January 23, 2005: Headlines: COS - Sri Lanka: Tsunami: Utica Observer-Dispatch: Sri Lanka RPCV Amy Neff Roth recalls land that has faced many violent waves

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sri Lanka: Peace Corps Sri Lanka: The Peace Corps in Sri Lanka: January 23, 2005: Headlines: COS - Sri Lanka: Tsunami: Utica Observer-Dispatch: Sri Lanka RPCV Amy Neff Roth recalls land that has faced many violent waves

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Sri Lanka RPCV Amy Neff Roth recalls land that has faced many violent waves

Sri Lanka RPCV Amy Neff Roth recalls land that has faced many violent waves

Sri Lanka RPCV Amy Neff Roth recalls land that has faced many violent waves

Area woman recalls land that has faced many violent waves

Sun, Jan 23, 2005

Special to the Observer-Dispatch

Loving Sri Lanka means crying a lot. I learned that as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1980s.

Then the tears flowed as I watched the death toll rise from civil war, terrorism, riots, massacres and assassinations. The ethnic and political factions involved were trying to shape the country's destiny through destruction, a trend that continues today.

Now even nature, whose generosity made this gorgeous, tropical island the "pearl of the Indian Ocean," has turned against Sri Lanka, sending tsunamis that claimed more than 30,000 lives there on Dec. 26.

"But Sri Lanka doesn't get tsunamis," I thought dazedly when I heard the news.

My mind flashed to everyone who had befriended me -- the family I'd lived with, their family, our neighbors, my students, shopkeepers, Peace Corps staff. I'd lived in the hill town of Gampola, so most of my friends were probably out of danger's way.

But didn't Padma's sister live closer to the coast? Where had Thushari moved after her marriage? Did the waiter who used to feed the mongooses after dark survive? His town was hit.

What happened to that tiny coastal church that welcomed a group of Americans on Christmas Day? The minister had translated the whole service into English just for us. Maybe someday I'll be able to go back and see what, if not who, has been swept away. For now, though, I'm already back there in my mind. I close my eyes and smell the scent of plumeria on the evening breeze. I feel my taste buds exploding with the heat of chili peppers in rice and curry. I hear the chirping of geckos climbing my walls. And I see the brilliance of stars beaming down on white sand beaches that used to be calm. Again, too, I feel the familiar heaviness as my heart breaks for this country.

Learning to love Sri Lanka wasn't always easy. I had trouble understanding the divisions and, all too often, hatred that separated the majority Buddhist Sinhalese; the minority Hindu Tamils; and the still smaller minority Muslims.

Anger welled up when I heard an ordinary Buddhist hotel owner talk about his unwillingness to kill mosquitoes and imply his fondness for dead Tamils.

I lived in a mostly Sinhalese area, but the news told me about the Tamil terrorists/rebels who hacked sleeping Sinhalese villagers to death in the desired Tamil homeland.

My disgust almost inoculated my heart against Sri Lanka's pain. But then I was welcomed whole-heartedly to my home by a family that didn't buy into the animosity.

Their two teenage daughters became my little sisters. Their young son, Danushka, became such a pal that when I was away one year on Aug. 25 -- our mutual birthday -- he refused to celebrate until I came home.

Together my family and I gossiped, watched "Dynasty" and "MacGyver" on TV, sadly discussed the latest local news, devoured M&Ms from home and screamed when a snake slithered through the kitchen ceiling during supper one night.

At school, my students -- young adults training to be English teachers -- giggled at my silly jokes and exclaimed, "Oh, miss." They good-naturedly dressed up in crazy costumes (such as a tube of toothpaste) for Halloween, wheelbarrow raced at a picnic and wore lemon hats to sing "Lemon Tree" on Parents' Day. Just after Ramadan, my Muslim students brought in holiday treats for their teachers and Sinhalese classmates. We "enjoyed nicely" together, as Lankans say.

In short, I got to know the warmer side of the country, a land where people laugh easily, share generously and smile often. That's why it hurt so much to watch my friends live in fear and uncertainty and to see their futures limited by the social and economic costs of violence.And that's why I grow sad when I think of Mulaffar. One of my school's few Muslim students, Mulaffar was also one of my favorites. He was cheerful, helpful and funny. He came into our school office one day with a huge, proud grin and bags of homemade sweets for his teachers.

I ran into Mulaffar another day just after he got off a bus from a trip to his east-coast home. A group of knife-wielding Sinhalese men, intent on avenging two soldiers killed in a skirmish with Tamil Tigers the day before, stopped the bus and began breaking windows. Mulaffar survived because, unlike most Muslims, his identity card was in Sinhalese, not Tamil, proving he wasn't Tamil.

Another man on the bus, a Tamil traveling with his 8-year-old, motherless son, wasn't so fortunate. The men pulled him off the bus and stabbed him as his son watched.I will never forget Mulaffar's eyes as he told me this story. "It's the look of eyes that have seen too much for their years," I wrote in a letter home that day. "It's the look of eyes that have laughed for 20 years, but suddenly forgotten how. If you want to pray for Sri Lanka, pray that God will take that look out of Mulaffar's eyes."How many Lankans, betrayed by the sea, which once brought only fish and tourists, now look at its familiar waters with Mulaffar's eyes?Many on the island will probably shrug their shoulders in the fatalistic resignation typical of local Buddhists, murmuring the ubiquitous "What to do?" and "Nothing to do." They may even blame the tsunami on karma -- punishment for the nation's bad deeds.I don't agree. I just see more inexplicable pain.

While in the Peace Corps, I wrote a poem which ended with the lines, "Hope lies buried with the dead./The pearl is crying./Paradise is lost."

I didn't know how much worse things could get. Or how many more tears I'd shed.

Amy Neff Roth lives in Sherburne. She and her husband, O-D copy editor Rob Roth, have three children.

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Utica Observer-Dispatch

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Sri Lanka; Tsunami



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