Tsunami, tragedy and solidarity in a globalised world
by Bernardo Cervellera

A month after the earthquake and tsunami that killed almost 300,000 people, destroyed homes and memories and radically changed the shape of the coastline, life is timidly reasserting itself around the Indian Ocean.

Last December 26, killer waves swept over tens of thousands of kilometres of land reaching as much as three kilometres inland and wrapping everything on its path in silence and death.

Now the coastline is filled with the sounds of reconstruction, from earth movers moving the ground to animals like elephants pulling dead trees. Bare hands work ceaselessly to scrub, rebuild and wipe the slate of the past clean so that life can start over.

Thailand is the country where recovery is most visible. Schools reopened immediately, souvenir shops are back in business, big hotels are being rehabilitated.

In Indonesia, the hardest-hit cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh have seen banks reopen and neighbourhood markets up and running. Schools, too, are filled once again with the sounds of teachers and pupils.

In all the affected countries churches and mosques no longer double as huge, makeshift morgues but have returned to their real purpose as places of worship.

Some said that this monumental tragedy would spread cynicism and contempt for God, culprit in the eyes of many for the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

Truth be told, debates over atheism chiefly concerned far away Europe and Italy. Where tragedy overwhelmed people emerged more conscious of their faith.

More importantly, the tsunami wiped away conceit and created a level playing field for the rich and the poor, tourists and fishermen, locals and foreigners.

For the first time, tourists and TV viewers discovered that the glittering beachside hotels of Phuket or the Maldives were surrounded by the homes of the poor and illiterate, who got to be suntanned by the sweat of their brow.

Whether they were rich outsiders or poor locals, survivors rediscovered man's fragility vis-à-vis nature and his gratitude towards God as the source of life.

A tourist from the Maldives who was saved along with his daughter rediscovered prayer; a fisherman in Banda Aceh, who floated for eight days hanging on to a tree trunk, thanked Allah for his mercy.

Life and death are in God's hands. In life as in death "God does not abandon us", said Pope John Paul II, words that find support in the fact that a few hours after the disaster, Christians throughout the affected region were already at work at this almost superhuman deed: preparing the dead, sheltering survivors, treating the injured, bringing comfort to the desperate irrespective of race or creed.

Missionaries from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) were there, along side them, at the forefront of the rescue and relief operations, motivated by love and a sense of solidarity that is stronger and more permanent than anything else. So much so that in India, Hindu fundamentalists, who for years visited violence upon Christians killing missionaries, burning Catholic schools and attacking churches, were appreciative.

The tsunami also generated cooperation among people of different religions. So many witnesses can testify to it: Catholic medical teams from the diocese of Medan (North Sumatra) working side by side with Muslim nurses from Jakarta; Catholics and Buddhists sheltering homeless families in Sri Lanka; mosques open to all in conflict-prone India, where Muslims and Hindus so often resorted to violence against one another.

The tsunami shows how small humanity truly is; it highlights how, despite its regal beauty, Mother Nature is indifferent to human claims; it forces us to see life not as something that is ours but as grace and gift.

Thanks to the faith of the survivors—and that means us as well—our small place in the greater scheme of things and God's grace have become the engine of a boundless sense of charity that has spread around the world.

First global tragedy, the tsunami elicited a global response everywhere.

How remarkable it is to see the generosity of those already marked by tragedy like the Filipinos still reeling from typhoons and poverty, the children of Beslan who survived terrorism, the people of Maluku Islands torn apart by Muslim-Christian confrontation.

For once people pushed their government to intervene with more and more relief aid when politics might have called for caution.

Perhaps the tsunami experience will stand as the symbol of a new and better globalised world.