Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken

Dutch Diplo Talk

Ten years ago the Tsunami struck….

23 Dec 2014

Tsunami Sri Lanka 2004

I will never forget where I was on that fateful Sunday, December 26th 2004: A sitting room in Australia, on holiday with my relatives, drinking coffee with my family.

Somebody told us to turn on the TV as there was something about a huge tsunami. We barely even knew what a tsunami was. Once we started watching we stayed glued to the screen as the reported numbers of victims increased: hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands.We tried to call Sri Lanka, where I was posted as ambassador at the time. The network was overloaded and we barely managed to get through. I only got some text messages across. Within hours I was on a plane flying home to Sri Lanka.

The weeks after the moment I set foot on Sri Lankan soil I remember only as a chaotic string of impressions, events, conversations. The first days I was completely absorbed in the work at the embassy: coordinating, registering, organizing. We made detailed lists of the Dutch people missing, and we were in close contact with the ministry day and night as they had received thousands of telephone calls of concerned relatives and friends.

tsunami Sri Lanka 2004

The first days the list of the missing grew larger by the hour and we were relieved with every person found safely. Colleagues at the embassy went to the stricken areas. I waved them off from the porch of the embassy, the cars loaded with drinking water and baby care items. They tried to reach the most affected areas to offer assistance and find compatriots. When I went home to catch a few hours of sleep I could not but keep watching the images of Sri Lanka and the other affected countries on TV. While the largest number of deaths occurred in Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka, most international news coverage consisted of images from Thailand because of the large number of international tourists on holiday there.

Again and again I saw images of a bus station in Galle, a place I knew so well, where people desperately clung on top of a bus only to be washed away within seconds. Many eyewitness stories will remain with me forever, including the story of a man who was on a train along the coast that had been washed away. A first wave left the passengers up to their waists in the water, and as they were trying to help each other, a second overpowering wave came. He miraculously survived being dragged by the water, but was left with a terrible insecurity about what had happened to his loved ones. Where to start searching?

Many Dutch people sought help at the embassy and related their stories, and gradually I started to imagine the horrific scenes of what had happened. We felt powerless as we tried to comfort Dutch people who had been tragically affected. We could only assist by helping to solve practical problems in the chaotic situation that Sri Lanka was in.

tsunami Sri Lanka 2004

Days later, when the coastal road had been cleared, I drove south to Galle, past miles and miles of coastline with nothing left but destroyed homes. People camped in improvised tents. We stopped halfway to see that fateful train near Piraliya where 1,700 passengers were killed. It had been lifted up and spun around. In Galle, the chairman of the Netherlands Alumni Association and I offered our condolences to a member of the alumni association. What do you say to a man who just lost his wife and all his children? He told us in a quiet voice how the family went out on a picnic in the car, how he left the car to buy some peanuts, and when he turned around he saw his car with his family overpowered by this huge wave. We visited temple compounds where survivors had gathered; their faces blank. We brought them clothes, blankets, food, and toys, but felt so helpless.

Several weeks later I visited isolated areas on the East Coast, including areas then held by the Tamil Tigers. Few people had been there to help survivors. Mulativu looked like what I imagine a town struck by an air raid must look like; ravaged, desolate, and quiet. A torn sari fluttered high in a palm tree. We tried to imagine what happened in those decisive split seconds. I recalled how in Australia I heard that thousands, maybe tens of thousands had been killed. By now I knew that more than 36,000 people had been killed in Sri Lanka. Many had lived their whole lives along the coasts of Sri Lanka. How will they be remembered? Whole communities and families perished, not even leaving relatives or friends to remember them. We mourn them.


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About the author

Susan Blankhart
Written by Susan Blankhart

Netherlands ambassador in Sudan, also accredited to Central African Republic, Chad and Eritrea.

I was appointed to Sudan in 2012. From 2008-2012 I was ambassador to Egypt and earlier to Costa Rica and Sri Lanka. Before 2002, I worked at the ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, mainly in the fields of human rights, humanitarian aid, conflict prevention, good governance and on gender issues. Experience I use in my work here in the four countries I am accredited to now. Furthermore I am interested in developing economic opportunities and relations between our countries and bringing Sudanese and Dutch people together by finding common ground.

I was born and spent part of my childhood in Indonesia. I am married and we have three children living all over the world.