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The End of a Journey: Thillainayagam Theeban (1990 – 2007)
6 March 2007

We were extremely saddened to hear of the brutal murder of Thillainayagam Theeban on the night of 3 March 2007.
Theeban - no longer facing an uncertain future

Theeban, 16 at the time of his death, was one of eight children in four countries that TVE Asia Pacific tracked for one year following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 under the Children of Tsunami project.

According to sketchy news reports, Theeban had been shot dead by four unidentified persons who forced their way into the temporary camp for tsunami survivors at Kesar Road, Karaitivu in eastern Sri Lanka. One assailant was apprehended by camp residents and handed over to police.

There is no reliable information on who was responsible for this senseless killing, and it is uncertain whether Theeban’s murderers would ever face justice.

Theeban was an eager, talented school boy of 14 – fond of mathematics, cricket and movies – when the tsunami shattered his dreams. The disaster killed his mother and a younger brother, destroyed his house and wrecked the father’s fishing business. A middle class family suddenly found themselves destitute, taking refuge in a temporary shelter in Karaithivu, in Ampara district.

That was where we found him and surviving family in January 2005 when we were looking for a statistically average family affected by the tsunami, whose story we wished to track and document on video for a year. Theeban’s grandmother, who was now taking care of three grandchildren, and his Theeban as motor mechanic apprenticefather consented to have a professional video crew visit every month and film their recovery progress (or the lack of it).

After the disaster, Theeban dropped out of school and first worked as an apprentice at a tractor repair garage. Manual labour wasn’t very easy for this 14-year-old, but he persisted for several months. When some older boys started bullying him at work, he left the garage and joined efforts to clear coastal rubble – the tsunami’s physical damage. From that he moved on to various odd jobs in masonry and paddy harvesting.

“I am proud to be working at my age…, when all the other children are studying,” he said in one interview in late 2005. “I can’t get a job at some places because I’m too young…I had to lie about my age being 19, to work at the clearing site.”

Yet, on some days when he didn’t find any work at all, and conditions at the make-shift camp did not improve as weeks turned into months. The billions that individuals and governments around the world donated soon after the tsunami somehow failed to make a difference in this particular family’s recovery.

“Some organisations have promised new boats…and a few people have even got them,” Theeban said wistfully in August 2005.
Theeban's story was filmed monthly during 2005

But no such help reached Theeban’s family, which drove his father into depression and drinking. The grandmother watched with mounting dismay and helplessness how the surviving members of her family struggled – and failed -- to bounce back. She could not even keep them together: the father remarried and moved out by early 2006, and Theeban’s two younger brothers were boarded at a youth hostel in Ampara, an hour’s bus ride away.

At the time of his untimely death, more than 26 months after the mega-disaster, Theeban and his grandmother were still living at the ‘temporary’ camp, dependent on food rations for their daily survival.

The odds were stacked too strongly against a teenager like Theeban. First, he and his family happened to be at ‘ground zero’ of the biggest disaster in living memory. Within months of that blow came a resurgence of violence in eastern Sri Lanka, making it a ‘double whammy’ for tens of thousands of civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Children of Tsunami: The Journey Continues was the title we gave to the one-hour documentary that looked back at the very long first year for the eight tsunami-affected families in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. We ended with these words: “Our journey with the eight families ends here. In Theeban smiled in spite of tragedy all aroundthe coming months, these families -- and thousands like them -- will continue their own journeys of recovery.”

It was not easy to part with these families. While resources didn’t allow us to continue filming their stories beyond 2005, at a personal level we remained interested in their progress. All our national film-making crews found they had become attached to the children and families whose stories they covered and reported on with empathy and sensitivity for a year.

Thus, for all of us involved in Children of Tsunami, Theeban’s demise is a death in the family. It is also a grim reminder – if any were needed – that man’s inhumanity to man is often more devastating than Nature’s own fury.

- TVE Asia Pacific


Children of Tsunami website
Follow Theeben’s story on video, month by month, in 2005
Children of Tsunami revisited two years after the disaster