Surviving the Tsunami at Arugam Bay

Ani Naqvi, in The Telegraph, 26 December 2022, where the title runs asI was almost killed in the Boxing Day tsunami – and it gave me a reason to live” …. After being swept up in the tsunami of 2004, I battled survivor’s guilt and flashbacks to find new purpose” 

In 2004, my world was literally turned upside down. I was working as a journalist, had left a job at the BBC several years earlier, and was struggling with depression. The end of the year was looming, England was cold and dark, and I felt more than ever that I needed to get away.

So I booked myself a flight and headed for Sri Lanka, touching down – in a summer dress and peacock-blue flip-flops – on Christmas Eve, the warm air of the island enveloping me as I stepped out into a cacophony of taxi drivers jostling for my attention. Hot, busy and full of life, Sri Lanka is a place that overwhelms your senses. It was just what I needed.

From the airport, the drive along the east coast wound through lush green hills where elephant and buffalo meandered alongside the cars and tourists bartered with locals over fresh coconuts at the roadside. I arrived at Arugam Bay, a remote peninsula on the east coast, and spent Christmas Day cele­brating the season with my friends, drinking, talking and watching the sun sink low in the bay, finally falling asleep in my little concrete hut on the beach as Boxing Day dawned.

It was just before 9am when – dis­orientated and hungover – I began to stir, suddenly aware of a commotion: loud sounds and a low roar. Still half asleep, I couldn’t understand what the noise was – and then, suddenly, the sea crashed into the room, ripping the door off its hinges, tearing my clothes off, raising me off the bed like a doll. In the split second it took for me to come to, I was under water.

It was like being a grain of rice thrown around in a washing machine. The sheer force of the water – a dark, swirling, thundering soup – made it imposs­ible to swim, and everything was pitch black. The ­concrete hut started to fill with water, furniture smashed into me, and I tried desperately to make out which way was up. My whole body was engulfed, until, as the water rose higher in the cabin, it started to churn less, allowing me to surface and take a hurried breath of air from the thin pocket that remained. The water continued to creep up until I had only two inches of air left. I realised I was going to drown.

As someone in the throes of depression – and who had been a functioning depressive for years – I thought about ending it all, slipping away into the water unnoticed; just one more person to drown. And then, all of a sudden, I heard a voice, something intuitive, which said: “Remember this moment, Ani. You do not want to die.” And then I started to fight. I fought with every ounce of strength I had to stay alive.

It was then that the strength of the water overwhelmed the little hut, breaking bits of it away so that shards of light began to peek through and pierce the darkness like a lifeline. I was able to orientate myself, kicking towards the surface of the water so I could get more air, until eventually the tsunami completely destroyed the walls around me and I was washed inland.
People ask about the passage of time while fighting for your life: I tell them that it warps when you are trying to survive; it seems to stretch on forever.

Incredibly, I managed to spot my friends in the distance, and tried to move towards them. The ground was covered in debris and broken glass, and everywhere there was death.

When I reached the people I knew, I immediately began to cry. My friend Sri, the owner of a nearby hotel, was three months pregnant and had rolled herself into a ball when the water struck to protect her baby. Her ­partner kept trying to go back to the hotel and she just kept saying: “There is no hotel to go back to” – but their unborn baby had survived. He is now 17 years old.

As the reality of it all began to sink in, and as I realised that I had survived when so many hadn’t, I was gal­vanised. The moment we reached safety, my journalistic instincts kicked in, overtaking the shock.

I knew we needed to call in help, fast, so I borrowed a mobile phone and – still remembering the number of the BBC switchboard by heart – called and said: “Listen very carefully: there has been a tsunami; I need you to get me through to the British High Commission.”

The High Commissioner rang me back and I liaised with the commission all through the night, gathering names and details, and giving out news announcements via a Norwegian peacekeeper’s radio. Gradually, a group gathered round me and there I was, in the thick of it, broadcasting news again. Assisting in the midst of all that tragedy helped to give me a purpose and keep me focused. It carried me through.

Ani sat at a table, smiling
Life force: Ani has been able to put her devastating ordeal in Sri Lanka to good use

When I returned home, I began suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt: I couldn’t stop thinking about why I had lived when so many had not – so once again I decided to channel those feelings, to give myself a purpose.

I worked for an NGO in Iraq during the war, then as head of projects at Cancer Research UK, helping people to see beyond the darkness to find purpose and joy – and, slowly, trying to come to terms with my own trauma, thinking back to that moment in the hut, how I fought to live when I had wanted to die.

As told to Margarita Mitchel Pollock

Ani Naqvi is CEO and founder of the Ultimate Results Group (; she has dedicated her life to impacting the lives of 250,000 people in honour of those who died in the Boxing Day tsunami. For mental health help, contact

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