Seven Years after the Tsunami
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article was published in the Sunday Island on December 17, 2011
On 26 December 2011 it will be seven years since 36,000 to 50,000 people (the numbers of dead vary depending on the source) died in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami.
On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle with a party of about 20 people. He and 16 others died. His wife and one child survived because they went back to the hotel for a newspaper.
A strange phenomenon was noted in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?
A local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success. Even in the poorest, most remote areas, people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils.
There are complaints today about militarisation. Seven years ago, 20,000 soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.
One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dane.
Back in 2005, just outside the town of Hambantota, plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that fish were contaminated by corpses. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.
We saw the first derelict house, then another. A graveyard was littered with broken trees. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from telephone wires near a mosque.
Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not exist to account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.
A canal was clogged with orphaned furniture. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges.
There was mud everywhere and it seemed as if the earth had halitosis.
There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.
Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.
Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.
Three Months Later
On our next visit, there weren’t as many people at the temple. This did not mean that problems were solved. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were there insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. Those receiving feel better if they “receive from the hand”, that they have a direct relationship with the giver. The giver can look into the eyes of the receiver.
We distributed rice, lentils, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from the car. The first arrivals were calm and slow; gradually new arrivals became more hurried, breathless, their lateness a sign of having travelled a greater distance than the first-comers. Soon our supplies were gone. The late-comers did have a certain look of panic on their faces. They did show disappointment, but with resignation rather than anger.
We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. People seemed to be united in adversity. Nature had not discriminated.
One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. One woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All behaved with dignity but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”
The miasmic odor had gone. Some tents belonged to house-owners camping outside their own houses. A neat sign in magic-marker, in an empty plot at the junction, said “Ayub Khan 348 Tissa Road, Hambantota” to stake a claim against squatters. A gathering of orange-robed priests sat under a battered sign: “Baby’s Dream Pre-school”. Some broken houses were festooned with washing and had goats and chickens in the yard.
When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travelers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway are neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west. However, on the outskirts of Galle there were still many ruined buildings, like post-blitz London in the 1950s.
Hambantota has a natural harbour close to international shipping routes. Construction of the Port of Hambantota (also known as the Magampura Port) by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sinohydro Corporation, started in January 2008. The total cost of the first phase of the project was estimated at $360 million. It was officially opened in November 2010. The second phase, which will include a container terminal, is expected to be completed by 2014. The second stage of the port is estimated to cost around $750 million. The third phase will include a dockyard. When finished, the port will be the largest in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and accommodating 33 vessels at any given time.
“The port in Hambantota will be the catalyst to make Hambantota the new commercial capital of Sri Lanka in the next three years,” said Dr Bandu Wickrama, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Volkswagen/Audi has already forwarded a proposal to assemble vans for the local market in the port zone. Two companies from Korea and Europe have sought to establish SUV assembling plants. Associated Motorways has expressed interest in setting up a Maruti car assembly plant. The Micro Car Company has tendered to set up a factory.
The Mattala International Airport is currently under construction 15 kilometres north of Hambantota. Chairman of Sri Lanka’s Airport and Aviation Services, Prasanna Wickramasuriya, confirmed that the project was on target to be inaugurated at the end of 2012. The first phase is expected to cost $209 million. China is helping.
The aim is to establish a gateway for investment in Sri Lanka and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara.
Construction on the Hambantota Exhibition and Convention Hall was launched about two years ago on a 17-acre block of land. It has now reached the final stage. The Government’s contribution to the project is 19 billion rupees. Korea is contributing six billion rupees. The main auditorium has a seating capacity of 1,500. There are six auditoriums, a restaurant, car parks and an open air theatre. The complex will most probably be the venue for the Commonwealth Summit in 2013.
Criticism of Hambantota development
Hambantota today is a very different place to the devastated community we saw in early 2005. Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Today the outlook is promising. Hambantota is the fiefdom of President Rajapaksa. While he and his brothers currently dominate Sri Lankan politics, with son Namal being groomed for future greatness, it should also be noted that Sajith Premadasa, who is challenging for leadership of the UNP, also represents a Hambantota constituency. In Sri Lankan politics requires him to support development projects for Hambantota.
Sports grounds are being handed over to the military. “We are doing this because we are not in a position to afford the maintenance costs,” Brian Thomas, Sri Lanka Cricket’s media manager, said. Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota, which would have been the venue for the 2018 Commonwealth Games if Sri Lanka bid had been successful, is in debt. Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage has admitted that Sri Lanka still owes more than $18.1 million to the Chinese construction firm that built the stadium.
Although it is claimed that the airport project is environmentally friendly there are still concerns about the fate of Yala and Bundala National Parks. The airport at Mattala will have one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than SingaporeChangi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi?
There is resistance from Colombo enterprises to the development of Hambantota. Plans to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port and some in the motor trade.
As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear anything that was not Colombo described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.