Words that brought me back to life:
“Your baby is alive!”
Latha lost 4 children and her husband in the 2004 Tsunami. This is her story.
I was standing on the brink of despair as my entire family was lost in the tsunami. But the word “Your child is safe” brought me back to life.
Everybody was grief stricken looking at the situation of Kiruparani Punithakumar, alias Latha (51), who lost her entire family in 2004 to the giant wave that hit on the 26th of December.
Latha and Punithakumar were both born in Kalladi, Batticaloa. When Latha married Punithakumar she was just 20 years old. They had to leave Batticaloa because their parents did not agree to their marriage. They kept on shifting from house to house in neighboring areas for a long time. Latha, a mother of 6 children, was living in poverty while her husband turned to alcohol. She lost her youngest child when the baby was 6 months old in an accident due to the negligence of her alcoholic husband. At the loss of the child, Latha and her husband were thrown into grief.
“After the child’s death, poverty and misery still raged. Due to the inadequate income, we were not able to even pay the rent. We did not know where to go with five children. Seeing our plight, a land owner granted us permission to occupy a one-roomed house within his coconut estate situated at Dutch Bar Road, Navalady in exchange for tending to the property. But this mean we still didn’t have an income. Later on, the land-owner was kind enough to pay us half of the income from the sale of coconuts as a labour fee,” Latha said. She did not fail to recall the people who helped them.
During that time a doctor had approached them and asked the couple to donate one of their five children to a couple who had no children. But the couple didn’t agree. Latha decided to go out for work in order to be able to feed the children. A Muslim neighbour was very helpful in getting her a job in a rice mill.
This happened in 1996 and she received a daily wage of Rs. 100. For a family of 7, the income could not even sustain them even for one daily meal. Then she decided to go abroad to work as a housemaid. She got a job in Lebanon through the assistance of another Muslim acquaintance.
“I told my husband to quit his drinking habit and look after the children because I had to earn some money for the future of our children”. Her husband agreed. The eldest male child was 10 when she left for Lebanon in January 2004.
Her husband respected his promise and gave up drinking. Instead, he spent his time looking after the children. Only the older boy and the second boy were attending school. Latha was regularly sending money every month from Lebanon. Her husband was able to meet the children’s needs and settle some of their debts from the money she sent him. They were still living in the same house at the coconut plantation off the coast at Navalady.
After about a year, Latha’s family began to recover from their circumstances. Latha’s husband also raised the children responsibly. On December 26, 2004, Latha’s children, aged 10, 5, 4 and 2, were playing while her husband was preparing breakfast for their children. It was then that tragedy happened. The tsunami had struck and destroyed many coastal villages in Sri Lanka. 65% of the families in the Navalady village died. Latha’s family was one among them. It’s estimated that over 30,000 people lost their lives in the wave.
An urgent message was sent to Latha’s sponsor, through the Foreign Employment Agency to organize for Latha’s return to Sri Lanka since her family members had lost their lives. She came back to Sri Lanka early morning on 28th December and wanted to go straight to Navaday where her house was situated. A woman from the Foreign Employment Agency and another from a social service organization accompanied her. There was no trace of her house in that area. What she saw was devastation everywhere.
“I was standing near the ruins of Velankanni Mata Temple looking at the sea with a heavy heart. No one from my family was left. I went abroad to ease their suffering. Now everything is lost. I wished I was also dead. Then I heard the voice of my neighbor Rukka; she was shouting “Latha, your son is alive”. Those words brought me back to life. When I saw him, he was trauma stricken and could not recognize me, but after a long treatment he recovered” she said.
When the boy healed, he began to narrate what happened the day the Tsunami came. He said his father had sent him to pay the garden owner and on his return he saw his father and brothers being swept away by the water. He was only a 7-year-old boy at that time who had not run in the opposite direction but was running toward his father and brothers. A Sinhalese soldier nearby rescued the boy and handed him over to the camp.
In this way, while full of tragedy, Latha’s life has also been full with the help of those from all communities. Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims alike assisted her in many ways.
“I had to spend a long period in the camp. Later on I got a piece of land and a house by the Tsunami Victims’ Housing Project in Nawatkuda. I started working again for my only son. I was getting Rs. 200 per day from the rice mill as wages. So I was able to save a bit from that income” she said.
She was determined not to let her son down. Today, he is 22 years old and works in a communications shop in Nawatkuda. From her savings she wishes to buy him a motorcycle this year. Latha feels proud of being able to do this for her son.
“Since then, every 26th of December, my son and I go to Navalady beach and pray for our family and all who died on that day”