Ms. Baldwin recalls events 5 years ago.

Home Needs shop, Arugambay high street, after high tide, December 2004

Remembering the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (- aftermath, press coverage)
I’d been staying with my brother and his family in Bahrain over Christmas, playing with his kids and hanging out by the pool. I remember when we first saw the news of the tsunami on TV and those shocking images. I knew immediately that I really wanted to go. I called my boss in London and suggested I flew straight to Sri Lanka from Bahrain, arguing I’d get there faster and for less money than the London correspondents. She agreed, before I had the chance to change my mind. That phone call kicked off a whirlwind of activity and emotion over the next 10 days or so – excitement, adrenalin, anxiety, exhaustion. It became the most valuable and moving reporting experience of my career. I witnessed scenes that I’d rather not witness again, that remain quite vivid and that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

That’s not to say I saw the worst of the devastation by any means, or at least not the human cost. By the time I got from Bahrain to Colombo and from Colombo by road to the eastern district of Ampara – one of the worst hit areas – many of the dead had been buried or taken away. But bodies were still trapped in some of the villages we (I was travelling with a Reuters photographer) visited and corpses were still being found. I remember the stench. I particularly remember one afternoon when we stumbled across people digging out bodies from a crumpled house and burning them on an open fire. They gave us some surgical masks to block the smell as we stood by and watched the flames rise into the air. Elsewhere, we watched people pick through the ruins of their homes and heard endless stories of children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins lost in the waves. I saw both desperation and resilience in the faces of the survivors we met. I remember feeling helpless at times. Many people we came across thought we were there to help – not just to interview and photograph them. They wanted us to arrange a way out for them to the UK or the United States. They thought we could give them food or money. They wanted our names and addresses. It was really tough to know what to do or say. I remember asking myself if there wasn’t more I could be doing to help. Was writing stories enough? Most of the bodies may have been buried by the time we arrived but we saw the devastation in the crushed buildings or in the cars or boats that were lying upside down on top of houses. There was stagnant water everywhere. We took a ride in a military helicopter that was delivering aid to cut-off communities. The coastal villages we saw from the air were completely flattened and mostly deserted. Back on the ground, graves had been uprooted by the force of the waves. I remember coming across a skull lying by the side of the road, unearthed from a grave. It made a great photograph. I remember the makeshift camps set up for the survivors, particularly one flooded school where scores of people were sleeping on a wet concrete floor. Where we were staying wasn’t much better, a small hotel that was just about keeping the water at bay. I also remember the beauty. In between the frantic activity – driving around in a battered combi van with out trusted local driver looking for news or filing stories on a laptop amongst all the rubble – we’d get a moment to wander on the beach and look at the sea. The palm trees had been pushed over by the force of the waves but the beaches were incredibly peaceful and the sea inviting. The churches and temples had survived best. They stood pretty much intact, even if everything around them was crushed. Reporting on the tsunami was, in one way, like an incredible adventure. Riding in helicopters above a beautiful palm-fringed coastline, learning about a different and fascinating culture, eating extremely spicy food. But – hopefully without sounding melodramatic – the stench of death overwhelms everything else. The shoes and clothes that saw me through those long days of reporting in Sri Lanka went straight in the bin at the first opportunity. I could hardly bear to touch them.

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25 Dec 2009 10:12:00 GMT

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Written by: Katherine Baldwin

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