Photo of boat at sunsetThe beauty of the Sri Lankan coast has made the country a popular tourist destination. For much of the population, fishing is a way of life. But when the tsunami hit, the ocean became a destructive force, something to be feared. (Photos: Joel Johnson)

Island of Hope

In the aftermath of civil war and a deadly tsunami, The Salvation Army is helping Sri Lanka heal.

February 16, 2017 by Joel Johnson


On December 26, 2004, an earthquake measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale shook the bottom of the Indian Ocean, triggering a series of massive waves that crashed against the shorelines of 11 countries, killing more than 230,000 people. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.

After Indonesia, the death toll was highest on the island of Sri Lanka, where tourism and the fishing industry are concentrated along the coast. The tsunami caused widespread destruction to homes, businesses and agricultural land.

It struck a country already devastated by a decades-long civil war, as the Tamil Tigers fought to create an independent state. After the tsunami, a dispute over how to administer emergency aid funds only led to further conflict. Approximately 100,000 people lost their lives in the civil war before the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated in 2009.

In the aftermath of war and tragedy, The Salvation Army is supporting the people of Sri Lanka as they recover—not only by helping with their physical needs, but also by providing spiritual support as they heal from the deep emotional scars left by the terror of the tsunami.

I travelled to Sri Lanka with a team from the world missions department, along with Commissioner Susan McMillan, territorial commander, to capture in photos the work of The Salvation Army, to meet people and listen to their stories. These photos reflect the courage and resilience they’ve shown in rebuilding their lives.

Major Brenda Murray, director of world missions, pauses to reflect at a museum of photos, taken by survivors, that show the devastation the tsunami caused.

Major Brenda Murray, director of world missions, pauses to reflect at a museum of photos, taken by survivors, that show the devastation the tsunami caused.

Worship at Siyambalangamuwa Corps, located a few hours outside Colombo, the nation’s capital.  

Worship at Siyambalangamuwa Corps, located a few hours outside Colombo, the nation’s capital.

The Salvation Army’s Hope House, a school located at the territorial headquarters compound in Colombo, provides education for all ages. 

The Salvation Army’s Hope House, a school located at the territorial headquarters compound in Colombo, provides education for all ages.

Major Shanti Seneviratne stops to talk to a resident of the Rajagiriya Iris Perera Elders Home. 

Major Shanti Seneviratne stops to talk to a resident of the Rajagiriya Iris Perera Elders Home.

In northern Sri Lanka, contaminated ground water is related to high levels of kidney disease, and even death. The Canada and Bermuda Territory supports the S.W.A.L.D. (Safe Water and Livelihood Development) project, which builds wells, provides filtration equipment and helps to identify, monitor and care for those who have been diagnosed with kidney disease. After dedicating a new water distribution unit in Elahera Welankatuwa, Commissioner Susan McMillan fills the first container with clean drinking water. 

In northern Sri Lanka, contaminated ground water is related to high levels of kidney disease, and even death. The Canada and Bermuda Territory supports the S.W.A.L.D. (Safe Water and Livelihood Development) project, which builds wells, provides filtration equipment and helps to identify, monitor and care for those who have been diagnosed with kidney disease. After dedicating a new water distribution unit in Elahera Welankatuwa, Commissioner Susan McMillan fills the first container with clean drinking water.

A woman brings a vessel to the new well to get safe water for her family. 

A woman brings a vessel to the new well to get safe water for her family.

A metal worker who lost his shop in the tsunami received new tools and equipment from the Army to re-establish his livelihood. Today, his business is thriving and he is able to provide for his family, as well as employ others. 

A metal worker who lost his shop in the tsunami received new tools and equipment from the Army to re-establish his livelihood. Today, his business is thriving and he is able to provide for his family, as well as employ others.

Photo of a baker

The tsunami reached more than a kilometre inland. This baker and his wife ran when they saw the wave coming, only to be separated from each other by rushing water. They survived by clinging to trees. The Army helped him rebuild his oven and he now provides fresh bread to his community.

The tsunami swept away tens of thousands of homes and businesses, many of which were poorly constructed. The Salvation Army in Canada and Bermuda, in partnership with other territories, was quick to aid in the rebuilding process. A family stands in front of their new home. 

The tsunami swept away tens of thousands of homes and businesses, many of which were poorly constructed. The Salvation Army in Canada and Bermuda, in partnership with other territories, was quick to aid in the rebuilding process. A family stands in front of their new home.

Salvation Army community development workers in Pollonaruwa visit remote areas by motorcycle to assess community needs. A mobile medical clinic is dispatched to test for illnesses related to contaminated water supplies.

Salvation Army community development
workers in Pollonaruwa visit remote areas
by motorcycle to assess community needs.
A mobile medical clinic is dispatched to test
for illnesses related to contaminated water
supplies.

Approximately 70 percent of the population practises Buddhism. The Salvation Army is well respected throughout the country as an organization that will help and support anyone, regardless of their religion. 

Approximately 70 percent of the population practises Buddhism. The Salvation Army is well respected throughout the country as an organization that will help and support anyone, regardless of their religion.

Major Brenda Murray, director of world missions, Commissioner Susan McMillan and Colonel Nihal Hettiarachchi, then chief secretary of the Sri Lanka Territory, are welcomed to a community that provided new homes after the tsunami. The visit coincided with a wedding, and they were graciously invited to be part of the celebration.

Major Brenda Murray, director of world missions, Commissioner Susan McMillan and Colonel Nihal Hettiarachchi, then chief secretary of the Sri Lanka Territory, are welcomed to a community that provided new homes after the tsunami. The visit coincided with a wedding, and they were graciously invited to be part of the celebration.

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