Sports saves alum from harm in Sri Lanka

An extended cricket match may have saved the life of Saji Prelis.

Prelis, program coordinator for the School of International Service's Peacebuilding and Development Institute, was visiting friends and family in his native Sri Lanka on Dec. 26 when tsunami waves rushed ashore, destroying entire villages and carrying away both people and possessions.

Prelis, 35, said he awoke early that morning to watch a cricket match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. He also had plans to spend the early morning hours at the beach, which is a five-minute walk from his family's home in Dehiwala, on Sri Lanka's western coast. The match ran longer than expected so Prelis delayed his trip to the beach.

"About 10 minutes or so later is when I actually heard the cries, the screaming and also the buses and the cars honking," Prelis said.

Chaos ensued, Prelis said, and the streets became clogged with people running toward the beach to see what had happened and away from the beach to higher ground.

He grabbed his camera and ran down to the railway station near the beach, where fishing boats were by then floating inside the terminal.

Prelis, who received his master's degree from AU in 2001, snapped photographs until a woman caught his attention and moved him to action.

"I was focusing on this woman who was running up the road completely drenched in her nightgown," Prelis said. "She was crying and screaming her daughter's name, asking if people had seen her. I was focusing and I saw my mother's image in her. I decided that's not something I can take pictures of, of people suffering. I can't capture that loss. So I decided not to take pictures after that."

Prelis then ran home, where he left his wallet and camera, and began helping police cordon off the streets and direct people to nearby temples and schools.

The second wave arrived a few minutes later, Prelis said.

"The ocean was rising and falling like a see-saw," he said. "The wave came like a big hand smashing down on the beach."

Prelis said the waves were 7 to 10 feet tall and traveled at speeds of at least 150 mph.

Many homes along the beach, damaged in the first wave, were completely destroyed by this second strike. These homes are typically inhabited by Dehiwala's poorest people - fishermen and gypsies.

Prelis said he worked all day in the initial relief efforts and was touched by the outpouring of help from within his own community in a country racked by a decades-long conflict between the ruling Sinhalese government and rebel Tamil Tigers.

"People who didn't know each other, who had already lost their homes, who were looking for their neighbors or their loved ones, were helping someone else they didn't know," Prelis said.

He witnessed many instances of "a Sinhalese helping a Muslim, a Muslim helping a Tamil, a Tamil helping a Sinhalese, or vice versa," he said.

Feeling exhausted and still running on adrenaline, Prelis kept his plans to return to the United States on Dec. 27.

Only upon sinking into a chair while on a layover in a Hong Kong airport, Prelis said, did he realize the magnitude of destruction he had witnessed.

"The devastation is hard to put into words when you've seen people lose everything - when their most valuable possessions are a 20-inch color TV and a refrigerator," he said.

The latest figures indicate that more than 30,000 people died in the small, West Virginia-sized island nation, and at least 6,000 are still missing. The figures are tabulated through official registration counts, but Prelis said most of the poorer people aren't registered, so the counts may be underestimated. In addition, Prelis said, northern and eastern areas of the country are under the control of rebels, so fatality counts would only be available from them.

Prelis said initially he felt embarrassed and guilty for leaving, as though he was running away.

"My mind is still in Sri Lanka," he said.

He said he soon realized, however, that he could use his position within the Peacebuilding and Development Institute to develop a grass-roots initiative to "adopt" a small village called Matara in southern Sri Lanka.

Prelis, who has been in the United States for 16 years, plans to help raise $20,000 to build 50 homes, provide job opportunities for homeless and unemployed men and women, and rebuild schools to provide a sense of normalcy for children.

The deadly waves almost touched Prelis - they came within 1,000 feet of his home - but because that Dec. 26 cricket match ran long, he can help others today.

"I know of people who were not as fortunate as I was, and others who weren't fortunate at all," he said.

Prelis does not talk about the time needed for the relief effort in terms of weeks, months or even years.

"It will take generations to recover from," he said. "The scars are already so deep"

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