Now nature's turn

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

The tsunami destroys the coastal areas and kills more than 11,000 people in Sri Lanka, which has seen many waves of separatist violence in the past two decades.

in Colombo

I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave.

- H.A.L. Fisher in A History of Europe (1935).

SRI LANKA, which is nearly 1,600 km from the epicentre of the quake, was the first landmass to be hit by the tsunami. Literally caught napping, the island felt the first tremors between 6-30 a.m. and 7-10 a.m. local time, at various places. The first wave hit the eastern Batticaloa district at 8-45 a.m.

Nine provinces - Jaffna, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Amparai, Hambantota, Matara, Galle, Kalutara and Colombo - faced the wrath of the surging sea. The tsunami brought instant death and devastation. According to conservative estimates, over 11,000 people were killed, more than 2.8 lakh displaced and nearly a million affected. The figures are likely to rise in the coming days; many villages are inaccessible and there is large-scale under-reporting.

Spatially, the tsunami's intrusion was minimal, somewhat like acid spilling over the brim of a beaker; still it left behind a horrible trail of destruction. Scarring a line around the island, the waves, which ranged from eight to 11 feet in height, destroyed everything on their path.

Simple livelihoods and expensive hotels, roads, rails and buses, the commoner on the street, the soldier and the rebel... none was spared. For a nation that witnessed the "unceasing waves" of battles waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the 1990s, the tsunami of December 26 was a bolt from the blue.

The tsunami gave an unexpected "amnesty" to 300 prisoners, who escaped from the Matara prison in southern Sri Lanka.

From the northern Jaffna peninsula, through the eastern coast and down to the south and west, tales of disaster are being reported. An elderly resident of Jaffna and a newspaper printing machine mechanic, Mayavan (50), who went to the seashore at Point Pedro to perform a ritual for his dead mother, was washed away. The fate of nearly 40 persons who accompanied him, including his son, is not known. "He was the only newspaper printing machine mechanic in the peninsula," said, N. Vithyatharan, a newspaper editor.

The survivors in the east talked of people, animals and movable property washed away by the tidal fury. "I can see bodies hanging on trees," a resident of the east told a radio station on December 26. A Brigade Commander and his eight-year-old son were washed away in eastern Sri Lanka. "He had braved the LTTE, but went away in a flash," one of his colleagues said.

In Batticaloa, the town's bus station and a bridge were submerged, residents said. Upturned cars and floating buses in an otherwise scenic locale were common sights. The railway service, which winds its way along the southwestern coast, was devastated.

An LTTE Sea Tiger base, a camp of the Sri Lankan Special Task Forces and several military installations - both government and rebel - were reportedly washed away. The situation in the rebel-held region is not known, but defence sources said civilians in those areas were "seriously affected".

The LTTE's underground bunkers and other military installations were reportedly hit. "It will have a serious effect on the LTTE. They do not appear to have been prepared for such a calamity," a defence analyst said. Informed sources in the LTTE could not be contacted as telecommunication links broke down in several parts of the country. The rebels, who appealed for international help and assistance, made no comment on the damage to their military infrastructure.

The absence of an early warning system, with Sri Lanka outside the ambit of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, proved fatal. Evidently, with a mere two hours' notice, many lives could have been saved. Also evident was the lack of contingency plans in major hotels, which cater to the upper-crust international clientele. The number of tourist deaths has not yet been estimated, but initial reports given by survivors indicate a heavy loss of life.

One French tourist, who was lashed by the wave and wedged onto a tree, said his three-year-old granddaughter was washed away in eastern Sri Lanka. On the western coast, at Bentota, a popular resort outside Colombo, a German tourist said six persons in his hotel were washed away.

"We were on the beachside and the water was very, very calm. Unusually calm and suddenly it rose," said a German survivor, who was at a beach resort near Colombo. She and her mother had come to Sri Lanka to spend the Christmas vacation. "The first wave was comparatively mild and it came right into our hotel. As the waters receded, we grabbed our belongings. A short while later, the second wave approached, faster this time. It was then that we realised the gravity of the situation and we ran out," said the German tourist.

A British tourist and his wife had lost nearly everything, except their passport, the clothes they were wearing and a hand-held video camera in which he recorded his first brush with a natural disaster.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was in London on a private visit, declared a state of national disaster. An emergency meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, sought Indian and international assistance to meet the situation. "It is a national tragedy, the devastation is total. We cannot assess the total damage at the moment," Rajapakse told Frontline after visiting the affected southern districts.

INDIAN assistance did come immediately. A Dornier aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) reached the Ratmalana domestic airport on the night of December 26, carrying emergency relief and a medical team. Four ships arrived - two each in the eastern Trincomalee and southern Galle ports - with more relief material and personnel on December 27. Six helicopters, too, were expected to help in relief work.

"It is in the best traditions of good-neighbourly relations and a true expression of being a friend in need. We responded immediately," Mohan Kumar, the Acting Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, told Frontline.

The last time Indian assistance came was in May 2003, when floods ravaged parts of central and southern Sri Lanka. An Indian ship, INS Sujata, which came for rescue work, won hearts and minds and its personnel were given an emotional farewell at Colombo. This time around, the emergency response from India has been "more rapid" with the first aircraft arriving within hours after the official request was made.

While the immediate task of providing relief has commenced, the more painstaking operation of restoring the infrastructure remains. Given the extent of damage, the restoration of Sri Lanka's lost coastline will take months, if not years.

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