10/18/2006

BBC: Facing death in Sri Lanka and Thailand

We are five minutes away from closing a mega Bollywood song-and-dance revue at the local cricket stadium.

There are kinetic stars on the stage, with 10,000 happy people in the stands enjoying the carnival atmosphere.

Dancers disappear

Bollywood hero Shah Rukh Khan is doing his gig with dancers.

I am waiting in the left wing for my finale. The music is pulsing through the audience, and the pyrotechnics are lighting up the inky black night.


Colombo blast scene in December
They say there are some moments in our lives which change us forever

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Suddenly I see a man in the front row flying to his left. Then I see Shah Rukh looking to his right and left. Then I see the dancers disappear.

What is happening?

I stepped on the stage and leaned over. I saw a pool of blood in the front rows. The security men grab us from behind and ask us to leave.

A bomb has exploded in the front rows - two people are dead, more than a dozen injured. The concert has come to a bloody end.

The next few minutes are surreal.

As I am coming down the backstage stairway, all hell is breaking lose.

I see a woman with her arm blown off, bleeding and screaming "Someone, help me please". I see panicky people running in from all sides, and in the middle of this confusion, someone gropes me.

I am running for my life now in my red sequined cat suit with a silver belt saying 'disco' and glitter on my face. I am running for the car which will take us straight to the airport, where the flight to Mumbai (Bombay) has been held up for us.

'Vulnerable and fragile'

I reach Mumbai late at night, rattled and numbed. I am thinking how even as I was creating showbiz fantasy for the thousands of fans, somebody blew up a bomb in the stands and brought us back to cruel real life.

I do not know who let off the bomb or why they did it. All I knew it just made me feel very vulnerable and fragile. From the airport, I drove to a friend's place - still with glitter on my face - and talked into the morning about what a close shave it had been.

I thought the performers were very lucky to have escaped unhurt that night.

Site of blast in Colombo
The blast in December ripped through VIP seats

But within two weeks, my busy life kicked off again.

This was the second moment - and the setting is the pretty Thai resort of Phuket.

I arrive in Thailand's largest island nestling in the Indian Ocean on 25 December. I have planned it as a perfect Christmas break, and am determined to make the most of it.

I decide to give myself all the sleep and rest I need after a frenetic year of films, commercials and shows - I have travelled to 50 cities around the world in the past year on work.

So I rented a lovely villa on stilts on the Bang Thao beach.

'Loud banging'

It is an apt setting for a quiet holiday: a crescent shaped bay, white sand, casuarina trees and a lovely breeze blowing into the bay.

On Christmas evening, I meet some friends, have dinner. I return to my villa at two in the morning, switch off my hand-phone and crash out.

I remember hearing a din in my sleep sometime later. I toss and turn in my bed, covering my ears and cursing whoever was making all that noise outside.

Then suddenly, there is someone banging on the door. Loudly.

Preity Zinta
Preity - 'I contacted my hysterical mother and told her I was safe'

I open the door sleepily to see my friend panting outside. "There's been a tidal wave. We must run!", he shouts.

I pick up my handbag and run along with him. I step outside the villa and there's water all around.

What is happening?

I have slept through the tsunami that has killed nearly 6,000 people on Thailand's coast, mostly in Phuket.

I have slept as two killer waves forced the hotel to evacuate guests from the island.

On the road to my friend's place, I see the havoc wreaked by the killer waves.

Phuket resembles a war zone. The road is full of debris. There are bodies lying everywhere.

People in surgical masks are looking for bodies. At a flooded supermarket I search for some candles to light up my friend's home - the electricity has gone off.

After the devastation, it is a beautiful quiet full moon night in Phuket.

But it is the peace of the graveyard: all the parties are off, and the dead are being counted.

'Dreaded water'

I made contact with my hysterical mother and told her I was safe. I said that as soon as I get a seat on a flight, I will be back home.

I decided to stay on.

I ended up spending eight more days on the devastated island, and saw survivors picking up the pieces.

I saw rescue work picking up speed. I find a German kick boxer in the neighbourhood, and I begin taking lessons.

Phuket
The beauty of the sea restored Preity's zest for life

Then I do the unthinkable - for me, at least.

I go out into the deep sea off the Thai coast and spend four nights in a yacht near Similan island close to Burma.

All my life I have dreaded water.

I almost drowned twice when I was younger. I tried to take swimming lessons, but I barely swim now.

The tsunami should have made me stay away from the water forever. But I have I decided to try and overcome this fear.

The voyage is a reaffirmation of life.

I dived into the ocean with my life vest and swam. The sea is calm and blue. I am humbler, smaller and feel as vulnerable after two near escapes from death.

It feels good to be alive.

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Facing death in Sri Lanka and Thailand

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