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As the island reels from the Easter Sunday attacks, Paul Forkan recalls the 2004 disaster and how Muslims cared for him and his grieving siblings
A week ago today the world watched in horror as the Easter Sunday attacks unfolded in Sri Lanka, a country no stranger to catastrophe. It was a dark day for such a beautiful and brave nation, one that will leave a permanent scar on many families from Sri Lanka and beyond, including the UK.
My heart goes out to these families and no words can begin to describe the depth of pain they must be feeling, the sheer agony of losing children and loved ones in such senseless acts.
Although worlds apart, my brother Rob and I couldn’t help but be reminded of our own brush with tragedy in Sri Lanka, when our family was caught up in the 2004 tsunami that devastated large parts of the country and killed more than 230,000 people, including our parents.
We had been on a four-year, once-in-a-lifetime trip throughout India, where we spent time volunteering in orphanages and slums. It was important to our parents that we witnessed first hand the suffering of people less fortunate than ourselves and I’m so grateful they taught us those lessons.
We decided to go to Sri Lanka for Christmas. I was 15, Rob 17 and my two younger siblings, Rosie and Matt, 8 and 11. We stayed in a hotel by the beach about 90 miles from Colombo. Our Christmas was spent playing on the beach and enjoying ourselves like any large, noisy family and at the end of the day we said goodnight to our parents and went to bed, not knowing that it was the last time we would see them alive.
The next morning I was shaken awake by my brother. Our bungalow was filling with water. We managed to escape through the door, onto the roof and reached higher ground where we waited in the chaos for news of the rest of our family.
We were finally reunited with our little brother and sister; Matt had been rescued from a tree and Rosie had been found drifting out to sea by surfers. There was no sign of our parents.
The Sri Lankan people, their lives also in ruins, gathered us up and took care of us. We were given refuge on the roof of a mosque. The Muslim community opened their doors to us and many others, keeping us safe even as their own homes, families and businesses lay in waste around them.
The local people fed us, kept us warm and comforted us while we waited for any news of our parents’ whereabouts. We could never begin to repay them for the kindness they showed us in those frightening first days.
Eventually we had no choice but to hitchhike back to Colombo and return to England alone, where we pieced our lives back together day by day. When we got home we were lucky to have friends and family and a community of people who rallied around us and kept us busy during the first difficult year. This was so important.
We were also a family of six siblings — we have two older sisters, Jo and Marie — so we could support each other.
No two human tragedies can really be compared, but if there’s one thing I can offer to the relatives and loved ones of those killed last Sunday, it’s that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
We think about our parents every day and this is what drives us onwards. Our family was destroyed by the disaster of 2004 but it made us stronger as people. Rob and I went on to start our clothing company, Gandys, under the motto “Inspired by travel, fuelled by giving back”. Our vision was to build a company that would not only be driven by profit but also by a sense of our shared humanity and duty to one another.
The first thing we did when we made enough money was return to Sri Lanka and build a kids’ campus for children who, like us, had lost their parents or had nowhere safe to go. We now have another kids’ campus in Malawi and plans are under way for two more in Nepal and Brazil.
This is how we dealt with our grief. We gave back. We tried to honour the memory of our parents and live by their example. In some way it made us feel closer to them. Grief can drive you mad but it can also drive you forward. There is power in grief. When you’ve lost everything, there’s nothing left to fear.
Thankfully no one from our kids’ campus was directly affected by last weekend’s tragedy, but I can’t help thinking of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, who showed us so much kindness.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with extraordinary wildlife, breathtaking scenery and a diverse, vibrant culture of many religions. We must not allow a small group of extremists to tear it apart.