WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Another body, another wail

Jonathan Steele in Panadura, Sri Lanka
Tuesday December 28, 2004
The Guardian

The path to several thousand private hells is all too public. In this small town 20 miles south of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, it leads down the open-sided corridors of the district hospital to a garden at the back, and the mortuary beyond.

Police men and women in crisp khaki uniforms sit at tables under a frangipani tree, writing out death certificates. Small knots of relatives stand in the shade of the covered walkway, waiting for the horrendous moment of identification.

Again and again, a shriek goes up as mortuary workers lift the blanket or plastic sheeting which protects the dignity of the drowned. With a nationwide death toll of more than 12,000, the same desperate drama of shock and grief was being played out in scores of other towns and villages yesterday.

The Panadura hospital has only eight refrigerated chambers, and bodies were spilling out into the open yesterday, some laid out on the grass, several on the concrete floor of the mortuary, and a few on battered metal trolleys in the sun. "We have received 44 bodies here so far, 23 women, 16 men, and five children," said Sub-Inspector DJ Karanaike. "Thirty-five have been identified already."

Sudarshini Hemali, a woman of 20, is pushed down the walkway in a wheelchair, her ankle bandaged from the injury she sustained as she was flung round her home on Sunday, trying to keep hold of her two-year-old daughter, Udashika, in the swirling water.

She lost the struggle and the child's body was washed up several yards from the family's beachside shack. "I never realised it was so dangerous," said Sunil, the child's father. "A first wave came in and swept up the beach, but stopped before the houses. Then about 15 minutes later another enormous one arrived."

He steers his wife's wheelchair towards two silver metal doors. Udashika was one of the few granted a refrigerated chamber. The door is tugged open, a shelf is pulled out, and the parents look in. A scream, a wail, and then the heavy clunk of the metal door closes with an awful finality.

On a trolley outside, the body of a five-year-old boy is still unclaimed. He wears jeans and a red T-shirt pulled up to expose his stomach.

Chantellal Jayaratne, 32, a stonemason, steps forward hesitantly when he recognises his son, then quickly turns and moves off to get the death certificate. His mother drowned, and his wife is still missing, he explains.

Almost all the dead in Panadura lived in a long ribbon development of squatters' shacks on each side of the main railway line which hugs Sri Lanka's western coast, barely 100 yards from the sea.

Yesterday the strip looked like a junk yard. Piles of flimsy wood and corrugated asbestos roofing lay beside the rail tracks. A few concrete shops and garages had survived the tsunami, but almost all the housing was gone. Sailors and troops patrolled the wreckage to guard against looters.

In the exposed south and east, towns such as Galle and Matara were in the direct line of the tsunami as it careered across the ocean and rose to sudden height on reaching Sri Lanka's coast. Seventy-three foreign tourists lost their lives, according to Udaya Nanyakkara, chairman of the Sri Lanka tourist board. Two hotels favoured by the Colombo elite in low-lying Yala national park and another one, the Nilaveli beach hotel, near Trincomalee, were submerged with heavy loss of life.

Army and navy camps on the east coast around Trincomalee and Batticaloa were destroyed. In the areas held by the Tamil Tigers, the government's opponents in the country's now dormant civil war, at least 2,000 people were drowned, according to TamilNet, a website which supports the Tigers. Another Tamil website said 170 children at an orphanage in Mullaithivu were feared dead.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was on holiday in London, has declared a state of national disaster and five days' mourning. She went straight to a helicopter to tour the south as soon as she arrived back from Britain yesterday.

The tsunami hit Sri Lanka harder than any other country, with around 800,000 people left homeless, almost 5% of the island's population. The government has launched an appeal for international help but there has already been an extraordinary outpouring of solidarity from Sri Lankans. Thousands have been rushing to help the homeless with donations of food and clothing.

Three-wheelers laden with sacks of rice, and flying the white flag of mourning, raced through Colombo with their hooters blaring yesterday to urge people to give. Buddhist monks in saffron robes drove in pick-up trucks to collect supplies bought by wellwishers from supermarkets.

In Panadura, 2,000 people were settling down to a second night at the Galabora temple. "Most temples are built on high ground so they are a natural sanctuary," said Vimal Kariyawasam, a retired banker, who was working as a volunteer.

"We are hoping for tents but are starting to get palm fronds to make roofs for temporary shelters. If we do it through the government, it'll take much longer. We cannot wait. These people will have to be here for a month at least."