A young Sri Lankan woman has spoken of how she survived the tsunami, only to suffer the inhumanity of her rescuer as he raped her.
The woman accompanying her family on a pilgrimage had lived a sheltered life. The journey was to seek protection. Instead, she nearly drowned and then was raped.
“He told me to grab his hand, that he will save me,” said the 18-year-old girl, who asked not to be named for fear of being ostracised by her village.
She recalled flailing in the water, desperately trying to keep afloat and barely aware of the screams and chaos around her when she heard the voice offering help.
“I took his hand,” she said, seated on a bed in a room in Galle, Sri Lanka, where she has secluded herself since she was released from a hospital five days ago.
The water swept them into a muddy river.
“It was like a marsh with trees all around that made it dark,” she said.
The stranger who appeared to befriend her assured the teenager he would take her back to look for her family.
Instead, he pushed her into a thorny bramble and raped her.
“I screamed and told him not to hurt me,” she said, “He put his hands around my neck and told me that even if he kills me right there, no one will know.”
Earlier that day, her family and neighbours had left for Kataragama temple, venerated by Buddhists and Hindus for protection, to celebrate her father’s 65th birthday.
The bus with 32 passengers stopped at a picnic spot on the beach. The girl was wading at the shore with her two nieces when the waves crashed around them.
The tsunami killed 14 of them – nine from her own family. The bodies of her mother, father and five-year-old niece have not been found.
The young woman is not alone. Authorities have received various reports of sexual abuse, including children, in the aftermath of the tsunami. Some occurred in refugee camps, prompting police to station officers in each camp.
“I felt lifeless” after the rape, the teenager said. Soaked with mud, her body itched all over. Dazed, she could see two figures approaching.
“He told me not to breathe a word and that I wouldn’t be able to get out unless he – who was from the area – showed me the way,” she said.
“He spoke to the men and left me with them. I didn’t say anything and was terrified because they too were men,” she said, crying as she recalled the terror.
She was loaded into a truck with corpses and the injured. She recognised her brother there and fainted.
“I don’t want to talk to the police. They ask a lot of questions I don’t understand and don’t know how to respond,” she said.