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Sambodhi shelter - Disabled lay in their beds as waters engulfed them

By Christopher Torchia - Canadian Press
January 2, 2005

Kumar Deshapriya in a wheel chair because he suffers muscular dystrophy narrates how Sundays tidal wave struck the Sambodhi shelter, once home to disabled children as well as to disabled elderly people in the town of Galle, southern Sri Lanka. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)

GALLE, Sri Lanka (AP) - 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.

Some disabled survivors from Sambodhi Shelter are temporally housed in the Walahanduwa Sudharshanarama Temple. Chief incumbent Rev Kassapa and sister Noelin Punchihewa from Vanreeth elderly home look after the survivors un till they can move back to the Sambodhi Shelter.

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.

Kumar Deshapriya

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.

The 4 staff members of the Sambodhi House

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."  

 The Canadian Press 2005

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SAMBODHI SHELTER REFURBISHED! SOME RESIDENTS RETURNED.

Australia has come to the aid of mentally and physically disabled survivors of Sambodhi Shelter.

NSW upper house MP Ian Cohen, who survived the tsunami while surfing at Hikkaduwa, north of Galle, orchestrated the home's refurbishment with funding from the Australian high commission and a security fence is being built around it.

The Greens MP, together with volunteers from the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, have cleared the building of debris, scrubbed it clean and repainted it.

"When I first visited the home it was a really shocking sight," Mr Cohen said. "Sewage was flowing over ground so I had to wear a gas mask. It reduced me to tears."

The new-look home was officially opened on 14th of January after a Buddhist ceremony attended by Mr Cohen and representatives from the Australian high commission.

Sick residents returned to live in the shelter this week after workers removed bodies, some of them decomposing, and cleared debris from the dim, dank, grime-filled chambers.

"Some of the residents understand what happened, but most don't," said Terrence Silva, a patient-turned-caretaker. "Almost all the children are afraid, they're not the same as before. They have problems that they can't explain to others. They have feelings, but maybe they can't express themselves."

Still, the return to Sambodhi is a triumph of sorts for the survivors and their caretakers, or at least a determination to begin life again.

At least 17 residents are still in hospitals, and the rest are staying at private homes. The caretakers hope to bring them back to Sambodhi in the weeks ahead, and get them involved in singing, dancing and drawing pictures: anything to erase the trauma.

Many individuals and organizations including Elim Christian Services, USA have agreed to help the Sambodhi survivors.

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