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Sri Lankans still coming to terms with Boxing Day Tsunami: Otago research

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Wednesday 10 August 2011 9:19am

Six years after the Boxing Day tsunami that devastated coastal communities throughout South East Asia, survivors in southern Sri Lanka still struggle to make sense of the tragedy, according to new research by Dr Michael Bourk at the University of Otago.

Dr Bourk was in Sri Lanka on his honeymoon when the 2004 tsunami hit, claiming the lives of more than 39,000 people in Sri Lanka, and also destroying the livelihoods of thousands inhabiting most of the island nation’s coastal communities.

As a researcher and lecturer with the University’s Department of Media, Film and Communication Studies, he noticed how the event dominated the broadcast and print media for weeks afterwards. Last year he returned to interview survivors of the small coastal community near Galle in the South of Sri Lanka to find out how they had made sense of the disaster. He also researched local newspapers.

He found that the transformation of this previously benign environment into dangerous terrain had challenged the ability of affected Sri Lankans to describe and understand the tsunami phenomena.

"Survivors have been forced to resort to unusual imagery to describe and make sense of their environment behaving in strange and dangerous ways. For example, monster metaphors frequently emerged in the narratives of victims,” says Dr Bourk.

“All cultures have their own tales of monsters appearing suddenly, abnormal in size and appearance, causing senseless widespread damage, and disappearing just as quickly, leaving devastated victims anxiously wondering when it will next appear. Similarly, natural disasters exhibit many of the same characteristics as the monster.”

One participant in the study described the tsunami as transforming the body of his dead mother into a monster.

"He described his mother's bloated body and distended facial features as those of a riri yakka, a Sri Lankan demon with bulging eyes and a grotesque grimace".

Another survivor's account describes the six metre wave as a dark makara, a sea monster possessing extraordinary destructive power.

Dr Bourk says monster imagery in the stories of survivors serves a therapeutic purpose by allowing people to separate the apparent cruel actions of nature from the benevolent environment in which people expect to live and raise their families.

“Depictions of natural disasters as monsters may allow us to subconsciously reconcile the dangerous aspects of our environment with the more benign and nurturing,” says Dr Bourk.

Dr Bourk's research findings were presented in a paper given to the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association’s annual conference last month; and will be published next year in the Australian journal Media International Australia.

For further information, contact

Dr Michael Bourk
Department of Media, Film and Communication Studies
University of Otago

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