In a matter of moments a village is washed away and everything is changed in the south of Sri Lanka.
It is an uncomfortable experience looking through the photo album of someone from Hambantota.
A small town at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, this place was nearly wiped out of existence by the tsunami of 2004, which killed at least 30,196 people in the country.
Almost invariably, every second or third person in the pictures are no longer around anymore.
“He isn’t here anymore,” Mahesh said. “He was killed by the tsunami.”
He then flipped the page in his old photo album as we sat together on the beach.
“He isn’t here anymore,” he pointed out a young guy whose arm was interlocked with a young version of himself. “He isn’t here anymore,” he pointed to another.
Eventually he began just pointing at people in photos and say a single word: tsunami.
“Not many people talk about what happened here,” he continued. “More than 1,000 people died here on that day.”
“What was this place like before?” I asked.
“I wish I didn’t have to remember anything from before,” he began. “I used to have a bungalow hotel on this beach. Look here, you can see it.”
He pointed to photo of him smiling in front of a bamboo and palapa house.
“It is gone now. I used to have a very nice jeep. It was taken away too.”
There were photos of him taking tourists into the jungle in that jeep. His jungle tours, his small hotel, and with his stall in the market where he sold fish was how he made up his livelihood. All of it was washed away in an instant.
“Here’s a picture of me selling fish.”
The rippled and bent old 35mm photos that he was showing me told of a different era here. He was invariably smiling big in all his photos. He was young, muscular, and always with friends. Looking at his photos were like looking into someone’s rose-tinted memories of the past — only here it was unarguably the truth. The guy’s entire life was cleared away as he was in the jungle guiding a group of tourists. He returned to find everything gone.
Mahesh is now the night guard at a hotel on the beach that gets few guests. He touts at the bus station. His face is worn, his hair fell out. He never seemed to have recovered.
The entire place hasn’t. Much of what was destroyed was never built again.
Another man walked up to me later and told me his story. He was 58, lived his entire life in that small village.
“I once had a wife and two children,” he said. But they are all gone. Tsunami. Now I am all alone.”
He now sleeps at night in whatever unoccupied plastic lawn chair he can find on the beach. Tonight he is curled up on one in front of my door.
Editor’s note: These events happened in March 2016 and names were changed.
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