WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


Galle is now a city of death and tears

By Indo-Asian News Service


The oval flattened
An aerial shot shows the town cricket oval almost completely destroyed in the seaside town of Galle.
Photograph: Vincent Thian/AP

Galle (Sri Lanka), Dec 28 (IANS) Shouting names of missing relatives, looking around to identify the loved ones and moving bodies for burials - all these are scenes in this Sri Lankan coastal town two days after tsunamis hit the area, reports Xinhua.

Over 800 people died and more than 500 injured in the tsunamis here, according to local police officials.

Galle, a tourist city some 100 km south of Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, is one of the places in this island country hit most by the tsunami triggered by a powerful earthquake in Indonesia.

Indika Desilva, a police officer who has been on duty since Sunday morning in the Galle general hospital, told Xinhua that around 2,500 people are still missing in Galle district.

There are some 30 bodies still lying in the hospital Monday afternoon and the police said more than 700 dead have already been taken away by tractors for burials.

Some local residents are looking around the hospital grounds to identify the bodies of their loved ones. Most of them have to cover their nose and mouth with cloth or tissue papers to block off the odour of the decomposing bodies.

Sad voices of college students acting as volunteers could be heard through loudspeakers in the city, calling continuously and desperately for the missing people who might have been already swept away by the tidal waves to "contact their families."

"We offer help to dead people's family, we give them food and clothes. I wish this does not happen again," said Asanka Maddnma Arachch, a student volunteer who announces the missing list by turns with other volunteers.

"The beach of the city is the worst damaged place where all the buildings, huts, shelter or houses are all in complete ruins.

"The first wave came at about 9:30 Sunday morning and most of the houses in the seaside were damaged at that moment," said K.K.S. Jajantha. His two brothers' houses were destroyed by the tidal waves while the ground floor of his own two-storey house was inundated.

There are only a couple of policemen standing some distance away. Residents said the policemen came after several cases of plundering were reported.

"More policemen are being called in from stations in the other unaffected areas," according to Kapila Manayakkara, a police officer from Ratnapura, about 100 km northeast of Galle.

People are looking hopelessly at their ruined buildings or damaged households as a way to keep an eye on whatever is left since most of them are very poor fishermen. They would need what is left to re-start their life after the disaster.

Not much relief goods have arrived yet due to hampered transportation and communications. Most of the surviving people have to use the nearby temples as shelters. Some monks are providing drinking water and food for local displaced residents.

However, drinking water is still drinkable and no contamination has been found, according to police.

"My wife and my sons were whirled away by the floods," said D.G. Lal crying loudly. He added many vehicles near the sea were washed away "like leaves," and one of them "with 17 people on it disappeared in no time."

P.B. Dharmasiri, a painter whose seaside house collapsed totally, said he hopes the government would give him a piece of land far from the sea. "I don't mind how small it would be," Dharmasiri said with tears.

A 24-year-old man working for a local hotel pointed to a seaside marsh and said some bodies were still buried inside the marsh. He said it's too dangerous to go inside to recover the bodies.

Samantha Wijetunga, a self-employed mini bus driver, lost his bus during the tsunamis. Pointing to his damaged bus leaning against a tree, Wijetunga said he did not insure his $23,000-bus and he does not have money to tow out his bus for repairs.

Galle is a city of death and tears. No people dare to walk any closer to the seaside yet as threatening tides still surge high after Sunday's killing tsunamis.


Galle: Sri Lankan resort town mops up after tsunami

GALLE, Sri Lanka, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans began repairing their shattered homes and businesses today, two days after a tsunami sparked by an undersea earthquake wreaked havoc on the coastline.

The historic city of Galle, nestled in a bay on the country's southwest coast, was virtually flattened on Sunday by a wall of water up to five metres (15 ft) high that surged hundreds of metres (yards) inland.

Scarcely a home or business escaped the waves and officials say it will take years for the city -- a popular tourist destination renowned for its golden beaches, turquoise seas and azure-blue skies -- to recover.

''This was the worst day in our history,'' said businessman Y.P Wickramsinghe as he picked through the rubble of his seafront dive shop in Galle. ''I wish I had died. There is no point in living any more.'' More than 10,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka alone from the tsunami and more than 23,600 are believed to have died across Asia as the waves left a trail of devastation stretching from Indonesia to the Maldives.

Nothing remained of Wickraminghe's shop. Dozens of air cylinders were swept away, the waters carried off generators weighing over 250 kg and two 10 metre boats had been carried nearly 400 metres (yards) down the street and smashed to pieces.

The Galle seafront was a picturesque strip of mostly double-storey buildings, built higgledy-piggledy over the years as the tourist industry began to recover amid hopes for a permanent settlement to Sri Lanka's long-running civil war in which the country's Tamil minority has been pressing for a separate state.

The buildings constructed most recently, often by developers who ignored planning regulations, disintegrated under the force of water. But older, better-constructed homes and businesses were also badly damaged.

''Look around,'' said jeweller Ifti Muaheed, who lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of precious gems to the deluge and faced starting his generations-old business from scratch. ''This will take months, maybe years to sort out.'' ''Where do I begin,'' said Internet cafe owner Arjun, his face and body stained purple with iodine to disinfect dozens of cuts and scratches suffered when a wall of water crashed into his business and took all his computers with it.

Trucks with young men circled town late into the night collecting corpses that emerged as the flood waters receded.

Donor nations and aid organisations ferried aid supplies to the lush, holiday paradise that explorer Marco Polo regarded as the most beautiful island of its size in the world.

By David Fox

GALLE, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Wailing relatives scrambled over hundreds of bodies piled in a Sri Lankan hospital on Monday, searching for loved ones as the toll from a tsunami that smashed into the Indian Ocean paradise soared above 10,000.

In the ravaged southern port town of Galle, a trail of devastation emerged as flood waters receded. Upturned buses blocked streets, contents of entire homes peppered thick muddy silt and residents appeared too shocked to start cleaning up.

Flood waters deposited mounds of garbage and even a bus in the centre of the town's ruined cricket pitch.

Local jeweller Ifti Muaheed stood staring at an empty shell where his gem shop used to stand. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of precious stones were washed away when flood waters punched through his windows.

"Three generations of our family business have gone just like that," he said stoically.

Police threw a cordon around the town centre, checking shop keepers' identity cards to avoid looting of any salvagable merchandise.

Government officials said 1.5 million people had been displaced from their homes, many sheltering in Buddhist temples and schools.

In the nearby village of Karapitiya, wailing relatives scrambled over hundreds of piled-up bodies searching for loved ones at a hospital, while others milled outside, holding shirts or handkerchiefs over their noses against the stench of decaying bodies.

"We have got hundreds of dead that we have dealt with," said one hospital official. "I don't know what to do."

Corpses of hundreds drowned when the tsunami crashed into Sri Lanka early on Sunday lay bloated and disfigured throughout the lobby and corridors of the hospital.

The body of a pregnant woman lay in the hospital lobby as hundreds of relatives scrambled over the piles of dead. Nearby, a woman collapsed in grief as she identified a relative. Many were children.

A nurse wept as she picked up the body of a baby.

Officials said the final death toll could rise much higher because hundreds of people washed out to sea have not yet been accounted for.

The government said about 200 foreign tourists, including several Japanese, were feared dead. Survivors relived their lucky escapes.


"I thought I was dead. I thought it was the end of the world," said American tourist Matthew O'Connell, who was on the beach in Galle when the first wave came up and swept him hundreds of metres inland.

"You know your life flashes before your eyes. It happened to me," he added.

Giant waves crashed into the island on Sunday morning after a powerful earthquake off distant Indonesia, sending a deluge of seawater into towns and villages, witnesses said.

"We are not well equipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude because we have never known a disaster like this," said President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who declared a national disaster and appealed for donor aid while on holiday in Britain.

Aid agencies readied consignments of plastic sheeting and essential foods to distribute to those hardest hit.

"What is most important is food, clean water and shelter," said Roland Schilling, senior programme officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Colombo.

Many hotels along the southern coastal belt -- packed at the height of a bumper tourist season -- were flooded. Hundreds of tourists were holed up at a convention centre in central Colombo.

Railway tracks were broken, buildings demolished and vehicles tossed around like plastic toys as the flood waters surged.

The neighbouring Maldives holiday island chain was swamped, but the waves were much smaller and around 50 people were feared dead. Six of the archipelago's islands had been fully evacuated.

Tamil Tiger rebels, whose two-decade war for autonomy killed more than 64,000 people, said hundreds of Tamils living in the northern and eastern strongholds had been stranded and thousands more had lost their homes.

Army sentry points in the far north were washed away, and Nordic monitors of a three-year ceasefire were evacuated from their residence near the eastern port of Trincomalee to avoid the floods and plastic landmines that have been uprooted.

The tsunami was triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra that was followed by a series of aftershocks stretching north into the Andaman Sea.

Loss and despair in a town crushed by nature    


Danielle Demetriou in Galle, Sri Lanka

2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.

28 December 2004

Walking past what had once been Galle's bus station, I found Nilina among the people sifting through the remains of their homes. "When the water came I should have been at my seafront stall selling coconuts and betel but I was on holiday at a house inland," the elderly woman said, her frail voice barely audible. "You may think I'm fortunate but we have lost about 50 relatives. My family had to rescue babies, children from rooftops. I do not know what the future holds."

Ifti Muaheed, one of the many jewellers in Galle, a town perched proudly on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, where King Solomon was said to have purchased his fabulous jewels, stood staring at the ruins of his shop. Tens of thousands of pounds worth of precious stones - including dozens of the star sapphires for which the area is renowned - were washed away when the waters smashed through his windows. "Three generations of our family business have gone just like that," he said.

Yesterday, as the water drained slowly away, the historic town was a damp and devastated shadow of its former self. The streets leading to the imposing 17th-century Dutch fort - a World Heritage site - were gone, flattened by the worst natural disaster the country had ever seen.

Thescenes of devastation, grief and incomprehension were replicated along the southern coastal regions of the island as residents and visitors struggled to take in the full extent of the disaster, which claimed 10,200 lives in Sri Lanka alone. Across the region the toll was heading towards 25,000. From the temples of Kosgoda and the riverside homes of Balapitiya to the surf beaches of Unawatuna and Mirissa, the coastal road was littered withdebris. Everywhere there was evidence of homes, vehicles and lives ripped apart by the forces of nature in a matter of minutes.

In Galle, the army closed off a vast section of the town in order to clear rubble from the main streets and to keep out the inevitable looters intent on stealing buried gems. Thousands of men, women and children could be seen at the edge of the cordon, where they sifted through the wash of muddy debris and concrete in a desperate attempt to find food, clothes or the bodies of loved ones.

In a hospital in the nearby village of Karapitiya, people scrambled over piled-up bodies, looking for their friends and relatives. Others milled around outside, holding shirts or handkerchiefs over their noses against the stench of decaying bodies.

The officials admitted they were overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy. "We have got hundreds of dead that we have dealt with," said one hospital official. "I don't know what to do."

Neel Sumanarnthna, a 44-year-old security manager from the coastal town of Ambalangoda, spoke of how his family had lost everything apart from the clothes on their backs as they fled their flattened home to the nearest inland temple. "We heard the water and we ran," he said. "It was me, my wife and my three children in the house. We ran inland and waded through the water until we were put into the back of a lorry and driven here. "There were women with babies crying for help and the walls of the houses were falling down. We have nothing left."

Everywhere, stories of despair and loss. And among it all, selfless acts of assistance. Janaka Nanayakkaka, who owned a hotel and two rental properties in the surfing and diving resort of Hikkaduwa, spent hours yesterday retrieving bodies from the debris and driving displaced tourists to his inland family home. His rescue efforts came 24 hours after he fled a 30-foot wall of water with his wife, his five-month-old baby and dozens of his hotel guests.

Mr Nanayakkaka, 29, said: "The scene in Hikkaduwa is horrendous. I pulled out three bodies this morning from the rubble, including one of a three-year-old child whose parents are missing."

He was eventually forced to abandoned his heroic efforts. "It's too late to save people now. The water went at least 100m from the sea and flattened everything in its path. We are fortunate as the hotel is slightly raised so we had more time. And now the looters are invading the town and taking what they can. It's a very dangerous place."

Among those benefiting from his bravery were a British visitor, Ian Betts, and his wife Anna. "The water started coming into the hotel and we just had to run," said Mr Betts, 35, from Norfolk, who had been travelling across Asia. "Tourists sunbathing, surfers and people walking on the beach were just getting swept straight out to sea. We were really lucky to have been with Janaka, otherwise I don't know where we'd be now."

Passing through the army barriers in Galle, the absence of people contrasted with the enormous piles of rubble, while peering beyond the walls of the few buildings that were left standing revealed rooms filled with concrete debris, cars and scattered merchandise.

It was the adjacent Old Fort, a 36ha walled site built by the Dutch in 1663 on a promontory, that appeared most vulnerable to the crushing forces of the tsunami. But while the fort appears to have survived the worst of the disaster, its narrow streets, filled with mosques, churches and hotels, were reduced to an impenetrable mass of rubble.

"This is the end for Sri Lanka," said one mournful tuk-tuk driver, as he joined the exodus of residents and traders heading to the comparative safety of the hill country.

But amid the chaos, the stench and the debris, many of the local people appeared phlegmatic. Hundreds of people piled into lorries to help with clearing the roads, while others drove around distributing food parcels and cartons of juice.

For some, however, the grief was too much to bear. "My mother was killed, she was crushed to death," said a tearful Mahinda de Silva, from Balapitiya.

"She could not escape and I could not rescue her. She was already paralysed and the waves knocked down the walls of her house. What is going to happen to Sri Lanka? How are the people going to survive this?"

'The sea was half a mile away: empty, calm and dead ...'

Euan Ferguson in Galle
Sunday January 2, 2005
The Observer

Wonder. Wrenching, yearning wonder. Dreams, and awe, and childhood tales; a longed-for excitement, and a fascination with the different. This - all of this, and a host of added gestures - was all he said he thought of, for all those 90 seconds which brought the three waves: the man who was first to see the monster.
Emelpee Daget, a father, was sorting his devil masks last Sunday morning, right below the last lighthouse at the last toe of the Indian subcontinent. Buddhist devil masks, cheaply made, to bless and rob tourists who had come to Fort Galle (pronounced Gaul), the walled promontory at the southern tip of Sri Lanka. He dropped one mask when he heard an unusual noise, and vaulted up the seven old stone steps to the top of the ramparts.

Daget had stayed the night before with his mother. She felt privileged to live up in the fort, though in a rickety place crammed awkwardly between handsome streets. Dutch invaders had built the fort in 1663, to dominate the town behind and below it. They had given it huge, high, thick walls with a stolid Dutch invulnerability, and an intriguing drainage system. The tide came in underneath through 14 stone channels, and twice a day, on its way back, it sucked out the sewage. The colonists used to breed musk rats in the sewers, grates at the end to keep them in; they would export their oil as medieval Viagra.

Twenty yards away at the same moment last Sunday morning, in his cool, clinical, tasteful house, Professor Rifdy Mohideen, medical teaching head at the local university, was watching the cricket on TV: Sri Lanka versus New Zealand. 'The most bizarre thing,' he said yesterday, 'was that it was such a perfect day. Terribly beautiful. Quiet. Tiny, perfect clouds. Big blue sky. This was before the screams.'

Both these men, at the very end of their continent, climbed to the top of the high stone wall, grassed over for centuries. Both watched in wonder. Both watched the last two of the three fat, high, shocking waves. Watched them sail, astonishingly, past, lapping the top of the fort. Thirty seconds later the sound of anguished suck-back, several million tons of seawater dragooning out of the fort's drains in seconds, woke those who still slept. The wash, pulling back through the lower parts of this high fort, picked up a heavy orange fibreglass lifeboat, its name scrubbed out - it had been sitting outside the courthouse as evidence in a maritime theft case - and dropped it far up Leyn Baan Street (Rope Walk Street), where it sits today, the highest boat in Asia. For the mask-seller and the doctor, and the dozen other watchers who had clambered to the top, the view of the sea was of a sea they had never seen: half a mile away, empty, calm, dead.

Something that could never happen had, suddenly, happened. There were, according to both these men, smiles, and confusion, and a sense of wonder. In our own country, in Britain, there was similar confusion; secular bemusement. Something awful, shocking, natural, biblical had happened. People had to have died. But it had, miraculously, not touched us. Could it be that bad?

Daget, Mask-Purveyor and lighthouse handyman, was trying to smile when he met me. He wanted a cigarette (more than he, or most men around, wanted food. Or money). In five days in Sri Lanka, not one person asked me for the smallest rupee; the country prides itself on the fact that there are no beggars, its Buddhist tradition preferring to help before being asked. But to light up in the street invites worship from an instant congregation of beseeching teeth. Within three minutes the 34-year-old was in a solid snot of tears.

His mother, with whom he had stayed uphill that Saturday, was grand, alive. His wife, son, first daughter, all of whom had lived in his house on the waterfront, were all dead. He had tried looking. The miles of shambles of twisted concrete, 20-foot drops filled now with dead sea, with a stench of fat, fruit and fish drying and swelling and popping in the sun, had proved too much after three days, and he cried, and gave up.

One hour after meeting Daget I was talking to three young soldiers stationed on Galle's beach. A beach made suddenly wrong. You expect the sandals, the flip-flops, the polystyrene gunk; you don't expect 12 lone, different high heels, and a bunch of onions, and Christmas baubles, and a dog brush, and an expensive set of kitchen scales.

The soldier boys were meant to stop looting. Galle is, was meant to be the biblical Tharsis from where Solomon fetched his 'gold, and silver, and ivory, and peacocks', if you believe 1 King's 10:22: it still has or had, a substantial gem trade. Corporals Qamini, Soisa and Indik were guarding a little more.

'The worst? Two days ago.'

My cigarettes are handed round. The three soldiers, three days then without sleep, had found a woman in her thirties dead near Hikkaduwa, about 15 miles north west of Galle.

'She was pregnant. Had been pregnant.' None of them wanted, with any haste, to tell the story. 'She had drowned. Been hit by something and drowned. The baby was dead too. But she had been in the middle of giving birth. And we' - one looked around, enfolding the others in what had happened - 'we picked her up. The baby fell out. It - he - had been half born when they died. May be we shouldn't have picked her up. The baby... slipped out.'

Hikkaduwa now resembles a cheap film set. From the street, where the thousands of dispossessed now sweep and brush and lift rubble, and European aid workers sweat helplessly in fat shorts and flirt with each other, it looks almost all right: near bearable, apart from the occasional boat flung into a shop front. Step seawards, three feet through the frontages, and you enter another world.

The coconut palms are strangely untouched. Two or three of the smallest have gone, but that's it. The trees swayed and bent and buckled and leapt back: but behind them the reinforced concrete, all last century's steel and chemistry, disintegrated in seconds, and killed. The backs of every beachfront property, every little hotel and curry-house and tea-stop and bank, are psychopathic. Glass, and steel, and wood, and nails, and, of course, water, all the things in which we put unthinking faith, erupted and killed.

This is where so many bodies were pulled from: here, and six miles further north, where a train was engulfed. The smell of burning debris, foul though it is, like torched urine, is to be thanked for drowning other smells. Fat crows pick.

The smell is worse in the middle of Galle. The town, Sri Lanka's fourth largest, slopes an infinitesimal but tragic degree downwards from the seafront and fort: the water killed for up to one kilometre inland. Thrilled mosquitoes throng the puddles. Two doctors in filthy grey robes, both with bandages covering leg wounds, have excused themselves from hospital to try to direct aid efforts: they slap continually at insects, and one is close to tears.

'This is my worry, my huge worry,' says Professor Mohideen, back up in the fort, where a tiny breeze twitches, and smells do not reach. 'We don't have a bad history of malaria here, but we have an awful one of dengue fever, also spread by mosquitoes. Every pool, every puddle left by the sea, is dead water, and they breed in five days. We need a public education project like never before: we need adverts, TV, radio, telling everyone to fill in the dead water now, today, stuff it full, let the sun burn off the damp: don't let them breed.'

'The worst thing that could possibly happen now, with the dead water and the holes, is for it to rain.'

He has visited three camps so far and is quietly pleased that cholera and dysentery do not, yet, seem to have taken hold. Pits are being dug for faeces, rubbish is being burnt.

'We need penicillin, obviously. And rehydration medicine; diarrhoea kills when you lose water, especially children. We need regular medicine for those with heart or something problems, because so many pharmacies and surgeries, including mine, were washed away.'

'We just need money,' counters Daget. 'Money for food. Money to allow us to work, to start jobs again.'

Food is going to be a problem. Apart from the other minor problems, death and heartbreak and disease and fear. On the day I arrived in the centre of Galle, there were no women or children to be seen: there had been a second scare, and the men sent them to higher ground. Up the hill I found them trooping, gaudy umbrellas high against the sunshine, trying to smile and chatter but looking ever seawards. Food will be a problem: partly because all the boats are broken, upended, mad, entangled, and also because it has been decreed that fish are unsafe for the next six months: too many hundreds of bodies are contaminating the shallow sea.

Wonder, we feel, and awe; and then we feel a burst of guilt at thinking of wonder, and awe, and stories, and excitement, and Bibles, and begin to ponder just how bad it must be. The truth is: a little bit worse than you can currently imagine.

Close to midnight on New Year's Eve, families began to wander out from Colombo, the country's capital, to look at the dark sea. There was a palpable sense of distrust. And then quietly, steadily, it began to rain.

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