Ten Years After
This article was written in December 2014 to mark the tenth anniversary of the tsunami.
Did the children and I come to you when the waves came?
Were the kids there with you when death came?
In eternity, do you want to be mine again?
Will you come back at least in my dreams?
Those words were written by a grieving husband on the side of a rusting railway carriage at Peraliya in southern Sri Lanka. On 26 December 2014, it will be ten 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. Between 1,700 passengers 2500 on the holiday train, Queen of the South, perished as the wave engulfed it at Peraliya, between Colombo and Galle. Rescuers recovered only 824 bodies, as many were swept out to sea or taken away by relatives without informing the authorities. The village itself also suffered heavy losses: hundreds of inhabitants died and out of 420 houses, the great wave spared only ten.
At 0.58 UTC, 6.58 Sri Lanka time, December 26 2004, there was a seismic subduction on the sea bed off the west coast of Sumatra. Scientists called it the great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. The earthquake moved a 1,200-km section of the sea floor, releasing energy equivalent to 550 million Hiroshimas. The earthquake was the second largest ever recorded – between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale. Lasting up to ten minutes, the earthquake had the longest duration ever recorded. The entire planet vibrated about 1cm and there were shocks as far away as Alaska.
On Christmas Eve, 2004, we were having dinner with our 95-year-old friend and her son at his plantation bungalow. We were discussing the possibility of a trip to Galle on the south coast or Trincomalee in the north east, in a brief hiatus in a thirty-year conflict because of a cease-fire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Luckily, we decided to stay put in our home up in the Namunukula Mountains.
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.
Everyone in Sri Lanka knows someone who lost someone. The wave took away a friend of my wife’s family and her brother in Galle. She was Sri Lankan but lived mainly in London and was here on a short holiday. Her husband was inconsolable and sorry to have survived. Ten years on, he is still suffering.
A strange phenomenon occurred 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?
At Batticaloa, in the Eastern province, there were 1,200 dead and the naval base at Trincomalee was submerged with about 800 reported dead in that district. In Amparai district in the north east, the death toll was 5,000. One thousand dead were counted in Mullaithivu, in the Northern Province, which was controlled by the Tamil Tigers. Many of the dead throughout the country were children and elderly people. One and a half million were displaced from their homes.
Agriculture was badly affected. Vehicles and equipment were ruined. Drains and canals were blocked and water supplies contaminated. 259 square km of paddy land was destroyed or damaged by salinization or deposits of garbage. 23,449 acres of cultivated arable land was affected by salinity
Thousands of houses and other buildings, railways, bridges, communication networks, and other infrastructure and capital assets suffered massive damage. Assets valued at US$900 million were lost. 150,000 people lost their livelihoods – 75% of the total fishing fleet was destroyed. 89,000 houses were destroyed. 183 schools were destroyed or damaged, affecting 200,000 children. 102 health facilities were destroyed or damaged. 53 out of 242 large hotels were damaged along with 248 small hotels. A total length of approximately 800 kilometres of national road network and 1,500 kilometres of provincial and local government roads were damaged. The railway infrastructure on a 160- kilometre-long stretch along the tsunami-affected coastline was also severely damaged.
One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dhane, the alms-giving.
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 (village official) at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.
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 at the temple 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, although some middle class Christians told us that the disaster was their god’s punishment on heathen Buddhists.
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.”
By this visit, 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.
There are complaints in Sri Lanka today about militarisation. Ten 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.
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.
Ten years on Hambantota is unrecognisable. 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, has given the town the largest port in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and able to accommodate 33 vessels at any given time. There has been resistance from Colombo enterprises. A plan to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port authorities and some in the motor trade. “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.
A new international airport has been opened near Hambantota. The airport at Mattala has one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than Singapore Changi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi? There are still concerns about the environment and the unique wild life in Yala and Bundala National Parks. Peacocks have endangered flights.
There are also concerns that these projects are wasteful and designed to enrich the ruling family.
Critics see the port, the airport, sports stadiums and convention centres as white elephants that serve no useful purpose except to boost the egos and bank balances of politicians at the same as getting Sri Lanka in hock to the Chinese.
Soon after the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be running for his third term, after using his two-thirds majority in parliament to introduce the 18th amendment to the constitution to allow him to do so.
The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Today the outlook is promising. Hambantota is the fiefdom of President Rajapaksa. He and his brothers currently dominate Sri Lankan politics, and he is grooming his son Namal, who represents a Hambantota constituency, future greatness. It should also be noted that Sajith Premadasa, who is (somewhat ineffectually) challenging for leadership of the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), also represents a Hambantota constituency.
Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The government’s stated aim is to establish a gateway for investment in the south and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but also in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara. As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear in Sri Lanka that anything that was not Colombo was 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.