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For One Bay Area Volunteer, Tsunami Hit Home

Neil Jayasekera, part of a three-doctor team in Sri Lanka, is able to help in his father's hometown.

January 14, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

AHANGAMA, Sri Lanka — Bouncing along in the front passenger seat of a donated van, Bay Area doctor Neil Jayasekera peered out the window at this tsunami-battered fishing village with an odd mixture of wonder and dread.

After more than a week in Sri Lanka, the 42-year-old emergency room physician and volunteer for the Los Angeles-based aid group Relief International had become used to the vistas of devastated homes and crowded refugee camps.

But this place, Ahangama, was different. This was his father's hometown, the scene of the magical stories Jayasekera had heard countless times as a boy -- tales of an exotic village where Buddhist monks dispensed wisdom from incense-scented temples and deeply tanned young fishermen perched on stilts in the warm harbor waters, awaiting their prey.

Now the coastline along Ahangama is largely destroyed. The town center resembles a smile missing several teeth after the tsunami punched holes in the row of shops, ravaging one building and sparing the next.

Long ago, as a 12-year-old boy, Jayasekera visited Ahangama with his father, Stanley. Thirty years later, the impossibly blue ocean is still framed by leaning date palms, but clothes and debris hang from branches 10 feet off the ground.

"This place is still incredibly beautiful," Jayasekera said softly.

The tsunami that killed more than 150,000 people across southern Asia brought indescribable grief and loss. But it also sparked Jayasekera's personal journey, a mission to bring medical aid and solace to his ancestral land and, in the process, explore his father's past.

After seeing the first images of the tsunami's destruction, Jayasekera knew he had to respond, even if it meant leaving behind his pregnant wife.

He called his friend Mark Stinson, a fellow Bay Area physician and veteran Relief International volunteer, and left for Sri Lanka on New Year's Day.

With Vindi Singh, a third Bay Area doctor, the team embarked on a 10-day medical tour of the damaged Sri Lankan coastline, a swath of near-continuous devastation comparable to the distance between Seattle and San Francisco.

With so much damage, and their task of delivering aid so daunting, they laughed nervously each time their driver's cellphone rang with the theme from "Mission Impossible."

At clinics and hospitals, they dispensed antibiotics and other supplies to local doctors and nurses dressed in brightly colored saris, who shyly bowed their heads and replied with gratitude, "Bohoma stuh-tee." Thank you.

Jayasekera told locals of his father's childhood in Ahangama before he left Sri Lanka in 1953 to attend the University of London and court the German woman with whom he had corresponded for a decade.

The two eventually married, had four children and moved to the United States. Growing up American, the kids kept in touch with Sri Lankan traditions through their father's stories.

Neil Jayasekera had come to see this special land for himself, as an adult.

Traveling along the coast, he saw grazing elephants, lumbering Brahman bulls and long-tailed monkeys that shot, bullet-like, across the van's path. Not a practicing Buddhist, he stopped frequently to pay his respects at religious statues, in honor of his father.

Then one man told Jayasekera that Ahangama had been hit particularly hard, with bodies left for five days along the shoreline before officials arrived to remove them. He decided to go and see what help he could offer.

Driving through the village late one afternoon, the group passed upended boats -- painted in bright hues of blue, yellow and red -- that the waves had dragged far from the beach.

The van slowed for bicycles, a limping man with an eye patch, and even a monitor lizard that scampered across the littered roadway.

Jayasekera phoned his father back in Los Angeles, where it was after 1 a.m.

"Papa," he said, "I'm here in Ahangama. There's so much damage. I'm sorry."

Stanley Jayasekera said he cried when he heard about the devastation along the coast of Sri Lanka, which he last visited 30 years ago.

"But life is precious and we will overcome," he said. "I'm so glad my son is there to help."

Via cellphone, Stanley Jayasekera offered directions to his grandfather's coconut plantation, where he remembered being lulled to sleep as a boy by the sound of the waves.

The route was along a narrow road lined by concrete walls and bamboo trees, past railroad tracks and the Buddhist temple where young Stanley Jayasekera had rung the bell on the full moon holiday.

Jayasekera followed his father's instructions, confirming the directions with passing residents.

He eventually found the old plantation grounds, which had been divided decades ago by the government into 21 homesteads. He asked the residents whether they needed any immediate medical care, then inquired about any remaining distant relatives.

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