Seenigama, a three-hour drive from the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, was ravaged by a tsunami in December 2004 that killed and displaced tens of thousands of people. Nearly five years after the tsunami struck, Sir Ian Botham, who has used his sporting fame to help the survivors rebuild their lives, found himself back in a region that was determined to move on from the destruction.
The former cricketer, who had already raised millions of pounds for leukaemia research at home in the United Kingdom, was impressed by the progress that has been made by the people who lived through the disaster. Through the initiative of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, the legendary all-rounder used his celebrity status to help fund the construction of a sports complex so that children could play games as part of the healing process.
Standing at a railway crossing in Pereliya on his third visit to the island nation last week, Botham recounted the horror story of a train that was packed with 1,500 people at that exact spot before it was consumed by a 30-foot high wave. "There were two waves, the first was a mild one that left the people in three-foot deep water," he said. "So the villagers hurried their children and the elderly into the train for safety."
Botham added that the size of the second wave had been underestimated and the train was tossed into a swamp, leaving many dead. Botham spoke as the Japanese Honganji Tsunami Vihara, a replica of one of the famous Buddha statues from Bamiyan in Afghanistan, loomed large in the background - the 100-foot monument was built in memory of those who died. Botham also visited another memorial, the tsunami museum, inside a small cluster of huts closer to the sea in Telwatte.
There he found the walls to be dotted with photographs of the disaster, many of them images of scenes that had confronted him during his first visit in April 2005. But what Botham was not prepared for were several of the children's dark and violent sketches that depicted destruction, death and the loss of innocence. Grave sites and small cemeteries have become a common sight in post-tsunami Seenigama, but that imagery apart it was not all grim for Botham.
On the contrary, what he saw during this visit filled him with hope. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in association with the Foundation of Goodness, a non-governmental organisation, Botham found himself watching in awe as children of all ages played cricket, volleyball and other games on the roads and grounds. The sports complex has become a reality, with children from surrounding villages taking part in training sessions and playing in inter-village sports leagues.
"When I came back two years ago, the project was being discussed as an idea. Today, all that was envisioned then has been achieved," Botham said with obvious satisfaction. "Those involved in the project walked the walk in such a short span of time and it feels nice to be part of that." Indeed, Kushil Gunasekera, founder of the Foundation of Goodness and manager of the Sri Lankan off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan, has been the key man in the happy transformation across the landscape.
The former club-level cricketer was already on his way to bringing about change in the region before the tsunami struck. And thanks to his efforts today, Seenigama has schools, sports academies, women's empowerment communities and job-creation forums. Botham, who scored 5,200 runs and took 383 wickets in Test cricket, met 12-year-old Sriyan Chamod Dilshan, winner of the Laureus Sport for Good-IWC drawing competition 2009. His drawing, entitled Team Spirit, shows four young people holding hands in a circle and has become the motif for the engraving on the back of a watch, the proceeds from sales of which will go to Laureus-supported projects such as the one in Sri Lanka.
Botham was also impressed with members of the Seenigama Under 15 team who had won the Super 8-KAF Youth Cricket Carnival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "The resilience of these children is amazing," he said. "Forget the politicians. Forget the government. It is through sports that good work can be done "The communities are united. The teams are winning. So it's all working." Botham played down his own role in the good work.
"There is no question of me trying to leave a legacy. I don't need the recognition. But I wanted to do whatever I could to help. And I have since enjoyed the work in progress." But as Gunasekera said: "The waves of compassion have overpowered the waves of destruction." Whether or not he felt comfortable with acknowledging it, Botham happened to be one of those compassionate waves. Sir Ian Botham, along with 45 other sporting legends, is a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy that supports humanitarian relief work around the world. Visit www.laureus.com to make a donation.