For Sanjay Senanayake, a documentary producer in Sri Lanka, the tsunami this week was the start of a sometimes-exhilarating, sometimes-horrifying adventure. He chronicled his travels through the disaster areas using mobile-phone text-messaging and blogs.
Text-messaging proved to be a vital channel for communications after the disaster, as other networks were overwhelmed by traffic, and official news media filtered the news through political biases.
"Right now, information saves lives, and we want to do our little bit," Senanayake said in a phone interview from his home Thursday, far away from the serious damage.
Senanayake's tone is light-hearted and energetic in a telephone interview from home, despite having witnessed horrible events.
He said he lost two friends to the disaster. Another only recently surfaced after being unaccounted for since the tsunamis struck. The friend, a 25-year-old fellow documentary producer, had been vacationing on the beach when the tsunamis struck. Out of about 1,500 people vacationing at that spot, only Senanayake's friend and five others survived.
"He spent two days on an empty stomach burying bodies," Senanayake said. Soon after the waves hit, the bodies started washing up on shore. "They did the only thing they could do, which is drag the bodies inland, dig a shallow grave, and bury them," Senanayake said.
"He is quite traumatized. He's just a regular guy like me. Overnight he was digging little holes and burying bodies," Senanayake said. "I don't think I'd be able to do that. I'd just run.
"They were stranded there because the roads were down," Senanayake said. The friend was finally able to make a voice call through is mobile phone. "I was able to talk to him for rife minutes before his battery died," Senanayake said.
"We brought him home today, and he suffered severe gastro-intestinal problems, because he hasn't had anything in three days, he hasn't eaten any food or water. His stomach has literally started eating itself, and he kept working."
The friend is staying at an aunt's home, and one of the first thing his family did for him is fill a tub full of hot water, so the friend could clean himself off. But the friend refused to get in. Nor would he shower. He had developed a phobia to water.
When the tsunami hit, Senanayake, 23, who goes by the online nickname Morquendi, found himself at home in Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka, on the west coast of the island nation. The west coast got off light in the tsunami, the water rose six feet but there was relatively little actual damage.
The east coast and south Sri Lanka, however, were devastated. Senanayake travelled to the southern coast on Monday, then to the east coast, which is controlled by the Sri Lankan rebels, the Tamil Tigers, which controls much of the north of the country.
Throughout Senanayake's travels in Sri Lanka, he kept up a stream of text messages to Rohit Gupta, a blogger in Bombay, who posted the messages as-is to the blog ChiensSansFrontiers. Gupta is also one of the organizers of tsunamihelp.blogspot.com and an associated wiki, which are the leading grassroots web clearinghouses for relief information.
"Because I've been running around a lot, I don't have time to sit down and write anything. When I am driving around in the car, and when I have two free minutes, I send a message to Gupta and he blogs it," Senanayake said.
He added, "It's proven to be a very effective and fast way of getting information online. Specifically, in Sri Lanka, there is very little information online about what has happened here."
Among his messages:
I'm standing on the Galle road in Aluthgama and looking at 5 ton trawlers tossed onto the road. Scary shit.
Found 5 of my friends, 2 dead. Of the 5, 4 are back in Colombo. The last one is stranded because of a broken bridge. Broken his leg. But he's alive. Made...
..contact. He got swept away but swam ashore. Said he's been burying people all day. Just dragging them off the beach and digging holes with his hands. Go..
..ing with gear to get him tommorrow morning. He sounded disturbed. Guess grave digging does that to you.
In another message, he describes looting, vehicles being hijacked, roads closed, and curfews imposed. Prisoners escaped from flood-damaged prisons, and supermarkets and boutiques jacked up the price of bread to take advantage of the increased demand.
Senanayake said his phone is a very old and basic Nokia model.
"I think I have sent over 4,000 messages in the past four days. My keypad has just about stopped working—it's been giving me trouble this afternoon," he said. He also quips that his thumbs are nearly numb from all the activity.
Ironically, Senanayake was a late adopter of mobile phone technology. Mobile phones have been nearly universal in Sri Lanka's middle and upper classes for the past four or five years, but Senanayake resisted mobile phones until about four months ago. Prior to the disaster, he sent at most one or two text messages a day.
"I was an anti-phone person. I think a mobile phone is a serious pain in the ass, because it keeps ringing when you talk to people. I hate when people talk to you and they're messaging at the same time with one hand," he said.
In the field in the disaster areas, Senanayake found that landlines were down, mobile phone voice networks were jammed, but SMS was working without problems. A group of about a half-dozen young journalists would file stories with their media organizations, knowing those stories would be censored, and then use SMS to get the real information out.
The journalists focused on letting it be known that aid was getting through—in some locations. The Sri Lankan government media, intent on making itself look good, said that aid was getting through universally, which it was not. Likewise, anti-government media, equally intent on discrediting the government, said that aid was completely blocked, which was also untrue.
"As word got out, people started putting pressure on the government to stop lying and get things done," Senanayake said.
Spontaneous relief efforts proved to be more important in getting aid out than the government or relief agencies, and SMS proved vital in getting word back to the neighborhoods providing relief.
"The biggest relief-providing infrastructure is done by small groups, neighborhoods collecting everything, putting it into a vehicle, and driving it out to an affected area and distributing it," Senanayake said. "That relief aid, from small, spontaneous relief groups, is much better and more important than what the government and U.N. and everyone else is doing.
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He added, "We have friends who are organizing these things within their little neighborhoods. If we know someone is filling his truck up and we tell him where to go."
Senanayake said he believes the government should use text messaging as an early warning system, since text messages function even when other communications channels are down.
"Even the companies in mobile communications don't look at text messaging as a viable solution for early warning systems. One of the biggest criticisms is that a lot of people in Sri Lanka don't have mobile phones," he said. While mobile phone use is almost universal in the middle and upper classes, only about 10 percent of the overall population has mobile phones, for about 2 million customers.
"But in a rural area, if you can get a message through to one person, that's all you need. It's up to that person to alert the village. They can get out on the streets and shout if they need to," Senanayake.
Senanayake's online nickname, Mrquendi, comes from "Lord of the Rings." His e-mail username is lostboy. He explains in e-mail:
morquendi is from the tolkien world...lord of the rings, hobbit, silmarillion, etc...i'm a big fan...morquendi is the dark elf...so it's about the duality...the good and evil...the black and white...
for the longest time i used to be called the lostboy (hence the email address) because i was convinced i could live life like i was 13 years old...like the lost boys in J M Barrie's Peter Pan...but then once i figured i had to grow up at some point i ditched that and took the name of morquendi...