TheTsunami Train Disaster in Sri Lanka - December 2004
Yona Wiseman's account of her survival
in the world's worst train disaster

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We have known Yona Wiseman for many years. Apart from being close friends, Yona and Doreen are colleagues - both are tour guides. Yona specialises in walking tours of Tel Aviv. She can be reached at +972 52 326 7277

[Note added in August 2014: See email received by Yona from someone who was also on the train.]

Yona with Doreen, a few days after her return to Israel.

Christmas day  25th December.
6.30am, Wake up call
7.30am Yoga on the porch next to the breakfast room.
Lovely young guy.  So relaxed and easy going, like everyone else here.
Had a good fruit breakfast. Tasted the special rice with coconut milk. Delicious.
So lucky to be who I am, looking over the sea, sitting at the pool writing.

Enough of sitting around. We arranged to take a bicycle tour. We ordered a taxi   to take us to the sports club down the road where we would start our tour with a guide.  We drove to our destination with another couple who were going surfing.  We got talking to them and they told us of this wonderful day trip they had done to the city of Galle, which had one of the remaining ancient  forts  and a  Buddhist Temple built in the rocks.  They had gone by train and told us that this alone was an experience. We got excited at the idea of taking such a trip. But first the bicycle ride, a 2 hour ride through lush jungle almost like a large botanical garden. There were also a few busy roads to cross, a challenge in itself, like taking your life in your hands. But we got through and over safely and returned to the hotel to have an early night in preparation for our train ride to Galle.

26th December  2004.

We made an early start, ready to catch the 8:45 train to Galle.  We walked down the road along the railway line to get to the station.  On the way, a taxi driver offered to take us to Galle for only $20.00.  Danny was ready to go but I convinced him that a train trip is the way to get to know the locals. Little did I know how well we were about to get to know these wonderful people.

At the station we started talking to a few locals, most of whom speak English.  Someone said he thought the train wouldn't be too crowded because kids were on holiday that day and families would be spending the day together. Also there were going to be celebrations that evening, a monthly event to celebrate the night of the full moon. We met a lovely Scandinavian family with their 3 kids who had just come out of a hike through the jungle.  They looked so happy touring together, all dressed immaculately, each with their own backpack. The train arrived but contrary to what we'd been told to expect, it was very crowded. We managed to squeeze on and as we pulled off, Danny noticed that our Scandinavian family hadn't boarded. Was that their choice or an intervention of fate? We would never know.

 The train stopped at a few stations along the way. Few people disembarked. Mostly people were pushing to get onto the train. We pulled into the next station, just over half an hour from our destination.  I was standing on one side of the coach.  Danny had managed to squeeze into a seat on the other side. People were sitting on top of one other, 4 people on seats meant for two. Some were even perched on the arms of the seats.
All of a sudden I heard screaming.  Danny called me to lookout of the window where he was sitting. We saw a  group of young girls all dressed up holding balloons . But their faces were contorted with fear and it was they who were screaming. I wondered if this was some sort of game. Suddenly I noticed a little old man peddling his bicycle  as if he were chasing them.  I thought  "Oh my goodness a terrorist attack.”  And then like a huge monster wave of mud, over a meter high came spilling out of nowhere, churning with terrible ferocity out of the jungle, hurtling in from the direction of the sea. The girls tried to scramble onto the train – but were swept away.   Danny yelled: "Yona,Yona what is happening.?  Shit,  coming on the train was my idea."   The watery mud started oozing into our carriage and I heard myself saying aloud "It's OK. Don't worry. It's probably a flash flood like we get in the Negev. It floods the area and then disappears as suddenly as it comes."
But this water wasn't going to go away. Suddenly there is a thunderous crash.  The coach immediately behind the engine has been swept off the rails, rolling away like a barrel.  Then it crashes into a clump of trees and comes to a halt about 60 meters from us.  People from the derailed coach start to clamber through the windows, now facing upwards towards a clear clear blue sky. Once out, they sit terror stricken on the overturned coach, with  water swirling all around. We don't know what's happening.  People all around us are in shock.  I reach for the mobile phone to contact our host in Colombo.  The battery is low.  One of the Sri Lankan boys grabs the phone, pulls out the Sim card and transfers it to his own phone, hands it back to Danny and says "OK contact your friend and get us out of here."
Danny manages to make contact with our host in Colombo Lehitra and explains our situation. He tells us to get off and catch a taxi.  It's clear he has no idea what's going on. Our coach is  still on the rails and the water mud seems to be subsiding. No one knows whether to leave the train or not. A sense of calm begins to spread among the stranded passengers.  A young Sri Lankan woman tells us in American accented English to keep calm and stay on the train. Her elderly mother assures us serenely that all will be well. I start taking pictures of the people on the upturned coach. All have now stopped screaming and are talking about what to do.  They decide to get off the coach and walk towards some land a distance away. It looks dry enough, most of the water having subsided.

I can't be sure of how long this all took. Not more than 15 minutes or so.

And then I hear a tremendous  roar and see a towering wall of water descending on us .Danny shouts "Yona Yona  to the door" I feel myself engulfed in surging water. People are banging on the closed windows trying to get out.  The coach is filling up and up with water and then I'm swirling round and round in a brown whirlpool. I can't see any light. Drawing on everything my yoga training has given me I keep repeating to myself  "Yona be calm don’t panic. Just push up and up and get some air. It'll soon be tomorrow.". I feel someone pushing from behind. I reach the top of the brown darkness. I gasp a breath of air and feel myself being sucked down again. I feel someone standing on my shoulders pushing me down, someone using me as a ladder to climb to air and life. It was as if there were chair legs I had to force myself up against to get past. Determined that I'm going to live, I push up, using every bit of mental and physical power I'd ever stored just  to get out of this. I manage to rise to some opening. Again I get my head above water, again a gasp for another breath. Our coach was now also on its side, windows facing to the sky, with none of the solidity a steel coach should offer. It had become like a tin can, swirling and turning in the strong current of surging water.  Then I see a man pulling someone out. I stretch out my hand.  He manages to get hold of my fingers but I feel he has no strength. Now I know for sure, only I can save me. I'm talking to myself again. "you've walked on fiery coals Yona. Even though you're afraid of water, you can walk your way out of this."  I manage to hook my elbows over the top of the open window elbows and heave upwards. My arms feel they are dislodging from their sockets. I reach the top of the window just as another torrent of water tosses the coach back onto its wheels. I'm clutching onto the window sill as water rushes around me, managing  to keep my head just above the surging water level. My bag and camera around my neck are dragging me down..  I can't dislodge them, I don't have a free hand. To my right, a woman is holding onto a young child looking at me eyes pleading in horror.  I dare not let go my grip but manage to move my hand to hers to make her understand she should hold onto the sill. But within an instant they disappear from sight. And then another massive  crash.

Some crashes devastate. This crash saved my life and Danny’s life. The waters had flung our coach into a house, bringing to a halt its perilous tumbling. It shot up and landed somewhere on higher ground enabling the water to drain from it.  I can’t remember how I climbed back into the dry carriage. At this point I discarded my bag and camera. They were after all only material possessions which might bog me down again if another wave hit. I wondered where Danny was but  had no way of looking for him. I knew I had to get up onto the roof of the coach, stepping across dead bodies, looking for Danny,..The thought of another possible avalanche of water was too terrible to contemplate. I  felt every ounce of my energy  had been used up. So I just sat down on the roof looking around at bodies floating by me. Other  people were on the roof of this house. Danny appeared from nowhere. How can I explain the fact that  I wasn't even  surprised? I knew he would make it.  We just looked at each other.  He told me that when I eventually said something he didn't 't recognize my voice, my South African accent was so much stronger than usual. Must have come out of my guts.

We automatically started climbing up onto the roof of the house, trying not to step on bodies and trying not to fall down through the rafters.
We believed that by now our man in Colombo had to have known what had happened to the train and knowing that we were on it, would be sending a helicopter to pick us up. So we just had to wait on this roof. Simple as that.

Meanwhile, flash images from the rooftop. A man sitting next to us couldn't move his leg. His wife whom he'd married two months earlier had been swept from him. The owner of the wrecked house is also perched on the roof looking down at his smashed dishes. That's all that remains of his life. All his family, his whole life had just been washed away.  A little boy sits next to me crying. No one knows who he belongs to. Others on the roof say they'd just found him and are looking after him.   The water level seems to be subsiding on the one side of the coach but is still flowing wildly on the other. A man is clinging to a coconut tree, feet and arms wrapped around the trunk which is swaying back and forth in the swirling torrent.  Looking at the sea from the roof of the house we watched the waves coming in and going out, now washing over and hiding some rock or island in the middle and then exposing it.  Some people are starting to climb off the roof. But descent might end in disaster if another wave hurtles in to wash us away as happened with the people in the first coach that was derailed. What should we do? So much uncertainty
 By now it must have been around noon. Only three hours since we'd boarded the train. How could the sky be so blue and so hot with all the devastation around?  Where was the help we'd called for? Danny says when we regain some strength we should scratch our names with rocks onto the flat concrete roof we are sitting on. A desire to perpetuate transience?  I tug at the wooden rafters thinking to use them for our inscription but can’t budge them.  No drinking water left. I see an abandoned backpack near us, look inside, hoping to find water or food. Nothing but uselessly clean laundered clothes. I've lost my shoes. I need to find some.  –

We just sit, a scary dry mouthed feeling coming up. Too much waiting for someone to come and help.  .  Danny gets scared because there is water coming out of his nose and thinks it'll go to his brain.  I assure him it won't.  I lower my head and water pours out of my nose too. Enough of sitting and waiting. We need to go into action again,  so we decide follow most of the others who have gone inland where we were told there was a temple. On the way I find a pair of shoes which are too small. What little boy had lost them? How had they been placed there so neatly?   I continue walking bare foot.  Amazingly Danny still has his bag which means that we at least have some money and credit cards although the mobile phone is out of action.

About 500 meters through the trees we come to the temple, thronging with thousands of people. Amongst the crowd the Sri Lankan lady with the American accent from the train. She tells us her mother died peacefully in her arms. What a coincidence that she should be among the handful of survivors ! She notices a bleeding gash in my shin and offers to tear her white dress to use as a  bandage. Till that moment, I hadn't even noticed it. A mother sobs for the children and husband she lost. Pregnant, missing a finger, all she has left is a bay clutched in her arms. The husband of a Norwegian girl is missing. She doesn't know whether he made it or not.
It's now about 3.00pm.  We're still trying to find out if anyone has any news about what the hell this is all about. A monk  in the temple has a radio and reports that there are floods all over the country. I go to him to find out if there is perhaps any English news. He sees the gash on my leg and takes out a piece of cotton wool the size of my fingernail. He cleans the wound with water and then antiseptic.  I feel completely numb or is it calm? Hard to tell but at least I'm functioning.

Now for our next step. Where to go from here?  The village across the quick flowing river is on higher ground and apparently untouched.  The villagers had by now strung ropes across the river where the bridge had once been. Hundreds of people were crossing at the same time. They slowed down when they reached deeper water, when they couldn't feel the ground under their feet. Human traffic jams in the middle of nowhere. By this time we were talking and discussing our problem with the locals as there had been very few foreigners were on the train.  After another hour of indecision, my mouth going again dry from inaction, we decided to cross.  Danny was pretty nervous as he doesn't know how to swim or breathe in water. How the heck had he survived that flooded coach? I had to believe that someone was watching over us and would continue to do so. I was really beginning to trust and trust.  We told a few of the heavily built guys about our fears and they walked behind us as we crossed holding onto the ropes.
Together with our new found Sri Lankan friends, we. crossed the river spanning about  500 meters. There were stretchers for those who were injured made from wooden benches from schools or from the temple. They turned these benches upside down and used them as boats to ferry old people and children across the river.  They had brought water to drink, which was not such a good idea but what the hell. The older people were terrified when they came to the deep water where the bridge had been, but the locals coaxed them over so gently and nobody panicked.  Just had to go one at time through the deep end as it was dangerous to have too many people attached to that part of the rope.
Finally after about 15 minutes, although it felt much longer, we made it to the other side  where the water was still knee deep. There were people guiding us, telling us which direction to take, warning us about hidden ropes or electric wires under the water. Most probably  they'd learned from the first people who'd come across.

We discussed  with our little band what to do next.  Everyone was apparently now walking to the schools or hospitals to try and get out of there with whatever transport they could find.  But as we are walking along, a man comes out from his house and in Sri Lankan advises us not to move away as there is no way out , at least not for that day. And he invites us to come into his home.  Danny myself and another Sri Lankan couple go in.  Danny tells me to tuck my “tachat” in.   My pants had been ripped to shreds but I had not noticed.   Hadn't  realized how exposed I was.  The house is filled with family members.  The mother, father, the pregnant daughter and her little 2 year old girl, her husband and his mother and now us.    They give us a towel  between us to wash and clothes to wear. I get a pair of  pajama shorts with a T shirt, the other girl gets an Indian dress. Danny and the other guy  get sarongs.   I take a shower  and dress my wound. The father insists that I have a tetanus injection and promises to take me to get this later when he returns after delivering sugar and tea to the refugees.  We are offered the most wonderful cup of hot tea. The milk tastes like it has just come from the cow and it brings back memories of my youth on my friend’s farm drinking milk straight form the cow. (I survived that too).
Our next concern was how to let our family know we were safe. The son in-law gives us his mobile phone. Danny gets through to his brother in Israel and he lets my son  Ronen know and so the word spreads.   We are alive! Miraculously the house phone can still receive incoming calls although all electricity lines are down. Phone calls start coming in for Danny from Israel and for the Sri Lankan couple from their family in the north. I wait anxiously to hear the voices of my own children.

The father, despite running back and forth to assist  the injured and the homeless, doesn't forget his promise to me. He arrives to pick me up in his van and takes me to the  hospital which turns out to be no more than a dark little shack. I see the doctor wiping off his hands after having treated a patient. He instructs me to remove my bandage and to throw it in the garbage. He takes some cotton wool, this time a little bit bigger than the size of a finger nail, holds it in tweezers and dabs my wounded shin.   Then the bloodied cotton wool is thrown into the garbage and the tweezers get placed on top of it, waiting to be used for the next patient.  Oh my goodness how often had he done that?   Now he readies to give me the tetanus shot. Not wanting to sound ungrateful or critical I gently ask him what kind of needles he uses.  He laughs and says they are throw-aways.  Wonder how many times the same needle got thrown away?  Relief when this medical treatment is concluded and I can go back to our wonderful newly found family.

The son-in law offered to drive us back to our hotel in Bentato where our luggage and passports were and then said we'd be able to return to our hotel in Colombo. We were overwhelmed by his kindness to people who had been strangers only a few short hours before .  However the parents of  Sri Lankan couple who'd come with us to the house, were coming the following  next morning from near Colombo to pick them up and they said we could ride back with them  This was wonderful news.

All this time we'd been trying to get into touch with Lehitra, our Sri Lankan host but could not get through to him. Similarly no reply from our hotel at Bentato. There were rumors that it had been swept away. We got through to some hotel in Colombo but had no luck there either. They had no accommodation available. Danny thought we should first go to Bentato to try and get our passports but I was in favor of going straight to Colombo. We could decide what to do once safely on dry land.

Dinner time came but I could only eat dry rice and drink lots and lots of tea. Then  the father left . He was out all night helping the  wounded but mostly he was collecting dead bodies.
After dinner we were then given mattresses to sleep on. How lucky I was to be alive but wished I were already safely at home near my family and friends.
But  I was too frightened to sleep on the floor as I had visions of floating away on the mattress. So they allowed us to sleep in their lounge. The décor reminded me of Arab homes I'd been in. The enormous couches were of carved black wood upholstered in red velvet . But even this didn't alleviate my fears. The couch became the coach in my fitful sleep .I felt myself floating away on turbulent waters. Too many mosquitoes. Too much water whooshing. Although high up and far away, this was no dream. It was the distant sea and in the dark, around 3.00 am , I began working out where to climb to if it came at me again. I guess I couldn't be blamed for feeling rather paranoid.

The parents arrived 9.30am but our hosts insisted that we all have yet another cup of tea. We made a getaway an hour later. As we drove off another ludicrous image focused itself in my mind. 10 people squeezed into a dilapidated van meant to hold only 8. I was fearful that others, desperate to get away from that place of death and destruction might try to jump in as well. But we managed to get away without incident and began the trip back, winding our way through jungle paths and past small villages. Imagine traffic jams in the middle of a jungle! But people were amazingly calm, following makeshift traffic signs, obeying people directing traffic. Buses blocked paths never designed to carry them It took seven  hours to travel the 50 kilometers to the village of our  friends.
 On arrival they ordered a taxi for us from the Hilton Hotel in Colombo. It was due in 10 minutes. Before it arrived they took us to the most fashionable clothing store in the village:“Paris Fashions” so we could buy some clothes. People were gaping at me, a white woman wearing shorts and walking without shoes, arms bruised and shin bandaged. We ran into the store, again reminiscent of Gaza according to Danny, each to a different department. I tried on a pair of jeans over my shorts as there was a long queue for the changing rooms. At last a pair of shoes on my feet, clean panties, 2 long sleeved T. shirts .  Danny grabbed a pair of shorts, 2 Lacoste T shirts, a bundle of socks  and some underwear. Details standing out despite the haste and confusion. Our purchases came to $45.00.  Thank goodness Danny had hung onto his backpack or it had hung onto him, so we had  about $20.00 in cash and his credit cards, by now dried out and usable.

We jumped into the waiting taxi and 12 kilometers and an hour later walked into in the Colombo Hotel, the one we'd left in such disdain, the one we were thankful to be returning to. The manager was shocked and surprised to see his now disheveled former guests. We asked him to get in touch with Lehitra but still no go. And then amazingly , standing at the desk we saw the couple who had recommended the train ride to us just two days earlier in Bentato. They looked at us in disbelief, sure we had perished with the hundreds of others on that ill-fated train ride. They said if the hotel did not have room for us we could share their apartment.  Whow! whow! whow!
But the hotel did have accommodation and believe it or not, on the same 21st floor. The apartment was different, smaller but beautiful to us. It faced away from the noisy street, overlooking the river, a room with a view to another clean and new world. That night we had dinner with our friends, Bernard and Cicely, whose recommendation had nearly cost us our lives.  He is a Kurd and she a Norwegian.
Another miracle.  They also had the telephone number of the Sports club near our hotel where we'd left our passports. We phoned and they said the hotel was fine and that they would try and get our things over to us by taxi the next day. We were awakened at 2.00am  by a phone call from none other than Lehitra.  He had been searching for us for the last two days. We'd been unable to contact him because there was no service to his mobile phone. He had informed our friend Ravi that we were in all probability dead because almost everyone who'd been on that train had perished. But Ravi refused to accept this saying that he knew we were alive and he told Lehitra to go and look for us, which he did.  He'd taken his wife and 6 other people, including our driver and body guard, but couldn't reach the area of the train disaster . So he organized two bulldozers and bulldozed his way to the trains. He has a video of all this.  He searched for us in all the refugee depots while all the time we were safely in the house of the kindly Sri Lankan family. He than decided to drive to our hotel in Bentato, where he learned that they had heard from us. His call was one of relief and joy. He was on his way to us with our luggage and passports. You see Danny I told you it would work out.

Now how to get back as soon as possible.

Danny decided it would be best for me to go back via Qatar instead of coming back to London and hanging around for 18 hours.  The flight direct to Tel Aviv via Qatar and Amman would take about  7 hours.  Great idea.   My mouth felt a little dry again at the thought of flying on my own through unfriendly Arab territory. But because I had been traveling on my English passport it was feasible. (I'd left my Israeli passport in London.)
Danny flew out Tuesday night, 28th December and I went to airport 7.30am Wednesday morning.29th. In two days I'd lived a whole new life.

29th December
Now I was waiting in an empty business class lounge, on my way home via Qatar and Jordan, reviewing as well as I could all the miracles that Danny and I experienced. It was difficult to comprehend that we had come out alive, that we had  met the people we did along the way all in such a short span of time. It was just mind bogging. Nothing is as great as being alive, going home to the people I love and who love me.

But the miracles weren't yet over. There was yet another incident to get my adrenalin buzzing again. I walked into the crazy “Gaza” looking airport of Colombo, filled with thousands of people trying to get home. All looked badly shaken and dazed, many with bandages or broken limbs. All of a sudden I hear someone calling Yona, Yona! And there standing, with a complete shock on her face, is my Sri Lakan friend from London, Mali who worked  for me and who lived with me when they wanted to kick her out of Britain.  We just started at each other and then for the first time I broke down and cried.  She was flying home to London also via Doha after spending time with her family in the North of Sri Lanka.  We had so much to catch upon and fortunately our plane was delayed by an hour. Instead of leaving at 9.30am we flew out at 10.30am.

 I checked in my luggage all the way to Tel Aviv although I felt a little uncomfortable about that. But by then I didn't care. I knew I had a guardian angel watching over me. Just before landing, I decided to check the time of my connecting flight to Amman. I was horrified to see that because of the delay, our plane would only land at 12.20 and the flight for Amman was scheduled to depart at 12.18. So I spoke to my angel, "fix it"!  I told the flight attendant who tried unsuccessfully to make contact with the airport ground staff.. However she reassured me that because so many planes had been delayed, maybe mine would be too. As we landed I got ready to fly down the stairs.  The plane landed, the doors opened and there were 2 flight attendants waiting for me. They rushed me in a great big  limousine to passport control , and took care of all the red tape. I just flew along after them, concerned about my baggage. They promised to locate it and I boarded the plane, apologizing to other passengers for keeping them waiting.

Once we landed in Jordan, I felt safe. Someone double checked to make sure my bag had arrived and took it personally to my connecting flight on Royal Jordanian Airlines bound for Israel. Ladies and Gentlemen fasten your seat belts. We're airborne.  Ladies and gentlemen we are landing . Quick, quick, quick.

Now only one more hurdle remains before I could  fall into the arms of Ronen.   I only have my British passport on me. My Israeli one is in London with the hand image card that allows Israelis to bypass the long queues at passport control. So I have to stand in line with all the foreigners.   Are they going to hassle me or not?  The queue inches ahead slowly. It feels I've been standing in it for hours. I'm becoming a little anxious, beginning to feel a bit dizzy, thinking of all that I'd been through. How can I collapse now?  I get to the counter, take a deep breath and tell her where I've been and why I don't have my Israeli passport. Without letting me finish, the clerk asks for my identity number, types it in and says: "Get out of here. Go home, rest and be healthy!!

I am home. I am alive and in a positive way I will never be the same again.

I feel like I am in a clearing………………………..reborn.  New life.

For pictures, an interview with Yona's friend Danny, and an account by the BBC of the disaster, click here.

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Almost ten  years after the tsunami, Yona received an email from a doctor who had come across what Yona had written and who had been in the same train with a similar experience. His email follows:

Hi Yona,
I happen to read your article, on your personal experience of Tsunami tragedy in Srilanka 2004.
I was a passenger in the same ill fated train; and was returning home. I was a young and enthusiastic doctor fresh from medical school.
I jumped out of the train just after first wave hit. I never expected a second, when I heard people on top of the train yelling 'another one is coming'. I started to run towards land-side through the rubble when I heard the wave hitting the train. I was just close range may be 20 meters from train and panicking. That fateful moment I climbed to a tree, and within seconds tide of water swept away everything around me. Was on the tree for nearly an hour and felt like I was in the middle of the sea. I guess the train was completely submerged, but the view was not clear due to trees, so was my mind.

Then I got down and followed villages to the Temple, where I met an old preset who had a radio, which I managed to listen to live coverage, and was trying to understand whats happening. The young journalist was describing the scene as they observing from a helicopter. Little advice given how to respond or any useful information as I was genuinely worried about a 3rd wave/tide as I could not comprehend what happened. I have never heard of Tsunami before no that I learned it in geography!
We helped each other and helped injured. I couldn't believe how many people died and was critically injured, and being myself the only 'doctor' in that place! Then realising I survived without any injuries, even without an abrasion. I couldn't resist the thought 'I was spared to fulfil a higher purpose' and sense of hope. I did my best to provide first-aid triage critically injured. But now when I think back I suspect any thing I did actually helped to improve the situation! But I'm glad I did that wholeheartedly.
I followed same path you described to that country-hospital, and crossing that river was terrifying. I joined the medical team in the hospital and did what we could until next day.
When I read your description about the hospital doctor who treated you - the patient's perspective, I really feel 'timid' myself. I'm sure I wasn't the doctor who cleaned your wound, but I have vague recollection of treating some foreigners there, and the way I cleaned their wounds was no different to your description! (just want to let you know that I was not offended, and was in-fact an accurate description of a fond memory).
2004 Tsunami changed our lives for ever and I lost many of my relatives and friends.
Today I'm a much better doctor and live a modest life in a country town. I still believe that god had spared our lives and we must live to fulfil a greater purpose in life!
Warm regards,
Dr ............
[Yona has his name]

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