The following article was written by Christopher Torchia for the Canadian Press and was published on January 2, 2005. Kumar Deshapriya and Saroja Senivirathna, mentioned in this article, both still work at Sambodhi Home today.

 Screaming with fear, paralysed children at a shelter for the physically disabled and mentally ill lay helpless in their beds as water surged into their dormitories during the tsunami that ravaged coastal areas of southern Asia.

Some desperate children gripped the rafters as the water level rose inside the one-storey Sambodhi shelter, while others floated away on mattresses to their deaths, witnesses say. Just 41 of the 84 residents of the home survived, caretaker Kumar Deshapriya said Saturday.

The southern city of Galle, where thousands died in the massive destruction wrought by an Indonesian earthquake and a tsunami on the day after Christmas, is full of tragic stories that echo the immense loss of communities elsewhere in Sri Lanka, as well as in Indonesia, Thailand and other affected countries.

The tale of the Sambodhi shelter, once home to deaf and blind children as well as disabled elderly, is one of the most poignant in Galle. Deshapriya, himself in a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy, said the disaster began after he returned from placing orders for fish, grain and vegetables at the market.

Back at Sambodhi, he heard a commotion outside and went to look.

“Once I got to the road, I saw that something strange was happening,” Deshapriya said. “I saw people running, shouting, screaming: ‘The sea is coming inland.’ Then I saw the sea, and it was not the same as before. It looked dark, black in colour.

“The water was coming down the road, twisting around. It’s hard to describe. It was coming faster than a speeding car,” said Deshapriya, who came to the shelter at age nine for care and became caretaker nine months ago. 

Pandemonium broke out in the shelter, which includes several courtyards connected by pillar-lined walkways, along with arched doorways leading into rooms with fans and mosquito nets slung near the high ceilings.

According to Deshapriya, children screamed and many didn’t appear to understand when one of the 11 workers at the shelter climbed onto the roof of a car and shouted: “Those who are able-bodied, come out immediately.” One sick child didn’t comprehend that his life was in danger, and started laughing.

“He was very joyful, seeing the water coming in. He was pointing it out to the other kids. He seemed very happy,” said Deshapriya, who escaped when a shelter resident pushed his wheelchair, running to higher ground. The same resident, a young man who stared dully at the ground, stood by on Saturday as the 26-year-old caretaker took stock of the damage.

The wall surrounding the shelter had collapsed. Mildewed mattresses and their soaked, wooden or rusting iron frames, along with overturned, sand-encrusted wheelchairs, were scattered in the bedrooms. Children’s toys – a stuffed purple dinosaur, a bunny rabbit – were lined up on a night table. Spoons sat in mouldy plates of rice and curry on tables, a sign of how suddenly disaster had struck

Wearing surgical masks and pink rubber gloves, volunteers from Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, removed debris from the damp, muddy complex. The smell of decomposing bodies was strong. The team found a worm-ridden body Saturday in the kitchen, and waited most of the afternoon for authorities to come and pick it up.

On Dec. 26, as the disaster unfolded, shelter employee Saroja Senivirathna was happy that Deshapriya had managed to escape. She said she and a few others climbed onto the roof of tiles atop sheets of corrugated iron to escape the waves, but the cries of trapped children below was so unbearable that they descended to try to save as many as they could.

“While I was on the roof, I thought the whole place was going to collapse,” Senivirathna said. “While these children were screaming, I decided it would be better to all die together rather than save my life alone. That’s why I got down.

“But even then, she had to make a hard choice, abandoning severely disabled children so she could help ones who had some ability to move. Some kids floated away, while others survived by clinging to tree limbs, although they were temporarily stuck high up in the trees when the water level subsided.

The youngest shelter resident, an 11-year-old girl who was abandoned on the roadside by her parents, survived. A ward for the most incapacitated patients was in the front of the building, and the bodies of many of its occupants were found in quarters at the back.

The survivors are staying at Buddhist temples and other temporary housing for victims of the catastrophe.

Deshapriya is determined to rebuild the shelter, which has received donations and funding over the years from Mormons in the United States, a Dutch charity, Galle municipal authorities and Sri Lankan air force veterans.

“I will open up as soon as possible,” said Deshapriya, who hopes to move back into the shelter on Jan. 10. “We have nowhere else to go.”

A Partner in Care