and took my mother, brother and sister to hold them up to the top of the beam near the toilet. The rush of water pounded the house and knocked it over. I held onto to something, but I could not see my mother.”

The sea gives and takes: Sivaneshan has lost his mother, his boat and his home

Sivaneshan, his brother and sister fought to hold on for their lives, but their mother was taken by the force of the water rushing through the small community. A second wave crashed down on them, leveling their house and nearby surroundings.

After five terrifying minutes, the water subsided. The survivors looked frantically for their family members.

“I was in shock,” says K. Vaoivel. “Everyone was running around thinking another wave would come, but after the second one, there was nothing else. I looked for my wife, but could not see her. My children were safe, but their mother was gone.”

Later that afternoon, the body of Sarasvathy (50) was found near the remains of the house, tangled in bushes in the water. She was taken to the nearby hospital and was buried the next day.

“The sea has not been normal since that day,” says Sivaneshan. “It has a strange sound that we can hear day and night. We all live in fear that this is not the end of this. All of us fisherman make our living from the sea. The sea gives us everything. Now it has taken back more from us.”

Holding onto one of his fishing knives as he cuts into a coconut, his father adds, “This knife is the only property I have left now.”

At least100 Habitat houses were either severely damaged or destroyed in Batticaloa alone. K.Vaoivel and his family had only moved into their house in June 2003.

Plans are underway to begin the reconstruction process. K. Vaoivel and his family will receive a new Habitat house in a different area. It will be a new start.