SRI LANKA: A Nation Struggles to Forget a Tragedy

  • by Amantha Perera (peraliya, sri lanka)
  • Tuesday, December 29, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

These images were captured on a mural that became a crucial part of the memorial at Peraliya, a village 90 kilometres south of Colombo, right next to the coast. Yet, images of post-tsunami impacts that are not depicted on the mural run the gamut of emotions.

On Dec. 26, 2004, at 9:25 a.m., a south-bound train was hit by gigantic waves here, killing over 1,500.

Little Lahiru Mihiram has no clear memory of this father, just a thought that he must be one of those many scared faces on the mural. He was less than four months old when his father ran to the train after hearing the screams of panic-stricken passengers as the first waves came flooding inland. He was never found thereafter.

On Dec. 26 this year Lahiru was one of the dozens of mourners, relatives and just plain curious visitors who turned up at the memorial for the five-year anniversary of the tragedy.

While Lahiru’s memory was vague, that was not case for Dayawathie Perera, who survived the train tragedy but lost her daughter-in-law of one month and the girl’s mother. 'It was terrible, terrible,' she recalled of the horror. She was travelling with her son, his new wife and her mother when the first wave came. 'He (her son) kept calling everyone and telling them of the waves, and then the big one came.'

Perera was saved by a monk from a nearby temple, who found her stuck under four other bodies. 'He had seen my fingers move,' she recounts to IPS. Her son, who finally discovered his young wife’s body, put it in the mass grave with his own hands. 'He refuses to come here; he says it is too hard.' There was no massive crowd at the memorial. The country did observe two minutes of silence at precisely the same time the tragedy ravaged this coastal village.

Along the coast, there were small ceremonies. Mourners in small groups gathered at the grave sites or where they last saw their loved ones and held prayers. White flags dotted small graves as candles flickered against the wind. Those travelling along the southern coast stopped at the giant Buddha statue — a replica of the one destroyed in Bamiyan, Afghanistan — and paid homage to it before continuing their journey.

In the east, in Kalmunai, which suffered the worst damage, small commemoration events were held on the beach. As a whole, the commemoration of the worst natural tragedy to hit the island since known records were kept was a private affair.

'People have forgotten about what happened, people have moved on,' says Ajantha Samarwickrema, who shot footage of the waves crashing into Galle town, just south of Peraliya.

The Asian tsunami that affected the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean left a terrible imprint on the country, already battered by a long-running civil war then. Over 35,000 were killed, at least 100,000 houses left in need of repair or reconstruction, a million displaced and a reconstruction bill of 3.2 billion U.S. dollars.

Vimasa Madumali was five when the tsunami hit her village Thudawa, in Matara about 150 km south of Colombo. Her family has got a new house and her father has returned to fishing, with help from donors and governments that provided fishing gear to replace those washed away by the waves.

'We are happy here, we got help and we can live in peace,' she tells IPS. The family has moved inland from the coast.

It is the same with Rasheena Umma a young woman, now living at the French Friendship village in Kalmunai, on the eastern coast, 300 km from Colombo. Her former house was located right next to the coast and not a single wall was left standing. 'It is a miracle we are alive,' she says.

The new house built, with funds from France, is about 2 km from the coast, and Umma is relieved. 'We got something; it may be not a lot, but we can go on living. That is better than getting killed.'

There is some discontent on the beach, particularly among over 1,300 families in Kalmunai that are still waiting for houses. Others grumble over the quality of the assistance they got.

Transparency International stated over the weekend that at least 470 million dollars out of a total of one billion dollars disbursed for reconstruction efforts by March 2007 had gone unaccounted for.

'There is no precise evidence to explain the missing sum of 471 million dollars. Some government officials rejected the fact of such a missing amount, though they have failed to give any explanation about the figures produced,' added the Berlin-based anti-corruption body.

One such alleged mismanagement involved Hungama, a tsunami housing project in the Hambantota District, 300 km south of Colombo, built with public donations from Hungary. Here the houses were so badly constructed that they started to lose rafters, beams and windows even before the first occupants walked in in late 2005. Now the houses have been assigned to civil servants, whose official quarters were lost in the tsunami. Others have settled in after carrying out extensive repairs on their own.

'The houses were not liveable; we had to do a lot of repairs,' says Charles Rathnayake. But even he is happy now. My wife was saved at the last moment. If I had not grabbed her, she would not be here. It is much more than getting a house,' Rathnayake says.

The destruction left by the waves was so massive and omnipresent that many people find it hard to forget. Along the beach there are still hulls of boats, buildings washed apart by the gushing waters, which stand like silent reminders.

For those like Perera, forgetting the dead will never be easy. Hers is a gnawing pain that has endured for five years and will endure even longer.

'She (her daughter-in-law) was on the phone with my daughter when the waves came. My daughter heard her scream. That was the last anyone heard from her,' she says. 'How can you forget that?'

Still others try to forget to tragedy that befell them five years ago. 'We have to move on. We can’t linger in the past,' says Rathnanayke. 'I think it is high time that we spoke of the living rather than the dead.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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