Five million people worldwide were affected by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which was triggered by an earthquake with the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atom bombs. Here, we review a thought-provoking new novel about one of the world’s most deadly natural disasters and its aftermath.
By Lucy Bryson
Just before 8am on December 26th, 2004, an undersea earthquake struck off the Indonesian coast. It triggered a massive tsunami that stretched across the Indian Ocean. Waves up to 30 feet high battered the shorelines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and Thailand and claimed the lives of at least 225,000 men, women and children in a dozen countries.
In Sri Lanka, where this book is set, the lack of food, clean water and medical supplies contributed to the list of casualties and left entire coastal regions littered with debris, dead bodies and plant-killing salt water.
A Forgotten Survivor by Robin D. Harris is an unflinching debut novel based on real events that were recorded but not reported. It follows the story of Lola, a stressed fashion buyer working in Sri Lanka at the time of the disaster, who watches the horror unfurl from her luxury hotel. The juxtaposition between her grandiose surroundings and destructive force of the tsunami is a powerful one – Molton Brown products and expensive designer shoes bobbing in her flooded room.
Lola and her colleague, Shey, emerge from the wreckage to a scene of unimaginable terror: ‘Entwined into the barbed wire is the long hair of seven dead Sri Lankan women; criss-crossed with cuts, the women’s naked bodies lay half submerged in mud’. The pair reach apparent safety only to face further dangers at every turn – from theft to physical violence and sexual assault. Together, they set about trying to find their co-worker, Ama, who is missing and presumed dead.
Robin D. Harris, a vocal gender equality campaigner who was visiting Sri Lanka at the time of the disaster, pulls no punches and paints a painfully vivid picture of what took place in the tsunami’s aftermath: thieves stripping dead bodies of their valuables; and women and children left at the mercy of a patriarchal society rife with sexual violence and gender inequality.
His remarkable debut is an eye-opening fictionalised account of the brutal dangers faced by women when natural disasters strike. Did you know that women and children are three times more likely to die during a disaster than men? Or that the levels of female trafficking, maternal mortality rates and violence against women surge in the wake of disasters?
Like many natural disasters in developing countries, the Boxing Day tsunami placed women and children in an extraordinarily vulnerable position; five times more women than men were killed (in part due to being encumbered by dresses and jewellery) and they were outnumbered three-to-one by men in the aid camps.
A Forgotten Survivor is notable in its refusal to shy away from disturbing facts – from allegations of international companies turning a blind eye to abuse within their workforce to the injustices of a society that reportedly treats women as objects to be bought or sold.
The book is highly recommended.