Tsunami Survivor Returns to Sri Lanka
By Louise Gray, PA
A British survivor of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster returned to Sri Lanka today to assist the local community which helped him and other tourists escape the devastation.
Jake Zarins, from Southwold in Suffolk, is travelling to Unawatuna in the south of the island where he was on holiday when the tsunami struck on Boxing Day.
After setting up a fund for the community, Friends of Unawatuna, the 27-year-old is returning to find out how to spend more than £20,000 raised so far by tourists who feel they owe a debt to the local community still suffering the aftermath.
When the tsunami hit, Mr Zarins and his brother Alexis, 24, joined others helping to drag the injured from wrecked buildings to the Rock House Hotel on higher ground.
Not all survived, and Mr Zarins later joined locals digging graves for the bodies.
During his three-week trip, one of the people he will meet is local Sam Siriwardana, who described Mr Zarins and his brother as “heroes”.
He will also meet the Metropolitan Police in Sri Lanka in an effort to identify those killed in the disaster.
The aquarium designer said about 250 tourists escaped the destruction at the coastal resort, many surviving the days that followed thanks to food and shelter from locals.
Since returning to Britain, Mr Zarins said those involved have kept in touch and decided to return the favour – and compensate for their unpaid hotel bills.
Speaking from Galle in southern Sri Lanka, where he was waiting to travel on to Unawatuna, he said: “People who got out after the incident are helping because we got a lot of help from local people at the time when they should have been concentrating on their own friends and family.”
Mr Zarins, who will be accompanied by film company Mentorn Productions, will assess the best way to help the community recover in the long term through contacting local community leaders and NGOs.
Friends of Unawatuna hopes to raise more money and help the villagers rebuild the basic infrastructure necessary to allow them to reconstruct their lives.
This is likely to include the reconstruction of educational, medical, sewage, clean water and electricity infrastructures.
Mr Zarins said: “The idea is to get it as sorted as possible for Christmas next year, when the tourist season starts again.
“I know a lot of people have said to me that that they want to go out at Christmas and have some sort of remembrance next Boxing Day.”
Kate Posneer, 30, another tourist who escaped the killer waves at Unawatuna, said many tourists owed their lives to the local people.
The teacher from West Chiswick, London, was considering a walk on the beach at Unawatuna when she heard a sound like a “freight train”, and screams.
Minutes later the basement of the hotel was flooded with water and guests were hauling survivors over the upper balconies.
Ms Posneer said the hotel owner escorted guests at the hotel to higher ground despite the fact he had lost his aunt, uncle and father in the disaster.
Later she joined about 40 tourists sheltering with a local family in the hills, who shared supplies of rice and daal and patrolled the area at night to deter thieves.
She said: “People had lost everything, absolutely everything, including their families, yet they helped us to safety.
“They had been through all this and yet they were still looking after tourists. It is over and beyond anything and those are the people we want to help now.”
Friends of Unawatuna has a website at www.friendsofunawatuna.org.uk and can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org