Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Badulla

Riots, Witches and Yakas

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday August 21 2011

For the past couple of weeks, there has been much excitement in our Sri Lankan neighbourhood (near Badulla). Villagers are convinced that there is a serial killer on the rampage. The elderly ladies, Tewanee and Meenaachi, who work for us have been telling us that they know for a fact that women have been raped and killed in this vicinity, their breasts bitten off, their hearts torn out. Tewanee’s dogs were killed by having their throats slashed.

The fear is real. We have been told two men have been watching our house, one man dressed all in white, another dressed all in black. There have been reports of two strange men hiding in a drain near our house. A male worker who sometimes does jobs for us told us to be careful. He said the yakas jump from trees. Some might be suspicious about that worker himself. The husband of one of our workers has been expressing fears about our safety but did not worry about going away to work on lorry without telling his wife that he was going. Police have been calling at his house looking for him. His neighbour has three young daughters and his wife is always away working in the Middle East. The man is rarely at home and leaves the daughters to fend for themselves. The girls, aged from five to thirteen, are very scared by the stories of yakas.

Villagers are roaming the roads around our house with sticks and knives and setting fire to the jungle to flush the miscreants out. Strangers come under suspicion. We phoned the police one night when there were shouting mobs roaming the roads. The local police fobbed us off but we later heard that they did come to investigate. One villager said a policeman pleaded, “Please don’t hit me son. I’m a policeman. Hit the Yaka if you catch him. Kill him with your stick if you like but don’t hit me. I’m a police officer!” It does not seem that villagers suspect their own – the emphasis is on fear of strangers – but there is potential for the settling of old scores as in the Salem witch hunts and Guantanamo. The belief that the police are releasing culprits adds to the vigilante frenzy.

It is quite touching that Tewanee has invited us to stay at her home out of fear for our safety. Our neighbours are related to the people living below them. There is no love lost but they insisted that they all stay with them for safety.

We heard of an attack at two-mile post another at seven mile post. We heard that a man had been chased by a mob with sticks and knives and he had hidden in the jungle near the Tea Research Institute. We asked a doctor friend who works in Badulla near the general hospital if there was any truth in these rumours. He said there had been attacks but he had not heard of any deaths. Sightings got closer to our home. We phoned the local police chief. At that very moment he was in a meeting with the manager of the tea estate next to the one on which we live. The OIC (Officer in Charge) told us there was nothing to worry about, These were just wild rumours. He said there was no truth either in stories that children were being abducted from the lines (the estate accommodation for tea pluckers and labourers).

The manager on another tea estate, someone with whom we often socialise, also pooh-poohed the idea of attacks on women. However, later in the conversation, he admitted that he had taken a woman to hospital after she had been attacked on an estate road and badly scratched She had been with another woman who ran away.

The attacks are being blamed on bhuthaya, grease yakas or grease devils. Historically, a “grease devil” was a thief who wore only underwear or went naked and covered his body in grease to make himself difficult to grab if chased. Lately, the “grease devil” has become a night-time prowler who frightens and attacks women. Some of the reported attacks around here have been in daylight.

The name ‘Grease Devils’ was used in connection with the killings of seven elderly women in Kahawatte, near Ratnapura. On July 5, 2011, about 2,000 people protested about the ineffectiveness of the police. According to human rights campaigner Basil Fernando: “The most attractive aspect of policing in Sri Lanka today is no longer investigation into crime and serving the people. It now appears to be the improvement of one’s own position, and to make money. There are many avenues open to senior police officers to do just this which makes worrying about criminal investigations an inconvenience…the authorities are more concerned about damage-control rather than trying to arrest the culprits. After the scandal goes away it will be business as usual, meaning that criminal investigation will remain no one’s business, as before.”

A man was arrested on Friday July 7 in an operation conducted by a special police unit assisted by the CID and the Ratnapura police. He broke the necks of these women before he raped them and dumped the bodies in jungles around Kahawatte. The suspect is a 35-year-old  army deserter known as Dhananjaya. The killing spree began in 2008. It is said that the suspect is mentally impaired, having had a bullet graze his skull whilst serving at the front during the war. He deserted from the army while stationed at Vedithilathiv and moved to Kahawatte. He started by stealing women’s underwear and later peeped at women asleep in their beds or taking showers. This escalated to forcibly embracing women. “When I look at young women I am not attracted to them. But when I look at middle-aged women, I am sexually aroused,” Dhananjaya had told the police during interrogation.

There have long been rumours about feral bands of army deserters living in jungles and swooping on remote villages to plunder and rape.

Initially, there was not much in the newspapers despite accusations by the authorities against “the media” about distortion and panic-mongering. All the news was by word of mouth. There were rumours of incidents all over the country. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who lives in the Kalutara area on the west coast, told us that on three separate occasions she has been scared by three different men staring in through her windows. One of them was naked.

A 16 year-old boy who posed as a ‘Grease Yaka’ and attempted to rob a house in the Badulla area was arrested. The youth along with another friend had rehearsed for the robbery and captured his own photograph on his mobile phone before he was detained by the villagers and handed over to the Police.

Ushanar Marzuka, 31, a mother of two living in a remote area in Valaichchenai in the east, was accosted by two men clad in T-shirts and shorts with faces painted black. One of them cut her with a sharp object he carried in his hand. More than 100 villagers, some of them armed with clubs started searching for the two men. They caught a man and beat him up. He had said he was visiting one of his relatives.

A masked man who was terrorising people in the Sigiriya-Dambulla area was arrested by police on August 13. Police said the 34-year-old suspect was hiding inside a wooded area on the Sigiriya border when he was apprehended around 7.30pm. The police were led to the suspect’s hide out on a tip-off provided by local villagers. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of a bag loaded with women’s under wear.

There have been deaths. Police said that two unfortunate men killed at Thotalagala estate in Haputale, not far from us, were two travelling rug salesmen, though villagers identified them as ‘Grease Devils.’ The police identified the victims as Somasundaram Mahendran (29) and Sylvester Dias Jonny Peter (35). Fifty Special Task Force personnel had been deployed at the Thotalagala Tea Estate. Earlier in the day in the villagers had assaulted two men apparently in the presence of police. This led to a clash between the police and villagers, in which the OIC and a constable were injured. Because of this police had delayed about five hours reaching the scene at Thotalagala estate.

In Daulagala, near Kandy a 23 year old youth who was among a group of villagers giving chase to a suspicious person got entangled in a live electrical wire set to a trap wild boar and was electrocuted.

 

A mob attacked the navy camp in Kinniya, Trincomalee after assuming that a suspect had taken refuge inside the premises. The mob believed the suspect was a man with grease on his body. Over 500 people gathered around the navy camp, pelted it with stones and also set fire to a jeep which arrived at the scene with police reinforcements. The Sri Lankan police said that at least three people including a police officer were injured in the attack and 25 people were later arrested.

Only Connect, Only Congest

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday January 29 2012

Forster’s Connections

“Only connect” is a commonly quoted aphorism by EM Forster.  I have never quite understood it. Forster himself was quite keen to connect with policemen, bus drivers and Egyptian labouring men but that probably is not the wisdom of the aphorism. Forster’s literary output was small. The author of works such as A Room with a View and Howards End stopped writing in 1924, after he published A Passage To India. He lived until 1970. According to Wendy Moffat, associate professor of English at Dickinson College, Pennsylvania, Forster had sex with a man for the first time at the age of 38  – an injured soldier on an Egyptian beach. He met his long-term lover – a married policeman – some years later.

Only one novel, Maurice, dealt with gay issues. It was written around 1910 but was not published until after Forster’s death. Edward Morgan Forster was known to his friends as Morgan. Prepare for an elaborate punning joke. Stay awake at the back there! 1966 was the 50th anniversary of the Easter rebellion in Ireland. One of the rebels executed was Roger Casement. Over the years, the British leaked Casement’s diaries in order to smear his reputation because of his homosexuality. Also in 1966, a film was released called Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment, starring David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave. The satirical magazine Private Eye published a spoof film poster announcing: “Morgan: a Suitable Treat for Casement – a tale of the Easter Rising”.

SLT Cancels Christmas

Enough digressing! The phrase “Only connect” has been in my mind lately because I have been trying to connect with my sainted aunt in Ireland in order to give her our seasonal greetings. SLT won’t  let me talk to her. She is almost 92 and in poor health but sharp of mind and tongue. I started phoning  through IDD on our SLT land line long before Christmas Day. Every time I dialled the Irish number, I was interrupted by a  female  Sri Lankan voice saying “Your call cannot be connected at this time because all our circuits are busy”. This was followed by a saxophone playing what sounded like George Michael’s  Careless Whisper. (I keep getting  it mixed up with Careless Rapture by Ivor Novello, Siegfried Sassoon’s gay lover. Sorry to get back on the gay theme!) Careless Rupture would be more appropriate.

Now, at least this SLT woman sounded civil when she told me she was not allowing my call. A great improvement on the creature I call “The Congestion Woman”. That one  sounds like a bossy woman in a sari – a huge mountainous woman who wobbles when she breathes. “You call cannot be connected due to the congestion” she shouts.

Help!

I kept trying to call my aunt in Ireland until way after New Year’s day. I was trepidatious about calling an SLT help line because I usually want to take my own life after trying to get through to the call centre. I really am not a misogynist but I always pray that a man will answer. The women usually start off sounding irritated that I have disturbed them and grow increasingly impatient as I try to explain the fault. They always sound as though they think I am stupid and to blame for the lack of connection.

Black Arts

Getting connected  to the call centre at all is a major  trauma. One is given a menu to choose from. On the internet help line two of the options seem appropriate but if one chooses the wrong number all one gets is a high-pitched screech which almost pierces one’s eardrum. Then one has to wait for an average of twelve minutes before anyone answers. If one could just drift into a meditative trance while waiting patiently, it would not be too bad. SLT will not countenance this. One’s ears are filled with noise, the noise of the black arts of advertising and marketing.

“Ayabowen –our call centre officers will assist you shortly”. One is subjected to that doomy, boomy Americanised voice one hears on movie trailers. Also those annoying children’s voices which assail one on trips to the supermarket  – God rot you and blast you Tiny Tim!

“Open your home to the world of Megaline”. Why should I? “Conversations drenched in memory”. My memory is drenched in frustration s I try to connect.

“A home where you are never alone”. What kind of hell is that?

“Your world is never confined”. Well, my world is actually confined when I keep losing  my internet connection and I am prevented from speaking to my family in Ireland.

Pump Don’t work ‘Cause the Vandals Stole the Handles

Before broadband became available in our neck of the mountains, I tried to get SLT to deal with the problems I was having with connecting to the internet. A very helpful man promised that he would get their best technical brains working on it and the problem would definitely be solved. Eventually he got bored and told me the problem was that I lived too far from the exchange. It seemed that I needed to sell my home and move somewhere else.

A couple of years later someone stole the SLT cables for the sake of the copper. I was without a phone line for two months and had to take a 36 kilometre round trip to check my e-mails. Despite these inconveniences I received a bill that was six times the normal amount.

When broadband did become available, SLT put on intense marketing pressure to sign up for it. I was persuaded. After paying the requisite fee, it took five months to actually enjoy the benefits of ADSL. Things have definitely improved and my outgoings have reduced. It is still frustrating however because the connection can be suddenly lost. When one gets through to the helpline, one is told “there has been a common service issue”. Nevertheless, I have been without an internet connection for three days at time. No sign of a refund.

Endless Buffering

I was looking forward to the joys of YouTube – salivating at the possibility of watching archive footage of my departed jazz heroes  like Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. It was not to be. The video clips keep stopping and starting because of endless “buffering”.

I looked at various internet fora on this topic – when SLT allowed me to c! I find that I am not the only one to have this problem and that it happens in Colombo as well as in my mountain retreat. One frustrated customer writes:  “I get Browsing Speed 512 kbps. But I get 47kb as Kilo Bytes. For Direct Download without IDM I get only 6 or 7kb. Same for some files that download via IDM – I got 5 or 60 before”. “Ya, ADSL is supposed to be fast, but of late, I have felt that internet has slowed down from about ten in the morning till about nine in the night”. “Yep, now I can’t stream YouTube even at six in the evening”. “From the beginning of august, my ADFSL (Home 512/128) connection got a huge slowdown in both down and uplinks. But the funny thing is torrent download speed is working same as past (normally 55kbps). Bur the direct downloads from rapidshare, medoafire, hotfile and filesonic were dropped own to 10kbps. (Before this slowdown these downloads came in at 60kbps). All the parameters in the router are the same as in the past(like attenuation, SNR margin). I called 1243 and opened a complaint. Then a guy called from SLT technical division and said there were no problems in the connection and the have NO BLACKLIST FOR HEAVY USERS.”

So, did I get to speak to my aunt in Ireland? Sort of. We phoned the SLT helpline and explained that I was not able to get through to any landline number in Ireland from my landline. This could not be simply a problem between my phone and my aunt’s phone. I asked if an operator could connect us to the Irish number. The answer was a resounding NO!

After several calls to SLT in Sinhala as well as English , the only solution they could offer was to try phoning on a cell phone. We did get through but it was difficult to have a conversation and the call was of course more expensive than a landline call. No one could explain why our landline calls were being intercepted. We learnt later that SLT’s way of following up the complaint was to ignore the time differences between Sri Lanka and Ireland and phone my aunt several times in the middle of the night to check the line. This caused her considerable anxiety.

Connect the Prose and the Passion

Forster’s ‘only connect” catchphrase comes at the epigraph to Howard’s End. Calm down! Howard’s end is a house, not an anatomical appendage. The full quotation is: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer”.

Never mind about connecting the prose and the passion. Can we just connect Badulla with County Cork?

The Price of a Cup of Tea

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday November 7 2014

The causes of the Haldummulla mudslide lie in the history of colonialism and globalisation.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote in these pages about Colombans inhabiting a different planet from we hicks in the “outstations”. Now “upcountry” and in particular Uva province, even more particularly Badulla District, where I live, is getting attention, not only from Colombo, but also from the whole world.

After many days of torrential rain, a mudslide descended on Meeriyabeddawatta tea estate near Haldummulla around 7.30 a.m. on October 29 and buried houses and people under thirty feet of mud. Cracks appeared in the ground and goats ran down the slopes just before the slide.

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Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said interviews with survivors and officials found the number of victims was far below early estimates of 400 or more. Many of the people thought to be missing were at work or school when the mud destroyed their homes. The number of houses destroyed is now 66, revised from an earlier figure of 150. The authorities say they are able to name 38 people who died. Although one is relieved that fewer perished than had been feared, that is still too many dead. One driver told how his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and a six-month-old baby girl had been swallowed by the mud.

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Politicians have reacted to the disaster, as politicians will, by saying it is all someone else’s fault. Politicians were recently courting the votes of plantation workers in the elections for Uva Provincial Council.

Managing yet another Disaster

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that his ministry had issued warnings but the victims had not heeded them. Perhaps they were afraid of losing their jobs. Cabinet Ministers WDJ Seneviratne and Mahinda Samarasinghe said they would investigate why the plantation company employing the workers who perished had not acted upon warnings given by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) with regard to landslides in the area. Mr Samarasinghe is co-chair of the Permanent Standing Committee on Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Mr Samarasinghe also heads the Ministry of Plantation Industries whose vision is “achieving national prosperity through development of the plantation industry”. The mission statement of the plantation company says:Our strength is in our people”.

History of Tea Production

The 38 who perished were workers on a tea plantation. In the 1870s, one monoculture replaced another in Ceylon. George Bird was the first to start planting coffee on a commercial scale and in the “coffee rush” of the 1840s, speculators cleared around 386 sq miles of rain forest to pave the way for coffee plantations. “Devastating Emily” (the coffee blight Hemileia vastatrix) was first identified in the Madolsima (I can see it from my front garden) area in 1869. In the 1870s, of 1700 coffee planters, only 400 remained on the island. Most of those remaining turned to the cultivation of tea. By 1900, only 11,392 acres were still under coffee cultivation.

Tea was first introduced to the island in 1824 at the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya with a few plants brought from China. In 1867, a Scottish planter, James Taylor, cleared 19 acres of forest in the District of Hewaheta Lower to plant the first seedlings in what is now known as the No.7 field of Loolecondera Estate. The first consignment Taylor exported to London was 23lbs, this rose to 22,900 tons by 1890. Today, tea plantations cover 188,175 hectares, approximately 4%, of the country’s land area. The crop is best at high altitudes of over 6,890 ft, and the plants require an annual rainfall of more than 39 inches.

This sounds like a recipe for disaster – clearing forests, which held the soil together, to grow a crop that needs heavy rainfall, which washes soil away.

Indentured Labour

The plantation system as we know it in Sri Lanka today developed in colonial Assam to facilitate tea production on a large scale with a division of labour and financial arrangements more typical of industry than agriculture. I was surprised to hear Sinhalese people disparaging themselves by saying that the British had to import labourers from India because local people were too lazy to work. It seems more likely that local people were reluctant to be exploited and the British wanted a docile labour force.

In 1827, Governor Sir Edward Barnes, at the request of George Bird, initiated the recruitment of workers from Tamil Nadu to work on the coffee plantations of Ceylon. Immigration of Indian Tamils steadily increased and by the end of the coffee era, there were 100,000 Indian labourers in Sri Lanka. The numbers increased as tea cultivation became the country’s main industry.

The Indian labourer community remained separated up in the hills from Sinhalese villagers who lived in the valleys. In 1949, the UNP government disenfranchised Indian Tamils. As they had no means of electing anyone to Parliament, they ceased to be a concern of parliamentary politicians. The Srima-Shastri pact of 1964 and Indira-Sirimavo supplementary agreement of 1974 paved the way for the repatriation of 600,000 persons of Indian origin to India. Another 375,000 became Sri Lankan citizens of Sri Lanka, and through trade unions became a significant force in politics.

Pesticides

Commercial agriculture, including most tea production, requires as much of the land as possible to be planted with a single crop. This does not happen in nature, where a balance is maintained between different kinds of plants and the animals and insects that live among them. In an intensively cultivated monoculture, there is no natural ecosystem and pests will gobble up the abundant food supply unless chemical pesticides are used. Chemicals are essential for most commercial growing enterprises, including most crops certified as “organic”.

Many countries have banned Glyphosate, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds. A scientific study showed  that Glyphosate is linked to chronic kidney disease as well as many other health problems including cancers, infertility, along with neurotoxicity, reproductive problems, and birth defects.

A World Health Organization report estimated 15% of the population in North Central and Uva Province, about 60,000 people, had kidney disease probably caused by chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and that 22,000 had died from it from it in the past 20 years in Anuradhapura alone. The prevalence of the disease is estimated at 15 % affecting 400 000 people.

The Sri Lanka Agriculture Department claim that they have not found conclusive evidence linking kidney disease to agricultural chemicals. They are reluctant to institute a ban on glyphosate saying that a ban will drastically affect tea and paddy cultivation as it is the only effective herbicide for commercial crops.

Erosion

Prasad Dharmasena and MS Bhat of the University of Kashmir did a study of the Uva plantations, focusing on Passara, where I live. They found that 80% of the land is old seedling tea, poorly managed. About 30% of the entire tea land is marginal or uneconomic. Steep slopes and poor management practices are responsible for severe soil erosion. The research found more abandoned lands in the Passara area than in other tea growing areas of the district.

The land was compromised when planters cleared forests for tea. They are further compromised when tea is cleared to make way for vegetables. “These tea estates were once natural forest, which is best for river flow,” said scientist DK Pushpakumara, of the World Agroforestry Centre. “Cultivation of vegetables threatens the heart of our water system.” The Regional Resource Centre for Asia and the Pacific notes that one-third of the land suffers considerable erosion. “Poorly managed tea lands as well as abandoned tea lands lose sediments 15 times more than in a homestead, and 20 to 22 times more than in the wet zone forests.”

Workers’ Conditions

Cheap labour was one of the essential ingredients of the success of the tea industry. Immigrant workers were bonded and underpaid. In 1921, workers were allowed to break ties to the estates; trade unions with political power helped improve wages. Nevertheless, poverty levels on plantations have consistently been higher than the national average. Overall poverty in Sri Lanka has declined in the last thirty years, but what poverty remains is concentrated in rural areas. Poverty in the estate sector increased, rising from 30 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2006/07. The welfare system within the estates and job security used to offset poor working conditions, but this no longer applies, as employment is no longer secure in the tea sector in Sri Lanka. Tamil workers are trying to better their lot by voting with their feet.

Sri Lanka is losing international markets because Ceylon tea is expensive. The cost of production is high because the large tea plantations in this country are the most inefficient in the world with the lowest yields. There is a labour shortage because what used to be captive Tamil youth are leaving to find a better life in urban areas.

Conclusion

I do not need academics to tell me about erosion, pesticides and poor estate management. For twelve years, I have been surrounded by tea and have consumed vast lakes of the stuff. I have talked to many people connected with the tea industry: veteran estate managers, current young superintendents, brokers, SDs, labourers and pluckers. Many people seem to take a pessimistic view about the future of the industry. Retired managers visiting our home look at the tea fields abutting our property and remark on the abysmal state of maintenance and the poor quality of the tea bushes. Most estate roads are dilapidated as managers say they do not have the funds or labour to maintain them. We do notice labourers in the field right next to us spraying chemicals. They are not wearing masks and they do not care about contaminating our water supply. We often see labourers hacking away at the roots that hold the soil together and scraping soil and rock from the embankments. It is no surprise when landslips block the main roads. Small inconveniences easily grow into disasters. Mother Nature fights back.

Haldummulla Mud Slide

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It is nearly ten years now since I was getting anxious phone calls and messages from people worried about what had happened to us when a huge tidal wave hit Sri Lanka on St Stephen’s Day 2004. I am touched once again by enquiries from people all over the world as they follow the news of the terrible events in Haldummulla. After many days of torrential rain, a mudslide descended on Meeriyabeddawatta around 7.30 a.m. with a deafening noise devastating an area of about 20 acres where 317 people had lived mostly in collections of line houses that is the normal accommodation for workers on tea estates. Badulla District Secretary Rohana Keerthi Dissanayake said that the slide destroyed about 60 line rooms, two houses and a kovil (Hindu temple).

 

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I am not reporting from the site of the disaster but I have gathered information and images from various sources. As I write, the situation is still confused with varying numbers of casualties being given in the Sri Lankan media. The UNP-led Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union General Secretary K Velayutham told Ceylon Today that “some 440 people have been buried underneath the earth slip. Children who went to school and some families who left the place and evacuated to other areas escaped”. The Island newspaper reports that 150 have been buried alive.

A deadly landslide hits village in central Sri Lanka

A joint rescue operation is underway with the army, police, air force and the district administration participating with all their resources in search of survivors. Security Forces Commander of the Central Province Major General Mano Perera said five bodies were recovered on October 29. The operations were hampered by continuing heavy rain. “In one line there were 100-120 houses housing about 50-65 families. It’s believed that 100 -160 corpses will be recovered in the coming days,” he said. Army Media Director Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera said, initially 200 Army personnel were rushed to the scene within 45 minutes of the disaster. “There were 500 Army personnel; including 50 Air Force personnel assisting the government officials, who are inspecting the scene to build temporary shelter for the affected persons as their houses were completely destroyed. He added that the Army will extend its support to the people and other officials assisting
the injured and displaced persons.

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Two camps were set up at Ampitikanda and Koslanda to provide shelter to people living in vulnerably areas close to the Meeriyabedda estate and some 100 people are being sheltered there at present.

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A contingent of more than 500 army soldiers have been  conducting rescue operations with the help of other agencies and moved sections of displaced people into two common halls in Koslanda, army said.

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They said the Army was busy preparing meals and other requirements of those affected at present.

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Air force spokesman Gihan Seneviratne said a BEL 212 helicopter was on standby in Nuwara Eliya because the adverse weather had made it impossible to get to Badulla.

 Wing Commander Seneviratne said a M17 helicopter was also on standby at the Ratmalana domestic airport for any emergency.

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There is a vivid video here: http://www.dailymirror.lk/emergency/55355

Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said that his ministry had issued warnings but the victims had not heeded them and there were two other mountains nearby prone to landslides. Perhaps they were afraid of losing their jobs. Cabinet Ministers WDJ Seneviratne and Mahinda Samarasinghe said they would investigate why the plantation company employing the workers who perished had the years not acted upon warnings given by the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) with regard to landslides in the area. The Ministers said that a programme should be established to prevent such a tragedy from recurring and said that the government was preparing a national nation pinpointing areas prone to landslides.

Haldummulla is in the Badulla District of Uva Province. We also live in the Badulla district but our house is about two hours drive from Haldummulla. We pass through the town on our way to Colombo. Even when we first took the trip twelve years ago, Haldummulla knew about tragedy. There was a house that we passed on the way, which had been destroyed by a rockslide in which all the inhabitants had perished.

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On a more recent journey, in August, we noticed that the roads were littered with asbestos roofing sheets. These are very heavy and it would take a mighty wind to take them off a house and transport them many yards and break them on the road. We usually stop to buy fruit from a woman in the area. She was very distressed because the cyclone had destroyed her house and her business. Luckily, there was no injury to her or her husband or children. She became even more emotional when we gave her some money to repair her property.

In our immediate vicinity, there was a lengthy drought, which meant that people in the village had to queue up to collect their water from a government water bowser. For some time now we have been suffering from torrential rain every day. The irony now is that people are still without water despite the immoderate amounts coming from the sky. The very force of the rain is causing landslides and breaking channels and pipes that normally take water into homes. The embankment at the bottom of our garden collapsed and is blocking the drainage of our neighbours below. We immediately hired someone to fix this but work cannot start work until the rain stops- which it shows no sign of doing.

Our house is in the middle of a tea estate. We have often commented that the plantation company is risking erosion through the way estate workers cut and weed on the slopes. They are destroying the root systems that hold the soil together. Even without abnormal weather conditions there are often landslips along the main roads. Access to our home from the main A5 road between Badulla and Passara has always difficult because about a quarter of a kilometre of estate road has not been maintained. That road is now a river.

Our situation is not nearly as bad as those poor people in Haldummulla are suffering but if the rain does not stop, it could well become as bad. A level-2 warning has been issued asking the public to be alert to the possibility of landslides, rock falls and cut slope failures. The level-2 warning covered Badulla, Bandarawela, Ella divisional secretariat divisions and Ella-Wellawaya Road, Haputale- Beragala Road, Beragala-Wellawaya Road, Badulla-Spring Valley Road, Passara-Lunugala Road and Etampitiya-Welimada Road. We are on the Badulla-Passara road. The Railway Department said that the train service on the Badulla-Colombo track had come to a standstill after a massive mound of earth had fallen on a locomotive and the track between Ella and Demodara on Tuesday night.

Here are some pictures of conditions in and around our garden. It is not nearly as horrific as Haldumulla but there is still cause for concern. Duty Meteorologist Nadee Rupasinghe said that over 100 mm of heavy rains could be expected countrywide until November 1. “There may be temporary localized strong winds during thundershowers. General public is kindly requested to take adequate precautions to minimize any damages caused by lightning activities.” Strong winds are not unusual but one can never get used to them.

These are pictures I took in the last few days of the road we have to drive down to get food, cash and alcohol.

 

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Where Are the Prosecutions, Punishments?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday 25 June 2014

Colman's Column3

 

On Monday 16 June 2014, I went to Badulla to take a dog to the vet. Everything seemed normal in town. I was shocked to see pictures later in the day on Asian Mirror, showing a mob stoning familiar shops on Bazaar Street. The BBS (Bodu Bala Sena) staged a protest in Badulla demanding the release of several suspects who were arrested for attacking a Muslim shop in the town a few days before. The suspects, according to Police, are members of the BBS.

This is a disturbing echo, closer to my own home, of the appalling events at Aluthgama. The Aluthgama riot and bloodshed apparently arose out of a road rage incident or a physical assault on a bhikkhu. The Badulla incident apparently arose out of a sexual harassment allegation.

The Badulla story goes that two Sinhalese girls had entered a Muslim-owned shop and asked to purchase a pair of denims. The girls then allege that the sales clerk videoed them from above the changing room using his cell phone. A variant version was that the shop owners had fixed CCTV cameras in the changing room. The girls’ father recruited a mob and stormed the shop, assaulting the salesman. Police had intervened to maintain the peace and taken the sales clerk into custody. Police investigation into the incident is in progress.

On June 20, Badulla was calm but tense. On every street there were policemen in riot helmets carrying big sticks.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote: “Not only are things lost in narration, lots get added on too in the process. A disagreement becomes dispute, dispute becomes argument, argument raises voices, raised voices lead to in-your-face closeness, proximity tends to contact, contact is read as aggressive touch, touch is blow, and blow is assault.  What happens between two human beings is then an altercation between two persons from two communities, religious communities, that is.”

As a Guardian reader succinctly commented: “What ‘triggered the incident’ was the propensity of stupid people to believe stupid things, especially if the stupid things target a group they are predisposed to hate.” Another viewpoint is that this is becoming a common ruse adopted by extremist organisations to attack Muslim-owned businesses, and that Muslim entrepreneurs need to take adequate precautions to protect their interests. Could that lead to further violence?

These incidents reminded me of a much more serious “trigger”, even closer to my home, a couple of years ago. A Muslim youth stabbed and killed a Sinhalese boy. Their dispute was not about religion and had nothing to do with communal strife. The two boys had been firm friends since childhood. This was a crime of passion – they had fought in rivalry over the affections of a girl. Luckily, BBS were not around to exploit the incident and all sections of the local community sprang into action to dampen any sparks of conflict. All local shops closed voluntarily and the police imposed a curfew. Meetings were held between Buddhist and Muslim clerics, the families of the dead youth and his assailant and the police. There was no further violence, although one still reads about jealous husbands killing wives and vice versa.

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts abroad are bemoaning the moral turpitude of “the average Sri Lankan”. One of my favourite quotations is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”. I would hesitate to judge “the average Sri Lankan”. I  would like to take a more optimistic line. I do not like headlines about “communal strife”. I live in a poor village, which has many Muslims and Tamils. It sometimes feels as though the Sinhalese are the minority. I am not saying that it is an idyllic paradise. There are often disputes but they are not on an ethnic basis. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese generally get on OK and even intermarry- a woman who works for us is a Tamil married to a Muslim and they have an adopted son who is Tamil (but does not know it). We have Sinhalese workers who live in the Tamil lines. Many Tamils are Christian rather than Hindu. The broker who arranges our car insurance has a Muslim name but is a staunch Catholic. There could be harmony if the BBS would allow it.

Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese seem to get along with each other, and with the Sinhalese, and with this Irishman. Our immediate neighbours are Muslims. We were here before them. We have not always enjoyed perfect harmony- there used to be some intimidation from them and on one occasion, there was an angry mob at our gate wielding knives. They were responding to a false rumour about what we were doing with the water supply. This was the kind of thing Malinda referred to. I responded to other incidents of aggression on my neighbour’s part by presenting him with a box of avocadoes from our trees. Our sympathetic response to a couple of deaths in their family has led to a situation where we rub along generally and help each other out on occasion. As I write, their cattle are tearing at our hedge again!

We are fortunate in that the high priest of our local Buddhist temple, who has been a good friend to us for ten years, is a wise, compassionate and humorous man. Most of the people who work for him are Tamils and they worship him. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school at the temple. He regularly attends events organised by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

As I write, the situation is still not clear because most of the news is coming to us from abroad and the Government is saying nothing. It seems that seven died, three of whom perished in a drive-by shooting indicating that BBS might have an armed militia. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator  owned by the Beacham group, classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014

Many of my Sri Lankan contacts who live abroad have expressed fears that nothing has been learnt from the horror that was Black July in 1983, when Sinhalese mobs attacked Tamils and sparked off a thirty-year civil war. One woman in Aluthgama was quoted in the press: “At this rate, it won’t be long before a Muslim Prabhakaran is born.”

There was one positive aspect in 1983. Many Sinhalese -and I have heard eye-witnesses reports about this – endangered themselves by having the courage to protect Tamils who were strangers to them. This time one of my Muslim contacts reports that “Buddhist work friends collected funds in an office and donated for the affected at Aluthgama. Very noble of them. Why , it’s entirely possible that BBS will lose adherents in greater numbers than gaining them. Allah Akbar!”

In Aluthgama, a Sinhalese citizen told Dharisha Bastians. “We have no grouse with the people on that side of the village. They are our friends. We know them. We didn’t recognise the people who fought last night, they were not from here”.

Encouraging news came from Dickwella. The Chief Incumbent Priests of eight Buddhist temples spent two hours at the Muhiyibdeen Jumma Mosque at Yonakpura, Dickwella. The act of solidarity was to strengthen communal ties and avert any fears of copycat incidents in the area. The clergy said that the root cause of the incidents in Aluthgama and Beruwala was misinformation and that the people of Dickwella should be vigilant about attempts to instigate communal disharmony in their town. Dickwella Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Krishali Muthukumarana said that Dickwella people have lived in harmony by respecting each other’s beliefs and customs. All the members of the PS irrespective of their political affiliations would ensure that no communal hatred was instigated.

Harendra Alwis on Groundviews explored this issue in a philosophical mode but also offered some practical advice on avoiding despair, promoting tolerance and social integration and embracing diversity. I feel a smidgeon of caution about one thing Harendra says. “Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say.” It is true that these issues have to be exposed to the cleansing sunshine and fresh air of open debate. Groundviews has an important role to play in this. There is, however, a danger that passions could be further inflamed by polemic in the social media. As Nick Hart commented on Groundviews, it is “nonsensical and irresponsible to attempt to tar all Buddhist monks with the brush of intolerance, or to imply that every individual from a minority group is an innocent victim. Sri Lanka and the world know that this is not the case.” I recall that Groundviews itself seemed to be dangerously stoking the fire in the controversy over halal products, when Sanjana Hattotuwa strained very hard to find insult to Muslims in the packaging of a certain item.

 

The use of terms like “communal strife” makes me queasy. Just like every act of communal violence in Sri Lanka’s history, the recent “riots” in Aluthgama against Muslims were not spontaneous expressions of ethnic or religious grievance involving ordinary civilians. There is legitimate fear on the part of Muslims. Buddhists need to convince their Muslim neighbors that BBS are not acting in their name. That, of course will be futile if the police allow BBS to continue their thuggery. Where are the prosecutions and punishments?

 

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -

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