Ready for a new beginning

Print edition : January 28, 2005

At Telwatta town in southern Sri Lanka, soldiers recover bodies from bogies of the Queen of the Sea, which was struck by the tsunami. The train runs from Colombo to Galle and over a thousand tickets had been sold for the journey on December 26. - ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

If Sri Lankans have quickly come to terms with the devastation, it is thanks to their undying social attribute: `Get on with life'.

"YOU go and tell the world that people here are helpless. They are not beggars. What they need is a helping hand," Ruwan Uyanahewa, a former soldier in the Sri Lanka Army, said at Polhena in the southern Matara district. This effectively summed up the island-nation's plight after the tsunami strike. The entire coastline, from Point Pedro in the north to Dondra on the southern edge, has been obliterated and men walk about like zombies amid the rubble.

"Barring one or two men, no one stays here after sunset. They are afraid of ghosts," he said, pointing to a relief tent put up on what remains of a modest but proud homestead by the sea.

Polhena, a middle-income village that lived on tourism and fishing, has lost 216 persons on last count and is a microcosm of what nature's fury has meant to a nation traumatised since the1970s by one form of insurgency or the other. In some places even up to 1 km from the sea, as in Potpathi near Point Pedro, the plight of the living dead continues. "When we are fine politicians come and tell us fairy tales. Now there is none. I am no expert economist, but I feel what the government should do is to give us solace and moral support," an angry Ruwan said.

A drive around the island, which until 10 days earlier carried the whiff of salt, sea and spontaneous friendship, is now full of visions of apocalypse. In the first few days, wherever this reporter went the stench of the dead pierced the nostrils. Mounds of rubble greeted the eyes. But despite the devastation, the inherent and instant friendliness of the Sri Lankans - be they high and powerful or modest and deprived - did not abandon them. The tsunami failed to erase the charming images of the coast.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga patiently answered a volley of questions at a press conference immediately after the disaster. If Sri Lankans - government officer or insurgent, Sinhalese, Tamil Muslim or Burgher - have quickly come to terms with the devastation it is thanks to their undying social attribute: `Get on with life'. Indeed, in Sri Lanka, described succinctly by a veteran Indian diplomat as a place with "as many emotions as the hours of the day", there is not much time for wallowing in what is over.

Irfan, a resident of Beruwala near Panadura, became relief worker instantly. "It is for the sake of another man's relief from suffering," he says at a relief camp in Panadura. An unemployed youth, he was among the several thousand who ran away from the surging sea and then came back in double quick time to extend a helping hand. "A man was swept away and was flung with great ferocity by the receding waves on a bridge. With a few friends I pulled him out," a poignant Mumtaj, said. The first line of relief came from the thousands of civilians who rushed to any place they could carrying assistance.

A few blades of fresh grass have already started sprouting at the Weligama Bay Inn from the vegetation that was chocked to a saline death. Inside the Inn, which is among the places that serve the best tea and French fries on the island, stands a group of displaced people. The hotel, which a fortnight ago had posh cars parked in its sprawling garden, is now a centre for distributing dry rations.

"I was the fisherman with the highest catch in this area. Now I am carrying canned fish to eat," said an ageing Gunasena, forcing a half-smile that accentuated the wrinkles on his face. "It was just 20 minutes and everything is lost," the hotel's manager told Frontline, pointing to a high-watermark, which stood at nearly four feet (1.2 metres) in some places. "Perhaps in two or three months, we will be back in business."

Inside rebel-held Sri Lanka, this reporter and British Broadcasting Corporation's Frances Harrison and P. Manickavasagam are greeted with the normal LTTE courtesies. Yes, we would be able to go to Mullaittivu. Perhaps we would be able to meet Sea Tiger chief Soosai. Yes, we could take photographs. "We would like you to come and see the devastation in our areas as well. Just about our people," the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's media coordinater, Daya Master, told Frontline over phone. Yes, he understood that it would take some time, "but please come". At Kilinochchi, a young and confident LTTE member, Bharati, took us to Mullaittivu and stood by as we spoke to the few residents there.

The coast, which saw one of the bloodiest battles between the Tigers and the government - tragically named "Ooyatha Alaigal - I" (Unceasing Waves) by the Tigers - is today a town that was. Unceasing waves have wrecked it beyond recognition. Gone is the road, which Bharati says, "ran all along the coast". Now there is nothing there but the ravaged coast.

Amidst piles of cement, stone and smashed boats stands Arul Rasasingham, who has lost his house and his livelihood. He is matter-of-fact: "We have faced destruction by the fighting. This is of another nature. After 13 years as displaced persons, we started rebuilding our lives after the peace process two years ago. Now it is all gone. I don't want anything much. Just give me my boats and fishing gear, and I will rebuild my life again."

The immediate aftermath of the tsunami, which killed over 30,000 people in 20 minutes as against the popularly stated figure of 60,000 deaths in the more than 20 decades of ethnic conflict, saw a surge of solidarity at the grassroots. However, this is likely to be shattered by the continued political posturing of the old foes - mainly the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Opposition United National Party and the LTTE - and the countless smaller but crucial interests that dot the political landscape.

Driving on Galle Road is today an eerie experience. There are no humans, no buildings, nothing on the coastal road. On the streets of town centres there are children, boys and girls in their early teens, with nowhere to go.

Life for the living dead along two-thirds of Sri Lanka's coast is just about to begin again.

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