Colombo, Sri Lanka – In the early hours of December 26, 2004, a devastating tsunami struck the shores of Sri Lanka, claiming the lives of 35,322 people and displacing over half a million others.
The coastal communities are gearing up to relive a day that saw families torn apart when sea waves, triggered by a 9.1-magnitude earthquake, struck a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean rim, killing 220,000 people.
Sri Lanka was still battling a prolonged civil war when the tragedy struck, but people forgot the animosity to help those who had lost almost everything in the disaster.
The war finally ended in 2009 after government troops defeated the Tamil rebels.
But divisions are once again rising, spurred by the recent rise of religious extremism and the clash of political ideologies caused by a snap presidential election.
For the past decade, people have been marking the day with candle-light vigils and minutes of silence, but this year it may be overshadowed by the electoral posters and loudspeakers blaring out election propaganda.
Al Jazeera spoke to some of the Sri Lankans who survived the disaster. They recall the dreadful morning that left many of their dear ones dead. They hope that the country will forget its differences once again to reunite in honouring those who died.
S Pathmajayantha, 77, Widow, Galle
For the past 10 years Pathmajayantha has attempted to recreate what happened that fateful morning, and only now the full horrors are coming to light.
“Eye-witnesses told me that when the waves struck, my daughter was seen grabbing my niece and running, but they were both dragged by the water and were washed away,” she said.
Every year, Pathmajayantha holds a small memorial service for her daughter and niece, and this year she does not see it as being any different.
“Ten years have passed, it is not something special. Ten years will not bring back my daughter or my niece. I now live with my other daughter and her family. Despite all the love and noise in that family I will always feel an emptiness in my life for my losses,” she said.
SC Seerawitti, 58, widow and mother of one, Hikkaduwa
On December 26, SC Seerawitti’s husband, Captain Seerawitti, was expected to go on leave.
“He spoke to me the night before explaining that he would be coming home for a few days that afternoon. I still remember him laughing and saying he had been overworked and he would run away,” she said.
When the waves first struck, Seerawitti was forced to flee her home.
“Our neighbours were running yelling that the sea was coming. I did not know what they were talking about but my son grabbed and yelled to run.
“Looking back, Seerawitti cannot understand why she thought her husband would be safe.
“I saw first-hand the devastation caused by the waves, I was in shock and believed the naval base would be protected by its high walls.”
In the past 10 years, Seerawitti’s family has suffered more hardship.
“My son has developed a back problem that prevents him from sitting on a chair for long periods of time or from exerting himself. We are forced to live on my husband’s naval pension, which is not enough for the two of us.
Seerawitti says that she will use whatever money she can save to give a blessing at the local temple for her husband.
“I did not realise it was 10 years. When I think about my husband it still feels like just yesterday that he was on the phone telling me he was coming home,” she said.
PH Kudugapriyanjan, 42, widow and mother of two, Ratgama
When the tsunami stuck, for most, the torment was immediate. However, for Kudugapriyanjan her misery was only confirmed a week later.
“My husband was a soldier stationed in Trincomalee and I did not know that the waves had reached there,” she said.
According to Kudugapriyanjan, after the tsunami struck, she joined hundreds of others who helped clear the rubble and recover bodies.
“I still feel guilty when I think about those days, I was dragging dead bodies out of collapsed buildings and never did I once think if my husband was hurt,” she said.
On December 31, she was informed that her husband had died in the tsunami and that his body would be transported to Colombo. It took her a further three days to receive the body.
“This 10-year anniversary is a bittersweet time for my family, my youngest son will be sitting his O’levels. I know my husband would be proud of him and for him to have overcome the loss of his father and reach this level is an achievement on its own,” she said.
V Balaatharun, 47, fisherman, Trincomalee
Balaatharun, a fisherman in Trincomalee, saw his entire livelihood washed away by the waves.
“I know it seems heartless to talk about the loss of my fishing boats when others speak of the loss of life. But that fishing boat was my family’s life line, and now I am nowhere closer to rebuilding that broken life,” he said.
Standing on the beach, Balaatharun says that when he returned several days later to the coast, his boat was but a pile of torn-up wood that littered the beach.
“For days I helped with search for bodies and clear the rubble. It was only a week later that I was able to stop and realise that I had lost everything my family relied on. My wife stayed at home with our children, and for months I had no work.
“Now 10 years have passed since I lost my boat and I am still forced to work for other people just to pay off the loan on my old boat,” he said.
He says that 10 years or even a hundred years could pass but time certainly will not heal the damage the tsunami has done to his family.
K Sukant, 49, Fisherman, Trincomalee
Ten years ago K Sukant helplessly watched as his two friends and workmates perished in the deadly tsunami.
“I was higher up on the tree and so the water did not catch me. I was up there for a few hours until I was sure the waves had stopped,” he said.
Sukant says that he wants to go out to sea with the other fishermen to honour his friends.
“We have planned a vigil out in the ocean for those who lost their lives in tsunami. This will be the first time I will venture out so far, but I must do this for my friends.”
Amuthan Raghaven, 62, Hindu priest, Trincomalee
“I was out in the garden when I heard yelling and shouting. I looked down and so this terrible flood washing in from the sea and through the village”, he said.
Raghaven rushed down the hill to gather as many people as he could who had been running away.
“They were running in all directions and I knew that they would be safe up on the hill in the Kovil. Over 150 people sheltered at the Kovil. By the end of the day many were searching for loved ones,” he said.
“I now want to invite all those who had been affected back and hold a remembrance event for the thousands of souls this country lost on that day.”