- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

By S.A. Miller, Christina Bellantoni and Amy Doolittle

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Rizwan Mowlana, a native of Sri Lanka, received a call in his Silver Spring home early Sunday morning from a friend who broke the news about the devastation in his homeland.

He spent nerve-racking hours trying to get through to relatives in Sri Lanka, but the lines were jammed. He eventually reached a relative Sunday night. The news wasn’t good. Many family members were among the dead, including his aunt, three first cousins and their entire families.

“We lost him. We lost her. The list went on and on,” Mr. Mowlana said. “I’ve lost close to 30 people from my family.”

Mr. Mowlana heads up the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Maryland and Virginia and has set up a relief fund to send provisions to Sri Lanka, an Indian Ocean island nation off the southeast coast of India and known prior to 1972 as Ceylon.

He said his first cousin Ahmed, Ahmed’s wife and their three children — the youngest was 3 months old — were in a van parked at the beach when the tsunami hit.

“It came and sucked everything away,” he said. “I just got a call an hour ago that his body had washed ashore. The rest of them are just gone.”

Mr. Mowlana’s aunt disappeared with hundreds of other passengers on a train traveling south along the Sri Lanka coastline. “The wave came in and took them away,” he said.

“It is just unbelievable. It shows how vulnerable we all are,” he said. “This is a time for lots of prayers. This is a test of God. … I’ve got to stand strong because my mom is taking it very hard.”

According to census estimates, there are roughly 500,000 Asian-Americans living in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

• • •

Stella Perera, 58, of Northwest, has been trying to reach her brother’s family in Sri Lanka since she heard about the tragedy.

“There were thousands of homes destroyed,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe they are not in danger, but we can’t contact them because the phones are out of order. I’m just waiting by the phone.”

• • •

Suta Dhara, 48, a monk at the Washington Buddhist Vihara Society temple, has been trying in vain to contact his two sisters and brother in his hometown of Tangalle, Sri Lanka.

“I can’t get in touch,” he said. “I just get information through other people. I just know that my hometown is washed off.”

He said nearly every building in Tangalle and every home on a 22-mile stretch of coastline was gone.

Victims of the disaster were included in evening meditation service at the Vihara Society last night. The monks will conduct a memorial service at 9 a.m. Saturday.

• • •

Before the tsunami hit, Germantown resident Gayanga Opatha had been planning a Jan. 1 visit to Sri Lanka. Now he is more determined than ever to see the loved ones he last visited seven months ago. “They just need someone to talk to so that they can share their grief,” he said.

Mr. Opatha, a director at the Sri Lankan Association of Greater Washington, lost two relatives in the tsunami.

“My grandmother got onto a chair when she saw [the flood] coming, but the chair broke and she went into the water,” he said. “And then my aunt was holding my cousin, but the waves were very strong, so it pulled him. My aunt could not hold on any longer.”

• • •

Desperate friends and family members from around the world posted dozens of messages yesterday on Internet boards, hoping for any news of relatives traveling in South and Southeast Asia. The tsunami crashed onto beaches and bars in some of Asia’s most popular tourist resorts.

In one message, a man named Parker was searching for his 16-year-old friend Allison Stone, who was on vacation with her parents in Thailand.

Most of the messages were like Parker’s — posted by people wondering if family and loved ones had survived. Others posted information describing the islands they feared had been devastated.

• • •

In California, where roughly half of the Indonesians in the United States live, about 150 people gathered at an Indonesian-language Catholic Mass late Sunday.

“Any natural disaster is beyond our control, and all we can do is pray for comfort for the people,” the Rev. Yosef Dowa said through a translator. “It’s not only prayers. We’ll see what material needs they have and support them there as well.”

Relief donations are trickling in to hospitals, temples and community centers. Web sites once used to link immigrants to one another locally have been transformed into pipelines for aid efforts and news about the disaster’s toll.

“The devastation in Sri Lanka is the worst in the region,” said Dr. Wije Kottachchi, a New Jersey doctor who is helping in the effort. “Sri Lanka is not used to this kind of disaster, and the infrastructure is not there to help deal with the aftermath.”

Dr. Kottachchi got through to Sri Lanka and found out that his wife’s brother was able to escape the waves by climbing onto a gate and waiting until the water receded. “He didn’t think he was going to make it,” the doctor said.

Melissa Brosk contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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