Life after loss

Life after loss
Sanjeewani’s husband perished when the tsunami made landfall in Hambantota, Sri Lanka.

The nine-year-old Sri Lankan girl does not know that her father died before she was born. She has known only her stepfather.

When she saw a photograph of her mother with her biological father, she crushed it, thinking her mother was having an affair.

Her mother, Ms Sanjeewani, had brought her up with her second husband, shielding her from the story of the tragedy that had struck the family.

Ms Sanjeewani's first husband died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She then married his brother, so that her daughter could grow up in a loving family.

Ms Sanjeewani was newly married and pregnant when the tsunami struck her town, Hambantota. She was only 17 then.

Her husband was among the estimated 31,000 killed in Sri Lanka by the disaster that struck on Dec 26. The total death toll was around 226,000, with other victims in countries such as Indonesia, India, Thailand and Maldives.

Now 27, Ms Sanjeewani's story was so compelling that Mr Irvin Tan, 32, decided to feature her in a series of photographs for an exhibition by the Singapore Red Cross (SRC).

Said Mr Tan: "During my conversations with Ms Sanjeewani, we had to speak in code so that her daughter could not understand us."

He added that Ms Sanjeewani, who does odd jobs and busies herself with paper handicraft and tending to her garden, wanted her daughter to be older before telling her the truth.

Mr Tan, who owns a creative agency with his wife, said: "It wasn't about what happened to her, but what she's going through right now and how she is still in the process of emotional healing."

His photos of Ms Sanjeewani are on display at the National Library as part of 2004 Asian Tsunami: Ten Years On.

The exhibition documents the lives of survivors in three countries.

It features pictures taken by The Straits Times journalist Hoe Pei Shan, 26, and Carlo Heathcote, 44, a programme executive with the SRC.

They travelled to Indonesia and Maldives, respectively.

Mr Tan, who went to Sri Lanka in September, spent a day talking to Ms Sanjeewani and another two days photographing her.

He said: "Although she was very willing to share her past, she might not have divulged everything to me as I'm a man.

"It would have been nice to stay longer and delve deeper into her life."


Mr Heathcote, who travelled to the Maldives last month, chose to take his pictures in both monochrome and colour.

The photographs in colour show the life, action and vitality of the Maldivians. The black-and-white shots show the hard work and effort they have put in to rebuild after the disaster.

He said: "If my photos show that everything looks perfect, people will find it hard to look past the stereotype of the Maldives being a tropical paradise."

He added that the Maldivians were very positive, and were focused on rebuilding their lives in the wake of the tsunami which took 108 lives there.

Both he and Mr Tan hope their photos will raise awareness about the survivors in the different countries.

Mr Tan said: "Although things have improved, there are many people still feeling the impact of what the tsunami did 10 years ago. "Hopefully my photos will create empathy and awareness of different cultures."

This article was first published on Dec 18, 2014.
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