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Covering the tsunami

By Anderson Cooper

Editor's note: Anderson Cooper anchors CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," which airs weeknights at 10 p.m. ET. He also is a regular contributor for Details Magazine. This article was published in the March 2005 issue.

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I'm searching for two missing children. Sri lankan kids. I say "missing," but I know they're dead.

They were riding in a car with their parents when the tsunami hit.

The car was swept off the road; it ended up submerged in a ditch. The whole family drowned.

The parents' bodies were identified, but the kids got lost in the panic.

Their names are Sunera and Jinandari, 7 and 5, brother and sister.

I'm not sure why I've decided to find these two kids in particular -- after all, there are thousands still missing all across South Asia.

I suppose I'm just sick of not doing anything, sick of just reporting the sorrow and loss.

I'm in a cavernous room in a Sri Lankan hospital. All day I've been talking to people who saw the kids being removed from the water, but finding out where their bodies were taken has been difficult.

I've discovered that the little boy's body was handed over to some Sri Lankan soldiers on the road.

Jinandari was given CPR, and a man on a motorbike brought her to a hospital.

He knew she was dead, but he wanted to make the effort.

The hospital she was left at was flooded, and her body was shipped to the morgue I'm standing in right now.

Until a few days ago, hundreds of corpses lay on the floor. The room is empty now.

Nurses scrub the mottled cement with stiff brushes and brooms. They're trying to get the smell out. The stench of decay, fluids leaking from bodies, has seeped into the floor.

The rot sticks in the back of your throat, soaks into your skin.

It's the third time they've disinfected the room, but the stench remains.

Phil, my photographer, starts to put his camera down to change batteries.

"Don't put that on the floor," the head nurse warns him. "There are flies everywhere."

From outside, the room looks like an East Village art gallery. Hundreds of small photos line the walls.

It's hard to comprehend what you're looking at -- then the pictures come into focus.

I once read that drowning wasn't a terrible way to die, that there was peace in succumbing to the pull of the water, a dignity in getting taken by the tide.

Seeing these photos, I realize that's not true.

The hospital photographed each corpse it received. More than a thousand men, women, and children had their photos taken before being shoveled into mass graves.

I have pictures of Sunera and Jinandari, portraits taken at school. They are in their uniforms, smiling; you can tell they are siblings.

Jinandari's photo is somewhere on this wall, but staring at the corpses, I know I'll never find her.

No one ever talks about what the water can do. But it's all here, captured on film: the submersion, the struggle, the exhaustion, the fear, water flooding into lungs, babies coughing and vomiting, children ripped from their mothers' arms, teeth ripped from heads, bones breaking, skulls crushed, tongues swelling into blackened balloons, necks bloating like those of giant toads, heads snapping back, eyes -- startlingly white -- popping from mud-covered faces, mouths open.

You can still hear the dead screaming.

I've been in Sri Lanka for 11 days now, broadcasting out of an abandoned hotel. Christmas decorations hang from the lobby ceiling.

I came fearing I had missed the story, like a young recruit not wanting to miss the fight. Now I've seen more than my share.

A train swept off its tracks, tossed like a children's toy. Some 900 bodies were found inside.

A Buddhist temple wiped out by a wave, 15 children crushed.

At first you want to know what happened in each house, each heart, but after a while you no longer ask.

Too much has already been said. The words lose their meaning; so do the numbers.

I look into the eyes of a mother grieving for her children. "I'm sorry for your loss," I say. It comes out sounding so small.

On deadline, under pressure, you need to tell stories, of bodies on beaches and searching survivors.

Off camera you make jokes, crass and crude, and pretend it's not getting to you. But not even the cynical swagger of TV can overcome the purity of the pain.

In a rubble-strewn spot where many were killed, I hear a cameraman tell his producer, "I'm going to get some shots -- you know, 'The cups that will never be held in the little children's hands,' that sort of thing."

But even he ends up slapped into silence by the scope of it all.

Disasters have stages: relief workers, then reporters, then more relief workers, then politicians.

"Compassion competition," that's what they call it: Aid groups' not-so-subtle battle to be the first on the ground, the first to give help and get photographed doing it.

There's a logjam of supplies sitting at the airport, but the politicians keep coming -- cops, helicopters, planes, escorts, a drain on resources. I guess everything comes with a price.

Back home we distance ourselves from the dying and the dead. We make them pretty, boxed up and bundled away.

Here, now, there is no ceremony, no pretense, no songs of peaceful slumber.

Bodies are carried in bulldozers, dumped into pits. No one even knows their names.

I'm back in the morgue, looking at the photos, trying to find Sunera and Jinandari.

There's no way.

I'm directed to a mass grave in a forest. Amid the green, a swath of red clay stretches for hundreds of yards.

Flip-flops and clothing are stuck in the mud; a dog roams about.

A new grave is being dug.

Two women who live nearby tell me they're scared the ghosts of the dead will haunt them at night.

Now I'm back home, showered and clean and so far away.

I thought I would dream of those two little children, of people I met and hands I held.

Instead I find myself dreaming of the sea, and all those still trapped deep beneath.

Eyes open, hair swaying with the tides -- they'll gradually dissolve and wash away once and for all.

Thousands of people silently submerged. Preserved in the cold salty water. Entombed in the sea.

Thousands of people. Together. Alone.

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