- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

GALLE, Sri Lanka - After the cataclysmic waves that washed so much away, the houses of worship still stand, their walls now stacked with rations, their floors lined with sleeping mats, their roofs sheltering survivors left almost speechless by the tragedy.

In a Buddhist temple, a 16-year-old girl ponders her new status as the eldest in a family of orphans.

Before the undersea quake and resulting tsunami, Galle was a port and agricultural market center on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, where tourists came for the quiet, palm-lined beaches, the scenic views and the history. Old hotels, a fort, a lighthouse reflected the colonial influence of the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British.

Today, amid the rubble of smashed buildings and stacks of freshly made coffins, people queue up for relief, in a scene repeated across the coastal areas of a dozen nations devastated by the waves of Dec. 26. Some try to look ahead, but many cannot yet.

Sulochana Gunawadena sat on a bench, staring at the ground.

“I can’t understand what’s happening,” said the barefoot 16-year-old, who was seeking refuge in a hall at the Buddha Sinharamaya temple, a group of concrete buildings set in lush vegetation. As she spoke, a monk in an orange robe hurried past a blackboard announcing mealtimes for the refugees who crowd the temple.

Tragedy is nothing new to Sulochana. Nine years ago, her mother died in childbirth. Her father, distraught over the loss of his wife, committed suicide three months later by drinking a chemical mixture, according to friends and a cousin.

Sulochana and her two sisters and two brothers moved into the house of their grandparents, who took care of the orphans. One sister married and moved to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, and Sulochana became the oldest child left in the house. Fourteen months ago, a police motorcycle struck and killed her grandfather.

Sulochana’s grandmother buckled under the burden of taking care of four children as well as selling snacks and betel leaves, a mild stimulant, at a kiosk at the bus terminal. So the girl quit school to help care for the younger children.

Then, on Dec. 26, the waves hit.

On the temple bench, Sulochana was reluctant to talk about the moment when torrents of waters ravaged the family’s house first from the sea side, then from the opposite side as the enormous waves retreated.

She let other homeless people nearby recount how she and her siblings fled the house, scrambling onto a wall to escape the tide. When the wall crumbled, they clambered onto a roof, and when the roof started to shake, they jumped onto another building. Finally, they climbed to safety on a main road.

Their grandmother was left behind. Afterward, her body was found, crushed between two floating buses. A telephone kiosk lay on top of her. The children had no way to arrange burial, and so the body went into a mass grave.

For now, Sulochana stays in the temple, where monks hand out toothpaste, mosquito coils and other supplies.

Her hair tied in a ponytail, she shows little sign of grief or anxiety. Like many Sri Lankans who lost loved ones and homes, she has a quiet demeanor that suggests acceptance of her fate, or possibly shock. She says she might live with a cousin, though her two uncles cannot serve as guardians because they are heroin addicts.

Her siblings are all she has left.

“I want to stay with my brothers and sister,” Sulochana said. “I know this isn’t the proper age to take care of children. But I don’t care, because they’re my brothers.”

One of the greatest natural catastrophes in generations was just another milestone on the trail of this shy girl’s ill fortune.

“It’s hard to bear this tragedy,” she said softly, “but I have to.”

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