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by Peter Vessey 2006

It is a few years back now that I recall the speed at which the Anglican dioceses of Derby and Leicester responded to the Kegworth air crash on the M1 and rushed to set up a quick response unit of neighbouring clergy who would be on hand and prepared to act as counsellors should there be a repeat disaster. To be fair I don't recall what training was given but I hope it was a little more than how to hold the hands of the hurting and praying with those who were desirous of such a ministry.

At the time I write this Natascha Kampusch, after eight years of solitary confinement, has escaped and written a letter to the media who are clamouring to get a glimpse of her, take photos and be the first to profit from her money-spinning story. She is being sheltered and counselled in an operation that even keeps her shocked parents at bay. In a remarkably mature letter she has given a few details of her imprisonment and requested the press "to stop the insulting reports, the misinterpretations of reality, the commentaries that claim to know better and the lack of respect for me…At the moment I feel very well in the place where I am staying, although perhaps I feel a little bit too much controlled… I am the one who has decided only to have telephone contacts with my parents. I am also the one who will decide when I have contact with journalists. Everybody wants to ask intimate questions, but they have nothing to do with anybody else. It may be that one day I speak to my therapist about it and may be not. Please let me have some peace in the immediate future. There are many people caring for me now. Please let me have time until I feel I can talk for myself." A letter issued prior to her appearance on Austrian television, written from what appears to be a safe place with wise advisors and carers. A plea for space that she may come to terms with what happened in the past and what is happening as she enters a different world, becoming suddenly the centre of attention.

At 9.35 a.m. on 2nd February 2005 my wife Uta and I stepped off the plane in Sri Lanka. The journey via Zurich and Dubai had taken twenty-five hours and we had not slept. At 10.45 a.m. we were ushered into an 'open to the street' funeral parlour where lay the body of the widowed mother of two adult children whom we were to counsel.

We held their hands, let them tell the story and wept with them. From there, on to a Baptist Church where a New Zealand team of psychiatrists and psychotherapists were giving a very professional training course with very professional printed notes in three languages to members of the congregation and others who were seeking to respond to the tsunami tragedy. We looked in, engaged for thirty minutes and were then on our way to have some breakfast and the eight-hour journey to Kandy.

At 5 a.m. on the following morning we were driven to the East Coast, to what was then, and remains still, the worst affected area of the country. By late afternoon we were on the sands getting our first impressions. It was just five and a half weeks since the waves had hit the beaches and wiped out a huge swathe of human life.

The beaches were empty; emptied of houses (many built close to the shoreline), emptied of boats and any familiar industry, emptied of trees and emptied of people. We saw no corpses. They had been buried as they were found. But in all probability, beneath the sand, littered with all the debris of human belongings (sandals, toys, bits of domestic life) lay countless dead bodies, which may or may not be washed up in years to come. There was a sort of odour. Who would wish to walk there now, in the graveyards so to speak? Who would want to revisit the strand where their houses, shops, businesses had once stood and from which they and their loved ones had been swept so mercilessly inland? Who would revisit the place of personal terror where children were torn from their parents' grasp and families and communities destroyed?

Our original call was to teach students through an interpreter the 'art' of counselling into trauma. It was made more difficult because most of the students were not on site at the moment of the tsunami. Term had ended and it was vacation time. Many were in their home villages up in the hills, celebrating Christmas in one way or another. Most were as shocked as we ourselves, visiting the sites of tsunami after the event. What we all encountered were the survivors; stunned, lost, bewildered, despairing, homeless, jobless, totally bereaved (one had lost seventeen members of his family), even having to prove their own identities and, without any title deeds to their properties, unable to prove that they had lived where they claimed and were entitled to help through the Aid Organisations; trauma on top of trauma. Some wandered around or stood on the flat foundation of their former dwelling (even if they could find that in the changed landscape) or propped against a toxic well or rescuing a brick or two, for some future rebuilding programme, if the government would allow them. Forty days on they had been told it was illegal to rebuild. Some homes were identifiable only by the family dog that instinctively knew where to go, waiting in vain for someone to come and feed it.

We helped to clear the debris from a doctor's house. He had gone to church on Boxing Day. His wife, invalid father and brother had remained at home. She was found two miles inland. The other two died in the collapsed house. Everything we found that looked personal we placed in a largish waste paper basket, his ruined stethoscope for example. There were no patients' records, no medicines, no photos or personal valuables, no passport and no identity, no evidence to government officials that he was even a qualified practitioner other than his remaining few patients, scattered around the refugee camps, requesting his medical attentions. Half of what we found probably was not his but had been washed in from somewhere else. How would you begin to counsel him? Help clear the debris? Hold his hand? Give him a home? Put money in his bank account? Look compassionately into his eyes? Sympathise, even feel empathy, even advanced empathy? I don't know where he had been up to this point in time, but forty days on (by local tradition the period of mourning), he, a Christian, had returned to his former home, revisiting the place of good memories and horror. The best place had, in a flash, become the worst. He stood and watched as ten students, none of whom had witnessed the tsunami, cleared his ruined home and burnt the rotting rubbish. He was silent. Speechless. Numbed out. I guess, he did the right thing, he waited a good while before returning to the place where he had kissed his wife, left his family and gone to church that Sunday morning.

I saw a man, a Muslim, sitting on a fallen tree trunk, staring out to sea motionless, perhaps watching, waiting for the boat to come in and bring back his fisherman son. Disturb him? Leave him for a while? When would be the moment to break into his silent world? What would be the loving thing to do?

A young Hindu man, utterly beautiful, scanned the beach where the Sunday school had stood. His boy had attended and had never been found. The whole Hindu Sunday school was washed away. He 'owed' it to his seven year old boy to watch out for his return. "Would his son have wanted him to put his life on hold for good?" It was a simple question but perhaps opening up a different perspective.

A deserted Christian woman with her two teenage daughters stood on the cracked floor of her wall-less house. There was no man in their lives and all else was lost, too. Where was hope to spring from? Growing out of the concrete, forty days on, a green shoot had appeared. That language was common to us; out of the ruins comes new life. Hope can be reborn. Counselling hardly seemed relevant.

We went through a refugee camp for eight hours. Uta, visiting one side I the other, talking non-stop, tent by tent. The people chose to tell their stories and express their practical needs. No government official had visited them.

The most moving moment before we left the East Coast was meeting a group of forty-one Hindus. They had been prepared for our coming and had gathered at the home of a local leader. They had their skills but no opportunities to practice them and no homes meant no place from which to work.

All were staying with relatives and friends. It turned out to be a 'trade union' meeting, with much expression of anger and frustration, and an embryonic business plan was conceived. (We thought we were there to counsel!) The women were deeply anxious about their children, who would wake up in the night, screaming from their dreams.

"Have you been back to the sea?" we asked. "No," they replied. "Would you come with us, if we walked together?" Hesitantly, "Yes", they would. We let a Hindu funeral party go by with all its clatter and fireworks and wailing and then set off. For about a kilometre we all walked across bleak sand to the edge of the water. Nobody fell out. At the waters edge we stood. Then some dipped their feet into the waves. Four men swam out to a marooned tree stump that had been washed across the Bay of Bengal. The children paddled. We took photographs, we laughed a lot. Some women could not look at the water and stood with faces averted. It was enough for them. Then, forty minutes later, we walked home. "Go again tomorrow, if you like." And some said they would. Hopefully many did and inspired others to come with them. Together we had confronted the enemy, the fearsome destroyer of their lives and found it toothless. A step of hope?

It is now twenty-one months since the tsunami struck and counselling, as we have been trained to do, could now be relevant. But it won't be possible. The East Coast (where there are no hotels, no tourist industry, no Saga elephant riding, blue swimming pool holidays) is closed. Tamil country is back at war. The students won't yet be returning to their college in Trincomalee. The emails have shut down. New terrors have arrived. 65,000 had died in twenty years of civil war, twice the number that perished in the tsunami, and the death toll is growing once again and so is the number of displaced people. New refugee camps are springing up. And the trauma goes on. Water, food, medicine and shelter were provided in some measure. Homes, jobs and security were still awaited. 'Tsunami' was the password that let us through the roadblocks to bring comfort and consolation to a few shattered lives. The curtain to the East Coast opened for a short while. It appears now to have closed again.

A number of studies, recently one by Dr Berthold Gersons (report in the British Journal of Psychiatry), have indicated that quick drug intervention and too hasty counselling into post-traumatic stress is counterproductive; not just unhelpful but actually harmful. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises the same in its guidelines. Certainly our experiences of trauma in Sri Lanka, compounded by our language difficulties, meant that we were effectively and quite naturally prohibited from premature counselling! Time was calming down the fear systems of the survivors. And we arrived still too soon for serious counselling. Our practical task was to hold hands, enter the culture of the sufferers and just be there with them. Most times there were simply no words. I am grateful for the experience. It may not come again so poignantly.

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