The island of Sri Lanka was badly hit by the tsunami, visiting 18 months on we were unsure what we might find i.e. how much had been rebuilt and how much was still to do.
Travelling from the airport south through Colombo there was no evidence of the tsunami but we were unsure what devastation we would encounter as we neared the coast. The damage caused by the tsunami was not apparent until we were travelling south parallel to the coast. The damage was most apparent to us as we passed through the badly hit village of Peralyia. At fist glance it appeared a ghost town with the battered shells of buildings dotted about the palm trees. On closer inspection we saw the ruins of houses that had been built even closer to the sea on the other side of the road. It was heart breaking to see walls partly covered in blue or orange paint. It made you realise that these hollow eerie shells were once family homes. The saddest thing to see was the remains of a bathroom or kitchen; I could still see some pink tiles covering half of one wall. Then we went past the ruins of a large building with the foundations still standing. Somebody had rigged up a sign with the heart breaking message ‘please help us to survive’. On closer inspection amongst the temporary wooden huts waterproofed with large plastic blue sheeting we saw a glimmer of hope. There were some houses that had been re-built, most were painted a cheery shade of orange in what I suppose was traditional Sri Lankan style. As we neared Hikkaduwa the number of ruins appeared to disappear but on closer inspection there was still a lot of evidence of tsunami damage. Any money available had probably been ploughed into re-building the large hotels along the beach front. As we walked further along the beach we could see evidence of damaged guest house that looked too shabby just to have been shut up for low season.
In some places, especially along the main coastal road there was a lack of palm trees, presumably they had been washed away by the tsunami. There was evidence that some trees had been replanted as small palm trees were evident. They were sheltered from the elements by old palm leaves.
When walking down the Galle Road in Hikkaduwa and visiting the local tourist shops we heard first hand accounts of the damage caused by the tsunami and saw the ruins of people’s shops- the pictures having been taken by volunteers and given to the locals. We heard how many German and English ladies had come out to Sri Lanka to help the women re-build their clothes shops. One lady proudly showed us a photo of the lady who had helped her to re-build her shop. Another lady told us that government funding for businesses had been extremely slow to be given out. She had only just got her shop up and running again as she had not had any help from charities. Her shop was little more than a basic wooden hut with a single strip light, no doubt not the solid structure that it had once been before the tsunami struck.
We found local people often very willing to tell us about the damage that had been caused by the tsunami and to show us pictures of the devastation caused. One hotel- Hotel Moon Beam even had some pictures on the wall of the devastation caused to the bar.
Smaller establishments and other businesses also showed evidence of tsunami damage especially on the Jungle side of the road where there are not so many large hotels. One of our tuktuk drivers was telling us how his business (possibly a guest house) was damaged by the tsunami. It was difficult to know what damage the tsunami caused and what was considered a 'normal state' for buildings.
There were several shops on the northern side of the town which had once been chemists but were now derelict. Most days there was a man sitting outside selling bananas.
When we went to Galle to look at the old town we could see the tsunami damaged cricket ground being repaired. This had been badly affected by the tsunami as it was so near the coast. The outfield had been cleared of the debris and there appeared to be some kind of JCB in the ground which looked very muddy. The old town appeared relatively intact possibly because the old fortress walls had protected it?
We were introduced to a man who was a native Sri Lankan, although was out of the country when the tsunami struck. He had then returned to help out. He was a camera man, so had filmed some footage of the local people and the devastating effects of the tsunami 3 days later. He also told us some harrowing stories about how people had all clustered around the local temple just in a state of shock. He said that they looked like ‘living dead’ as they were just staring into space, shell shocked by what had happened. Others were looking for their loved ones who had been swept out to sea. The people he said were inconsolable, as all they wanted was what people could not give them- their loved ones back. We listened to his harrowing stories as he told us what it was like for him to see dead bodies for the first time. He then said that wherever they went they kept finding people and nobody was collecting the bodies. So it was left up to him and other local charity workers to go around collecting bodies and filling up body bags. He told one poignant story of the first body he saw of a young girl who later he kept revisiting in his dreams. He was so disturbed by her that he was determined to try and find her relatives so that she could rest in peace. It just makes you realise how traumatised the local people will be from what they saw and without large scale professional help they will probably be struggling to learn to cope with what has happened to then. They will probably never fully come to terms with what has happened to them, as after all some people lost their entire family. I imagine that many people will be ravaged by guilt that they survived when other members of their family and friends were lost.
At ‘the site’ of the Manacare Foundation we met several children who had lost relatives in the disaster and one boy who had lost his entire family. He was very friendly towards us. He would come up to us when we were working on the site, after he had finished school and would offer us whatever he happened to be eating at the time with a beaming smile. He also wanted to help us paint. Another boy had apparently been so traumatised by the tsunami (I think that he was 2 or 3 at the time) he stopped speaking for months and had only just started to speak again, before we started working at the site. By the time we left he was very bubbly and would always shout ‘ hello, hello’ when we arrived and come to greet us with a beaming smile. He became one of our favourite kids there. We even managed to teach him a few words of English.
We heard stories of other volunteers, one who had been running a ‘fun bus’ a converted London red double decker that was taken around and used to give groups of local children a fun day. There was also another charity that was helping to give local people back their pride. They were responsible for giving people living on new housing estates, rebuilt after the tsunami, fruit trees to plant in their gardens.
In the early hours of the morning we discovered a wooden mask that had been washed up on the beach. This was direct evidence of the damage that had been caused by the tsunami. It had most probably come from one of the tourist shops on Galle road that had been destroyed in the tsunami. In the water when snorkelling we also found a luggage bag- one that had probably been washed from a hotel. This made you wonder what else may be lying in the depths of the sea.
Having spent a month in Sri Lanka and now going back to read articles in The Times newspaper about the events of the tsunami it seems all the more real and heartbreaking as we actually visited some of the places described there.
The Times dated 30thDecember 2004: ‘For three days the pretty white temple perched above Unawatuna played home to hundreds of locals of locals and foreign tourists that had fled the wall of water that shattered the resort’. We actually visited this temple at Unawatuna without realising that it had been a place of safety for hundreds of people during the frightening days after the tsunami struck.
Another article dated 27thDecember 2004: ‘the historic southern port city of Galle was almost completely underwater after a 30ft wall swept over the ramparts of a centuries old Dutch fort.’ Although the town was badly affected I think that the fort walls helped to protect the old town as we visited some buildings that appeared little affected by the tsunami.
Another quote from the tsunami sums up the spirit there ‘these people had lost everything but they gave us all they had’. We experienced the generosity of the local people when we were volunteering. They were always looking out for you and asking whether we were hungry or thirsty. Even though these people had lost so much, they were still full of compassion and were so generous and just grateful that we had come to help re-build their community. But we also experienced some adversity, but not first hand. Some local people found it hard to understand that the money raised from filming there, was being used to raise more money for them and not for the sole benefit of the people making the films.