The Power of the Victim
The Hambantota beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka is a place tourist brochures would immediately label as a “paradise.” Its gleaming white sands cover a broad beach within the wide cove created by centuries of warm ocean currents. Palm trees sway in the hot afternoon breeze as the waves lap against the shore.
But there is much sadness here. Tents stand in the sweltering heat where once comfortable homes sheltered this Muslim fishing community. Rubble and shattered fishing boats clutter the open spaces between the tents and village people wander about, still reflecting the face of trauma six months after the deadly tsunami wave rushed up over the sand dunes and washed the community into the nearby lagoon.
While there has been no progress in building new homes for the people, the mosque is slowly being reconstructed. Here people gather for their prayers, to escape the burning heat or to share their burdens of loss and discouragement.
Our small group of visitors from Japan, Korea, India, Germany and America hesitantly entered the community just as the call for the noon prayers begin to sing out from the mosque loud speaker. We didn’t want to disturb the people as they gathered for their noon prayers, but we were also a little uncertain if they would welcome us into their grief and loss. The smiles and warm handshakes allayed our fears.
Slowly the stories emerged. People shared about their own survival. Some had left early in the morning to go to the market on the nearby hill. From there they suddenly saw the wave sweep down through the cove, cover their community and then recede, leaving behind only rubble. Others were swept out of their homes and somehow managed to grab hold of a tree or bush which they desperately clung to until the water flowed back into the sea.
Now they sit alone in their sweltering tents erected as temporary shelters, only mental memories of their lost family members to cherish. All other memories, the photos, the souvenirs and the personal items, lie somewhere at the bottom of the lagoon behind the community. These victims of the December tsunami have only their deep faith in Allah, their memories, and each other to hold them up in this time of loneliness.
The searing heat reflecting off the white sand seemed to even burn through our shoes as we walked among the rubble and the temporary tent shelters. Living here in the heat and the constant reminder of the disaster that took away their homes and their families must be a burden few human could bear. What, we asked ourselves, could we say to these victims of the tsunami’s wrath? Sometimes, there are just no words to convey what is in the heart.
Through the opening of one tent, we saw a middle-aged woman kneeling on a mat spread out on the floor. She was deep in her prayers of thanks and praise to Allah. We quietly walked on by, but she saw us, stood up and invited us over to her tent to talk. Her friendly welcome belied her sadness. All of her family had perished as the wave crashed through the community that terrible morning more than six months earlier. All that was left of her home was the cement and tilled floor and she had pitched her tent over that, wanting to hang on to a small piece of her life.
As she shared the story of her loss and struggle, one member of our group began weeping. Sometimes tears for the victims come much easier than words. We just can not find the way to offer comfort to someone who has suffered so much more than we have ever experienced.
But it was the victim who offered comfort. This Muslim woman, with so much pain in her heart, gently reached out and wiped the tears from the cheeks of our colleague. “You will be alright,” she seemed to say. “And I, God willing, will be alright too.”
I was reminded of something a friend in India once said to me. We often talk of victims as being helpless and needing our sympathy and aid to survive, he said. But perhaps it is more important for us to speak of the power of the victim to nurture and to heal.
That day, on the white sands of Hambantota and among the ruins of a once prosperous Muslim community, we experienced the power of the victim to offer us healing and nurture. May all of us open our hearts to these deep expressions of God’s redeeming love and compassion that come from those we too often look at as helpless victims.
Reprinted with permission of PeaceSigns, the online publication of the Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA, www.mennolink.org/peace