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First off I would like to thank Nicky Lewin for taking the time to put this article together for us, here at Camera Craniums. I would also like to congratulate him on winning the Disaster/Response and Refugee catagory of the InterAction humanitarian photo awards again. So here it is.


Symbol of hope
Symbol of hope - Nicky Lewins award winning image.

Sri Lanka 2005. A personal account as seen through the eyes of photographer Nicky Lewin.

In Sri Lanka they call them the "poor people". These are the poor souls who are sentenced at birth, to a life sentence of poverty and hardship. When disaster comes, they get it worst. Their shacks made of at best lightweight breeze block, usually scrap wood and bits of tin, and at worst old pieces of discarded asbestos, become little more than tissue paper against the extremes of nature.

December 26th 2004, saw the biggest tsunami in recent history devastate the coasts of South East Asia and to a lesser extent East Africa. Tsunami in Japanese means "Harbour Wave". This time there were many harbours that felt the wrath of the mighty ocean. Although the harbour wave does not discriminate, inevitably it was the poor people who felt the brunt and true might of a furious sea.

For me the tsunami story started on December 22nd 2004, four days before the disaster. I had been working in Africa for several weeks and was preparing to leave Tanzania, to come home for Christmas. The day before I had taken the short flight back from Zanzibar where I had witnessed the liveliest group of women who had joined a CARE International loan scheme co-operative. They were enthusiastically working themselves out of poverty. Their smiles and colourful clothing were a true joy, and I felt honoured to be in their company.

When the mighty wave struck the coasts of South East Asia on 26th December, it also struck to a lesser extent the coasts of East Africa. I was shocked to hear that twenty people had been killed in the very place I had been just a few days before. I remembered a hard drinking Japanese lady who had insisted on giving me the roughest massage ever known, much to the amusement of a laughing group of ex-pats and locals who had suffered at her hands. It would seem that in this part of the world she is famous, and many a strong man has been reduced to begging for mercy by this devilish diva. I also remembered the huge loud Belgian who had built a paradise hotel and beachcomber bar with his own hands. The local smiling women, children and men whom I had taken pictures of on the beach. Who survived and who died I have no idea.

Like all I watched with horror as the BBC revealed the devastation on television. Then, at the end of December came the phone call from journalist Steve Gravenor. "What are you doing for the next couple of weeks" his question. I had planned to take three months of 2005 off, to raise funds to document the pygmies of Central Africa. So my answer was "not a lot". "Get your suitcase packed, we are going to Sri Lanka" came the demand.

I have worked many times for Steve in the past and know that this is always a very fluid situation. It always ends up supplying numerous papers and magazines with stories and news, and always requires total commitment.

A few days later we landed at Colombo and immediately set off in search of telling the story of the tsunami, now moving into clearing up the incredible devastation. Over the next couple of weeks we would travel around half of the Sri Lanka coastline hearing the most appalling stories of loss and sadness. We would document these stories whilst living and working in snake and scorpion invested debris. Local people were fighting against time to repair their crushed and wounded land. The people; oh those people. Hindu’s, Buddhist’s, Muslims, Christians were uniformly welcoming, kind, courteous, in a time of monstrous apocalypse. I remember a woman who made us a drink in the remains of her home, apologising for being unable to supply cold drinks.

Our poor driver Sunil. How his world that he had worked so hard for had changed. Normally he would ferry nice clean tourists around the beauty spots and best restaurants. Now he was having to work up to eighteen hours a day with two scruffy, unshaven, smelly journo’s who insisted he take them to places of great tragedy. He was terrified of one area where Tamil Tigers had set up road blocks. But what choice had he got. He needed to feed his family to.

The journey around the coastline of Sri Lanka could leave one numb with disbelief at the sheer scale of the devastation. Hundreds and hundreds of miles. In some parts the stories of sadness and loss were almost beyond comprehension. I remember a Muslim cleric in Galle who had lost eleven members of his family. He wanted to share his Red Cross rations with me. Although I neither needed or wanted to share his food, I understood. He had to at least be able to believe he could welcome a guest. It was all he had left. "God is Angry" he told me. I didn’t believe him at the time but for some reason it stayed with me.

After a couple of weeks of this, Steve and I decided to spend a couple of days in Negombo, cleaning up and recouping before flying home. Negombo was relatively untouched by the tsunami so we just planned to rest around the pool and file a few stray bits. However, on walking onto the beach and turning left, we stumbled onto another tragedy. A woman approached and asked me to see her home, or what was left of it. Although nobody died here in the tsunami, some of the fishing community had had their homes and boats smashed by the harbour wave. On further investigation, we were led by the local priest, Father Clement, to a refugee camp housing around six hundred people. Because of the less serious nature of the devastation, these people had been ignored and missed by not only the media, but also the aid and relief agencies. To my amazement they were hungry! How could this be? Millions upon millions of pounds, euros, and dollars had been raised in the West and these people had been totally left to fend for themselves apart from tents supplied by the Sri Lanka Red Cross.

I had spoken to Nigel Pickover, the lively editor of the Evening Star, before leaving for Sri Lanka, and decided to give him a call to see if he was interested in this story. In his usual style, he made the snap decision to launch an appeal for these people. On return to the UK, a fund raising Evening Star photographic exhibition, funded by ICI ImageData, was put together in less than a week and hosted by Ipswich Borough Council at the Corn Exchange. Now that is what I call shifting. Exhibitions normally take months and even years to see the light of day!

Well that was January knocked out and I prepared to get back to my pygmy project. But this was not to be. A call from the historic French magazine Paris Match saw Steve and me straight back to Sri Lanka. This time we would work in the east coast area of Batticaloa where aid agencies and the international community were seemingly letting down the victims of some of the worst and most terrible disaster zones. At Navalady, a small strip of land about 400 to 800 metres across and located between the ocean and a lagoon, the community of Burghers didn’t stand a chance. They came from Portugal 500 years ago and now they were as good as gone. The survivors have been forbidden by the government to return as the area, possibly one of the most beautiful in the world, has been deemed to dangerous.

At next door Dutchbar, the whole scene was of a flattened and smashed community. The legion of young Red Cross girls and boys, hired for around £1-50 a day, worked with their bare hands to clear up. By the church, a young mother was helped by her children as the sounds from inside her body made an awful rasping sound. She had been swept in the tide and had inhaled thick and gritty sand. Her health was failing, the struggle for life now draining from her face. This was a fairly common symptom of those who were swept in the water but survived. I made the mistake of taking a swim in the sea to cool down. There was a sharp dip and I found myself up to my chest in strong and unpredictable current. The sea bed itself had been picked up and thrown across the land, filling the homes with sand and black mud. This was, and still is at time of writing, a forlorn place.

There were no hotels so we bedded down for a couple of weeks with 200 Tamil refugees. It was here that I was to learn the Hindu attitude to life and come to question many of my own learning's. These people do not believe in harming anything unnecessarily. If a python enters the room, they simply give it a wide birth until it gets bored and moves on about it’s business. At night, they light fires to discourage the elephants. Howling dogs walk through the buildings in the dead of night and seemingly cause no offence. I saw a crocodile walking down the street. Astounded, I asked our driver if this was dangerous. "Not if you don’t go near him" the casual reply.

I became fascinated by the washed and tsunami damaged photographs scattered amongst the debris. The effect the ‘Harbour Wave’ had inflicted on them was strange and even eerie. Happy family pictures, taken in better times, were invaded by swirling colours that distorted the images. I picked a few up and at night copied them by candle light at the refugee camp. Interested in what I was doing, the refugees would come to watch. Without prompting, they would unanimously murmur "tsunami". I came to realise that to these people, who had been tossed around in the wave and who knew what a tsunami looks like first hand, these photographs had in fact recorded those terrible minutes. As the photographs [although now mere scrap paper"] were not my property, I decided to return them. This I did in the morning before going back to work. However, the Red Cross boys and girls had seen what I was doing, and had placed some more to one side for me. This became a daily routine and I eventually copied over 250. I have now to decide what to do with these photographs. They are so powerful, so tragic, and so personal that I feel an almost religious need to serve these pictures the best I can.

The refugees were protected by soldiers and police. These guys were also friendly, playing cards and listening to the radio twenty four hours a day. I have been in many refugee camps over the years and at night they can be very dangerous places. Not this one. Steve and I were never under any threat and treated with the utmost respect. Our processions were never tampered with and we felt totally at ease. At night, by candle light, young students would carry on their English studies. From this point of view, Steve and I were even able to be of some use. I actually felt very sad to leave these poor poor people who had lost everything, yet still had such great dignity and grace.

At the end of the assignment, Steve and I made the journey back to Negombo and delivered some of the money already raised by the Evening Star. With this several canoes were bought and some of the refugees went back to the sea. We also learnt that two western women had arrived after reading the articles in the Evening Star. Angered by what they found, they had raised the roof in certain government circles. The result was the Negombo fishing refugees were now being fed.

That was February knocked out and I prepared to get back to my pygmy project. But once again, this was not to be. The Evening Star Negombo refugee fund had swelled and fund raising was going on around Ipswich and parts of Suffolk. Lady Abigail Cattermole had arranged a dinner at Copdock which raised over ten thousand pounds for the Negombo appeal. The Trimley pantomime had given a thousand. Restaurants held special evenings and so on. Now, at least some of this money had to be ferried to Negombo. With eleven thousand pounds in cash, I entered Sri Lanka in March. Transferred into Sri Lanka currency this totalled over 2 million rupees! This was negotiated by 28 year old Ruwan Thamel, a man I would later come to trust and like immensely. The money over half filled my rucksack, the rest taken up with my camera and lenses [yes, somewhere I am still a photographer].

This was going to be a pleasurable journey and a simple task. I would deliver the money to St Sebastian Church, get receipts and report the progress over the next ten days of the purchase of fishing boats and engines for the refugees. I booked a hotel room just half a mile from the refugee camp and church so that I could walk to work or go by tuk tuk. I figured maybe three or four hours a day writing and photographing the progress and sending the reports back to the Evening Star by e-mail would do nicely. The rest would be spent lazing around the pool reading a Frederick Forsyth book I have had for about two years, and listening to Simple Minds on my Walkman. So on day one I did just that after changing the money and passing it onto Father Clement. We made a contract with a boat builder and now for some relaxation. There was little in the way of tourists which is sad. The knock on effects of the tsunami is hitting the people of this beautiful country hard. So I had the pool more or less to myself. I lay down in the sun and enthusiastically opened the first page in preparation for another twisting and turning journey from the ‘master storyteller’. Ooohh this felt good.

Around 11-00PM all was about to change however. As I enjoyed a good cup of Ceylon tea in the warm evening air, one of the waiters came over with a very concerned ashen face. On the hotel television, a tsunami alert had been issued as another earthquake had erupted in Sumatra. This was an 8.7. Another big one. My first thought was "oh my God, all those people in their shacks along the beach just outside my hotel are asleep". I told the waiter to come with me and we set off into the darkness to wake them up. Dogs barked and growled as we banged on the ramshackle doors of the fishing community. As they woke, surprised to see an Englishman at the door in the middle of the night, I told them "you must get up, don’t panic but go in land, tell your neighbour". Most didn’t understand this but the word "tsunami" they did. I almost tripped over Ruwan Thamel who was asleep on the beach. I didn’t know, but quite a lot of people just sleep on the sand!

Ruwan joined me and we set off waking people. More joined and around ten minutes later the tuk tuks were going up and down the street sounding their horns. The army evacuated the refugee camp in trucks and everybody was leaving. As I walked back out onto the sea road tourists were leaving the smart hotels with their bags. Fishermen chanted as they hauled their heavy boats and equipment to relevant safety in gangs. Groups of fishermen stayed on the beach to protect their property from criminals, their women and children sent inland. Steve Gravenor phoned to get the story for the British press and thus there was no sleep.  

Day Two. OK, the day before was just one of those things. A tsunami never came this time to Sri Lanka. But in total ten people died during the evacuation of the coast, mainly from heart attack. Various reports estimate around a thousand dead mainly on the island of Nias off Sumatra. The event had sparked panic throughout the coastlines of South East Asia. In my hotel room I prepared my Frederick Forsyth book and Walkman with some affection. The big decision was which Simple Minds album I would listen to. A little factor 48 on my pinky white skin. I could feel the swimming pool patio calling. But as I walked out into the warm air, something was very very wrong. The sky had become black and thunder echoed in the distance. Lightning cascaded across the Indian Ocean sky for hundreds of miles into the distance. The monsoon rains had come early!   When the rain came, it whipped and lashed with great fury, and then just fell straight from the sky as though a huge bucket had been tipped up in heaven. The thunder now was deafening and sounded like Monty at El Alamein.  However, that would soon be the least of my worries. Father Clement phoned. "Please come to the church". There was bad news. No engines could be delivered until the end of July. With so many being ordered as tsunami replacements across South East Asia, the manufacturers in Japan were all pushed beyond their limits. This was a setback. But much much worse was to come. Criminal gangs and some wealthy [and in my opinion incredibly selfish] fishing boat company owners had got wind of our plans. Basically, the wealthy companies wanted the engines for themselves and the criminals wanted the money. Some of the refugee fishermen had already been threatened. The money and Father Clement was clearly in peril. This was all going wrong by the second. I sat on my own to think things through and quickly made what could be loosely called a plan.

First, I would get the money out of Negombo and thus take the threat away from Father Clement. I contacted Ruwan Thamel and told him to bring a friend he could trust. He brought 29 year old Anthony Fernando. They took me to some local fishermen who told me that second-hand reconditioned engines were fine as long as they were in tip top condition. So a plan started to emerge in my head and I recruited Ruwan and Anthony to deal for me. We needed a driver and I recruited another friend 24 year old tuk tuk driver Sumith Fernando. We then headed north for around forty miles. From now on we would travel by boat up river into the jungle. For this I recruited Sumith’s brother Samantha. My idea was to buy the engines further up country and bring them back to Negombo for distribution. With the money spent, we would be of no interest to the criminals. And anyway, they would be hard pushed to find us in the jungle.

Village by village we stopped to ask local fishermen about engines they would sell. All engines were checked rigourously by Samantha and over 30 were rejected. Engines deemed to be in top condition were purchased and placed into the boat. Ruwan and Anthony argued and negotiated low prices for the engines. At times the negotiations became heated, but they would remind the sellers that these engines were for their brothers and sisters in Negombo who had lost everything. This usually met with a positive response. If an engine was good but had a small discrepancy, we would give them a day to fix it. If this was done to the satisfaction of Samantha, we would then purchase it for a fair but good price.

This process continued into the evening and through to the early hours of morning for four days and nights. When the boat became full of engines, they would be transported back to the house of Samantha for storage, to later be taken by road back to Negombo. To make life difficult, our team was lashed by monsoon rains in crocodile and alligator invested waters.

On one occasion, Samantha’s two young sons accompanied the team. They were playful and full of fun. However, they would sometimes spot a different type of ripple in the water and become very serious. Their eyes would sharply focus unblinking toward the ripple. This was crocodiles. They already knew all the various signs of jungle river life.

Eventually, five days later, the engines were stored at St Sebastian Church, Negombo. The result was that six boats and engines had now become thirteen, due to tough negotiation and the fanatical dedication of the team. Taking to the jungle river in a monsoon, in crocodile and alligator invested waters, hunted by criminals, with a rucksack crammed full of money, and often in total darkness, may not seem the best plan ever hatched. But it worked.

The members of what became known as "The Team", all had very different personalities. Ruwan is an open book; emotional, fiery and loyal. Anthony was efficient and a little mysterious. In fact, there was something even a little dangerous about him. Samantha, the only member who spoke no English, was the quiet steady type who never let anything fluster him. He could look at a boat and tell straight away what was wrong with it. He could listen to an engine and also diagnose a problem straight away. Sunith seemed for the whole ten days to be the strong and confident one. Never complained about anything. Then in the last hour before I left for the UK, he came apart. This was because this was the end of "The Team". Our job was done but he wanted to keep going. Also, being quiet, he had kept everything inside and now it needed to come out.

Of all the team members, Ruwan was definitely the most highly strung. He could be the happiest, the angriest, the most worried, and at times rather depressed by events. When somebody would try to trick us out of the funds he would rage that this money had been collected by English people for his brothers and sisters in need. When things went well and we made a good buy, he was ecstatic. When the criminals and wealthy boat owners intimidated the poor people and Father Clement in an attempt to get everything for themselves, he was desperately worried. He had an annoying habit of always being ready an hour early. From me, he needed the most attention. I came to know when he needed a lift and when to calm him down.

One saying I used that went down well with ‘The Team’ was "don’t let the bad guys win’. I would use it a lot. When things got rocky, I would rally them and look them in the eyes. "We are the good guys" I would tell them. They would repeat it a few times, and then we always set of again with a new determination. Ruwan, like all, worked extremely hard, even braving the monsoon with a touch of jungle fever. I think he truly relished having a purpose. Purpose is something he may have been deprived of to date, in his life of bread line struggle.

On the Sunday morning, father Clement would announce at St Sebastian Church, that the chosen fishermen must draw lots to see who would receive the boats. This was to be a cruel way of distribution, but there was no other way. However, what happened was even crueller. The criminals and boat companies were back and had intimidated the local fishermen. They had also pushed to the front of the queue, and were trying to get the boats for themselves. Things were becoming ugly and the whole program was in jeopardy. Father Clement decided to abandon the lottery and to think of another way.

It was decided to hold the lottery at the refugee camp instead of at the church. Here, there are armed guards and soldiers, and only the local refugee fishermen without homes and boats could enter. The lucky winners of the boat lottery would all receive legal documents for the boats, meaning that they could not be taken from them.

We loaded the engines into a lorry and drove them away from the church. Some of the ‘bad guys’ were there but we just kept going before they could realise what had happened. We entered the refugee camp and told the refugees of the new plan. The drawing of lots was both unpleasant and happy at the same time. To see the hopeful faces of people who had lost everything, needing the boats and engines to start getting their lives back together, was pitiful. But the joy and relief of the beneficiaries was heart warming. They took the engines back to their tents to await the delivery of the boats which would happen over the next few weeks. [I was also kissed by each of these rough diamonds which I don’t remember the Evening Star editor telling me was one of my duties!]

The next day there was a little more trouble at the church with the criminals. But they had already lost and the ‘good guys’ had won. Some windows were smashed and Father Clement suffered some verbal abuse. But Father Clement is a strong man and he was in high spirits. Thus the defeated ‘bad guys’ dispersed and went back to whatever hole they had crept from in the first place. But the warning must be that, with millions of pounds, euros, and dollars now going rebuilding this torn and wounded part of the world, the task is not going to be easy. After all, criminals and money are like dogs and a bone.

Wednesday 6th April, the first boat took to the sea with it’s new owner fisherman 36 year old Warnakulasuriya Anthony Fernando. Everything was now worthwhile. An estimated twenty people will benefit from this one boat. Over the next month, all thirteen boats will take to the water with their new owners, benefiting directly and indirectly maybe two hundred people. The refugees of Negombo still need boats and homes. But, for these few people, a light has been lit at the end of the tunnel.

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Nicky Lewin



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