NEWS FEATURE: Tsunami Leaves Lingering Question: Why?

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

PALAMEEN MADU, Sri Lanka _ Over and over, Iruthayanathan Justin replays what might be the most horrible predicament a parent could face.

Running desperately to save two of his children from roaring tsunami waves, he had to let a third child fall behind. His two youngest daughters looked back to see a mammoth wave carry their 13-year-old sister to her death.

The ocean that had sustained the fisherman and his Christian family’s fragile existence took Jeromica’s life. “We were eating your children,” Justin says to the sea, “and you came and ate ours.”

Justin and tens of thousands of other parents who lost children to a Dec. 26 tsunami of biblical proportions are left to wonder why the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. They ask themselves what they could have done to save their children, who had even less chance than adults against the surging water.

The parents get no counseling. They receive no answers. Religious leaders provide what comfort they can. “We don’t ask why,” says the Rev. Paul Sattkunanayagam, the Jesuit priest who prayed for Jeromica’s soul during Mass at the camp where the Justin family stays. “We only try to understand what is the message behind this experience.”

Only one thing is clear to Justin, who found Jeromica’s body and dug her grave. “The house, the boat and everything is gone,” he says, crying softly. “I wouldn’t care, if only I had my daughter.”

Before Dec. 26, Justin, his wife, their three daughters and one son lived in a tiny house built on sand 200 yards from the sea. The 40-year-old fisherman, a wiry man with skin turned ebony by the relentless sun, caught devilfish, rockfish and barracuda.

Some days he made $1. On his best day he made $30. Many days he made nothing. During the off-season from December to February, when the ocean is rough, he sometimes borrowed at 10 percent daily interest. But unlike some other fathers, he was able to buy school supplies for his children.

(OPTIONAL TRIM BEGINS)

These were the poorest fishermen, a few rungs below those with motorboats back in town. They had no electricity. Water came from wells drilled by aid groups. A U.S. aid agency donated canoes. The Sri Lankan government built their houses _ brick and stucco structures with just one main 9-by-12-foot room.

The women wove roofing from coconut leaves for extra income. The men smoked homemade cigarettes, talking together about the sea and the fish. They teased Justin: How would he pay the dowries of three daughters?

(OPTIONAL TRIM ENDS)

Jeromica was a slim, conscientious girl who stood as high as her father’s shoulder. She sang in the choir. She put her flowing black hair in a bun for school and worked hard, ranking fourth or fifth in a class of 30. A schoolbook spared by the waves has laborious sums corrected in red.

Playing simple games with younger children, Jeromica pretended to be a teacher. But she thought of becoming a nun.

The morning after Christmas, Justin stood 150 yards from the sea. Even at that distance, he could see the ocean suddenly turn an ominous red-brown. He ran back to the house, where his 30-year-old wife, Jayanthie, was making coconut bread in the outdoor kitchen.

They all looked dumbfounded at the sea, which seemed to be racing toward them.

Jayanthie and their son, James Paul, ran inland past neighbors’ houses, shouting.

Justin quickly gathered the girls. None of them knew how to swim. He hoisted 3-year-old Jenifer in his arms and took 9-year-old Jancy Reeta by the hand. Jeromica joined them. A hissing sheet of water shot across the sand, catching them around the knees.

They began running through the black churning water. Jeromica ran behind, holding her father’s shirt. They heard a roar like a jet plane. A wave engulfed them.

They plowed on. But Jeromica lost hold of Justin’s shirt. She fell farther behind amid raging currents. “Come daughter, follow me,” yelled Justin, barely keeping his grip on the two other girls. “Come dear, come dear.”

He could see her raising both hands. She was looking straight at him, calling. But he couldn’t hear the words.

The third wave was gigantic. It catapulted Jeromica and several other people forward. The little girls screamed as their sister vanished.

Justin got his younger daughters to safety and found his wife and son. Later, he found Jeromica’s body and two others in a hole dug by the waves. He buried her that night.

Ten people died in the village of 590. One is missing. About 150 houses were obliterated and more damaged. Two hundred fishing boats are gone and 75 need repair.

Now the Justin family huddles on straw mats in the crowded hallway of a Catholic retreat center where 900 survivors stay. His parents lost their house. Justin’s wife lost relatives and her mother is homeless.

“James Paul and Jancy Reeta cried for nine or 10 days,” says their mother. “They saw what happened. The little one asked for her sister for two days, then she got a fever.”

The family has no savings. Justin is trying to get a death certificate that could yield a token government payment. He filled out a Canadian immigration form, hearing Canada might accept survivors. His hands shook as he wrote.

Even if he had a boat, he wouldn’t want to go back to the sea. But he has no other skill besides house painting, which he did in Saudi Arabia for a while. A member of the Tamil minority group, he commanded 30 rebels during the civil war. But as a third-generation Christian, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot at anyone.

“If I can educate my children,” he says, “that will be my aim in life.”

KRE/RB END RNS

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