2012 ISV Scholarship Winner: Onalie Ariyabandhu

Print Friendly

Congratulations Onalie Ariyabandhu from Sri Lanka! You are the winner of the 2012 ISV Scholarship sponsored by International Student Protection.

Onalie Ariyabandhu is a sophomore at Iowa State University studying economics, international studies, and environmental studies. Her essay was selected out of 700+ applications and she will receive a $2500(US) scholarship sponsored by International Student Protection.

It is certainly an understatement if I say ‘this’ is my most unforgettable experience…. It was not just an experience; it was a lesson in disguise. Everyone has their own unforgettable experiences and each and every one of us may go through some kind of a trauma at some point of our life… But, not many survived both physical and psychological trauma of the Tsunami. I did.

It was the 26th of December 2004 when we all got into a comfortable white van to go on a trip to ‘Kataragama’ a sacred city of a local deity. At 9:00am we had reached half way. We stopped at a supermarket complex. Seven of them including my father got down from the van except my mother, my cousin brother, my sister, the driver and I. And then, all I could remember was my mother’s words, “Darling, don’t breath under water…don’t worry…don’t breath under water….we are not going to die….don’t panic….don’t breath under water”. But I can never forget the way my ten-year-old sister kept asking my mother, “Are we going to die? Are we going to die? Tell me are we going to die?” We have never spoken to her about death before, but she knew what we were about to face. But my mother, as usual with a lot of hope, kept on saying, “No, nothing will happen, don’t breath under water…don’t panic…we are not dying”. There was water everywhere.[quote]All I could remember was my mother’s words, “Darling, don’t breath under water…don’t worry…don’t breath under water….we are not going to die…[/quote]

The van began to submerge. We were in the middle of the Galle town. Galle was one of the worst Tsunami affected towns in Sri Lanka. I felt the water level rising inside the van from my toes, to my knees, my thighs, to my waist to my shoulders, to my neck… and that’s when I took my last breath inside the van, keeping my mouth to the ceiling of the van. I could feel my cousin’s hands tightly around my waist, gradually releasing. It was certainly our luck that I had smashed open the left side screen at the back of the van, moments before the entire van got submerged. That is the route we assume to have taken out of the submerged van, but the route only lead us in to a town flooded with sea water. The water was rushing at high speed, there was no way that I could hold on to anything that was around me; there was nothing to be seen. We later found out the water level was over 10 feet high.

[highlight]This video shows Galle Town during the Tsunami. It also shows the white van I was in being washed away. The van can be seen between 1.03-1.11/3.13 on the video.[/highlight]

I didn’t breath under water. I didn’t stop my prayers. And I didn’t give up hope….

There was no way that I could swim in that water. The water rushed at high speed. I just had to go with the flow. I tried holding on to street lamp posts several times, but failed. I had no idea how long I had been dragged with the water current, but the moment I saw my cousin brother on a small tree I knew I should do the same. I was getting dragged toward the city canal which ended up in the sea. I was exactly one foot away from the edge of the canal when I held the trunk of a small tree from my left hand while the rest of my body was getting dragged with the current. I finally managed to hold the tree with both hands. My 17-year-old cousin Lahiru was on a tree about ten feet away from me. He kept on saying, “Climb the tree…the water level is still going up….get on the tree.” I managed to climb the tree by stepping on to a bicycle which was stuck under the tree. I was safe, but I didn’t stop praying.

I knew Lahiru was safe too, but my sister Chavini and my mother? I didn’t know what to expect. My mother never liked swimming and my sister just ten, wouldn’t have had any idea what to do. But I never thought they would die. I suddenly heard Lahiru shouting at someone saying, “Do as I say, climb the tree, stop being such a fool, just climb the tree….” I couldn’t see who it was, he then said, “Chavi please climb the tree, hold my hand and climb.” That is when I knew that my prayers have been answered. My sister was safe too. She didn’t want to climb the tree because her trousers had been washed off by force of the water. She was ashamed to face Lahiru in such state. We still have no clue how Chavini ended up under the same tree as Lahiru was on. Chavini still can not recall anything that happened during the time she was washed away. She still can’t remember how she came out of the van or how she held that tree. With the little psychology I learned, it is amnesia that she has due to the post traumatic stress.

We had no clue where my mother was. As soon as the water level started to decline by a few feet, boys in that area jumped into the water to clear the dead bodies and save the few people who were still alive. There were not more than ten people saved in that area. A young boy came to me and told me that he would carry me to the near by bridge. There was a huge bridge about 50 meters away from me. I didn’t know what to do? I looked at Lahiru. He first said not to go with this stranger. We didn’t know who that boy was, what he would do to me, or what was going to happen next? That boy kept on saying in Sinhalese (my native language), “Sister, you have to come with me, water level will rise any moment, it’s not safe here.”  I finally decided to go with him. He held me from one hand and carried a dead female body from the other hand with the help of another boy. It was really disturbing because I was not sure if it was the same girl who was talking to me when I was on the tree. The girl was crying, she said she came to Galle for a tuition class. I knew the girl was just as helpless as me.

Standing under the tree that saved my life during the tsunami in 2004.

I was taken to the bridge. I had to jump over dead bodies to walk to the top of the bridge. Chavini and Lahiru were taken to a near by church. I still didn’t know what happened to my mother. There were very helpful people around me asking who else was with me. I told them my mother was missing. I told them she is a very tall, fair lady with long hair. I told them she’s a doctor. I kept on praying. They brought many dead bodies to the bridge and after a little while, a Buddhist monk and gent walked to me. They asked me to come with them to see if I could identify my mother among the dead bodies. I didn’t know what to do. I said “NO”. Something told me that she is still alive. I saw a dead body being brought; it was just like my mother. I didn’t want to look at it anymore. But I looked at it from the corner of my eye and saw it was wearing a pair of shorts. My mother was wearing long jeans. I still had hope. I started to pray.

There were signs of another wave and I was asked to run towards the other side of the bridge. It was the high level land side. With tears in my eyes, I ran to the other side. I saw a group of women and I stood next to them. I told them what happened. I told my mother was missing. A boy suddenly came asking me to describe what my mother look like. I repeated every word I told before but I didn’t tell she was a doctor. He told me not worry. He ran.

I don’t know how long it took for him to come back. But he came back. He asked me if I was “Sonali” I said yes, knowing only a very few get my name right. He asked if my mother is a doctor! I finally knew she was alive. I ran with him. He took me to a small house near the bridge. My mother appeared behind a man who was carrying a dead baby boy. I hugged her and she cried. She couldn’t believe that all of us survived this trauma.

My father, Lahiru’s mother and younger brother, and another family who came with us in the van were inside the supermarket complex. They saw everything happening. My mother called my father just before water started to fill inside the van, she said it was a tidal wave. My father saw the van getting submerged, he saw us struggling inside. He was helpless. He thought we were dead. He too had jumped into the water after seeing all that happened. He had no hope.

We were able to contact my father only at six that evening. Until then he didn’t know that we were alive. He couldn’t believe. For the first time in my whole life I heard that voice of my father. He was crying. We managed to meet him only past eleven that night. He had been taken to the nearest hospital as he had cut his foot very badly; they had to suture his leg.

My mother managed to go back to the supermarket complex and bring everyone else to the high level land side. We made friends with a village family and they made arrangements for all of us to stay in their little house that night. We were put to sleep. I couldn’t. I kept dreaming how the van got submerged. I felt myself struggling, unable to breathe under water. I couldn’t sleep. That was the only night I had nightmares for the past eight years. I don’t resent the sea. I still love the waves, the beaches, and the warm ocean breeze just as much as I loved it as a kid.

[quote]After all these years, I realize that this experience has made me understand how life could change any moment. It taught me how to appreciate simple pleasures in life, to enjoy every moment of life and make life a pleasure for others as well.[/quote]

During the past six years I’ve been asked many different questions about this experience, but I personally realize people would never understand what we felt and how we still feel. I was the spokesperson in my family, relating the story to everyone who asked what happened. My parents didn’t want to talk much about it either. My father was the worst affected. My sister has never spoken a word about the Tsunami. For some people this experience was just a big drama. Several people asked me how tall the wave was, what its color was and what it tasted like. What kind of an answer are they expecting me to give? After all these years, I realize that this experience has made me understand how life could change any moment. It taught me how to appreciate simple pleasures in life, to enjoy every moment of life and make life a pleasure for others as well.

Galle Beach in 2012

I learned the value of life and the value of  living. This experience made me believe in myself and my strengths. It taught me never to give up hope. I learned how to expect little and cherish the little I’ve got in life. It taught me how courage and determination could defeat all fears and obstacle in life. I also saw the love of my parents at its best, the tears in my father’s eyes and the endless hope my mother gave us cannot simply be put into words. I didn’t learn any of this through school or through any of the books I’ve read. Today, I realize the real meaning of the phrase “Every dark cloud has a silver lining”. The Tsunami was the darkest cloud of my life, but it sure did show me the silver lining in me. I am proud to be a survivor of the Tsunami.


The International Student Voice Magazine team would like to sincerely thank everyone for applying for this scholarship.This week we will share the essays of our top finalists (this list is not in any particular order): 

Damilola Ashaolu

Nigeria, The College of William and Mary

Gunisha Arora

India, Northern Illinois University

Hamid Durrani

Afghanistan, Idaho State University

Karen Zamora

Mexico, Mount Holyoke College

Khay See

Canada, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary

Mellissa Gyimah

Ghana/United Kingdom, DePaul University

Neeti Thakral

India, University of Alabama

Yanne Ngongo

Democratic Republic of Congo, Genesee Community College

Yujiang (Vincent)  Zhang

China, The College of William and Mary


9 thoughts on “2012 ISV Scholarship Winner: Onalie Ariyabandhu

  1. Read it until the last period. Outstanding and true story. I’m speechless but really enjoyed my time reading after each word..I can picture the tragedy and affect of the tsunami on one’s life..well-written piece of work!

  2. Thank you Onalie for sharing your story.It takes great courage to open up about the dark times in our lives, and it takes even more strength to see the hope within. Thank you for showing us the light that guided you-you give us hope with your story!

  3. What a moving story.. how much we take for granted.. Truly we are like the wind here today and gone tomorrow. Every single moment is a gift..
    We are so thankfu.. you and your family are here and able to be bonded closer even by the tough times you went through.,…!!
    Thanks for sharing

  4. අපේ උණුසුම් සුභ පැතුමත් ආශීර්වාදයත් පතමු….You haven’t wasted any single word of the Essay…! I feel how we were able to help people when they ran to the Temple naked…but courageous! All what I did was to hit the Gong, that guided many people to run to the Temple which was a safer place high up the mountain, but 2 kms away from the Sea in Polhena area, Mathara…!
    Best of luck!

  5. amazing story….esp. because it is a true one…
    I have a theory that Sri Lankans are very warm and kind and friendly. I can see a lot of that in this story too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.