Kapila Ruwan Wedumpuli Achchige Don
National Director Youth Care SOS Children's Villages in Sri Lanka
One for all - All for one
It was 26th December 2004, the day that the Tsunami devastated most of the coastal areas of my little Island country Sri Lanka. I was the Village Director of the Children’s Village in Galle, the only village located in a coastal area then.
Shock at a full moon holiday
It was a full moon day which was normally a holiday for Sri Lankans. I was at my quarters and the time was around 9.30 a.m. when one of my co-workers informed me that the people outside become shaken with fear and were running here and there insisting on us to run for life as the sea was moving inland. I immediately went running to the main gate of the village and saw exactly what I heard. People had gone mad and running on the road not knowing where they were heading to. They shouted “Why are you still waiting? Run for your life or you will die here, the sea is moving inland!!!”.
I realized that something serious had happened. An article I read many years ago explained that, someday in future, due to global warming, the sea level would rise up and acquire many parts of our coastal band. I thought this was that day and the sea water would anytime come and swallow the whole area. I had not even heard or read the name Tsunami before. However I knew that this was a life threat and I should act fast. Our normal practice was to consult our superiors to get advice on unusual situations. So I tried to do so and learned that the telephone lines were not working and mobiles were not connecting due to congestion. Co-workers were asking me “what are we going to do now?” I realized that I have to make some vital decisions here for the safety of children, mothers and co-workers. There were approximately 150 heads all together.
“We should move to a highland” I thought. But how high do we need to move? No one knew to what level the sea would rise up. I thought the best place to go is the SOS Children’s Village in Nuwara Eliya which was 7.000 feet above the sea level. Nevertheless the time was not sufficient at all and the available vehicles were not adequate. Then I talked to my co-workers and inquired about a highest possible place which we could reach within a few minutes since I was new to Galle and had less knowledge on the geography of the area. My intention was to keep all of us alive as long as possible till the rescue operations of the government would have started.
Whom to send first?
Once the place was decided another challenge sprung up as whom to go first and who would be the last? A story, I once read when I was small came to my mind. It was about a captain of a sinking ship who let all the people on board leave the ship first and chose to be the last to leave. I too decided to do it this way. First I started the evacuation by sending children first. I sent an aunt and a male co-worker along with them. After that I told mothers to go next. “We do not go unless you and your family come with us” they said. I explained that I have to stay here to look after the village till last moment. They said “Then we all stay, you thought about the lives of children and us before you and your family, so we are not leaving you behind”. A co-worker also suggested “Yes, we all wait here with you. We all could make it with the available vehicles when the time comes”. I was surprised about this response of mothers and co-workers. This was the moment I realized the real meaning of the few words “One for all- All for one”. We were there till evening awaiting any kind of threat from the sea.
Support for the “extended family”
In the meantime an young integrated adult who was being cared for by SOS Children’s Villages before came walking to the village. He said that his house was completely washed off and his wife, mother-in-law and grandfather all were taken away by the water. He wanted my support to go to the hospital and search for them whether they were alive or not. I requested two co-workers to take a vehicle and go with the boy and support him. Luckily he could find his wife and the family alive later in the day.
Happily the SOS Children’s Village Galle was not directly affected by Tsunami. Nevertheless I was proud of myself for behaving really calm in such an emergency and frightening situation taking the best possible decisions for the safety of children and many others. Above all I was able to win a long lasting and never ending trust among mothers and co-workers through a few decisions I took on that day.