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 Post Posted: Sun Feb 26, 2006 3:47 am 

The tragic saga of a little girl who went missing on December 26, 2004 and the anguish of her parents who believe she is still alive

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Sunday Times / 19Feb2006

The small-size red toothbrush lies in the bathroom. Not a line has been written in the exercise books covered with crisp brown paper in the brand new schoolbag. The books were meant for the 2005 school year.

The little girl, Hiruni Tharushika, whose name is tagged on the books made ready for Sirimavo Bandaranaike Vidyalaya in Colombo, is missing. Missing since December 26, 2004, the day of the tsunami.

Seven-year-old Hiruni was on the fateful train that was hit by the tsunami that day. From the moment the family realized that the little girl was missing, the father has been searching every single day, beginning that day itself, for her.

“Many are the clues that she is alive. A couple of people have seen her and described her clothes in detail to us,” sighs Nihal Wanniarachchi with tears welling up in his eyes, even one year and two months after. “She was closest to me. My wife was more with my elder daughter. I used to take Hiruni to the park and the beach and play with her.”

The sorrow and also the frustration of a year-long heart-rending search spills out as The Sunday Times meets the family in their cosy home in Kirullapone on Wednesday night.

Every school holidays, Nihal and Latha and their two daughters, Naduni and Hiruni would embark on their family trip. They decided to take a train ride that December in 2004, because Hiruni had never been on a train before.

“Earlier we planned to go on the 25th but some relatives wanted to join us and we put it off to the 26th,” says Latha, questioning destiny or karma whatever it may be. “The night before, Nihal did a little dance, and Hiruni laughed and laughed,” she mumbles amidst the tears.

Nine of them set off that bright and sunny day. The plan was to take a ride to Hikkaduwa, get on a glass-bottomed boat and see the corals, have lunch and get back.

The train suddenly stopped at Kahawa and they faced the first wave, ignorant of what worse fate awaited them. “The water came and went. It receded quickly, with some water left outside the compartment. Hiruni put her hand out and dabbled in the water, while I told her this is what is meant by muhuda godagalanawa,” says Nihal.

They were not unduly perturbed and Latha hoisted Hiruni on to the rack of the compartment. Soon after, the second wave struck and the compartment was tossed and turned like a toy. When finally the turbulence ended, their compartment was on its side and a teenager, Nihal’s 17-year-old niece, was dead. Nihal scrambled out of the window and helped the others to leave the compartment. Hiruni, however, was missing.

The men herded the women and the children to higher ground and helped them to the Telwatte temple nearby. From the moment he left the others in safety, Nihal began his search, from train to schools where tsunami victims had gathered and also to the Batapola Hospital where hundreds of bodies of the worst railway disaster were taken. “There was chaos. There were no lights but I went looking,” he says. “She was not there. Her body was not there.”

That night though help came from Colombo and they returned, he went back early the next morning searching and searching in vain. “I was there when they lifted the compartment in which we had been. There were only three bodies crushed under it – those of a woman, her child and another girl. Podi Duwa wasn’t there,” he says.

In desperation they put up posters all over the area. The phone call from Sirithunga mudalali of Aluthwela, a rice mill owner, came thereafter. Yes, he rescued a little girl stuck on the branch of an uprooted mango tree, he said.
To make sure Nihal asked him to describe the clothes the girl was wearing. “A pink T-shirt with long sleeves and a greenish denim trouser,” he told them without hesitation. He said the trouser was greenish and that was absolutely right, says Latha. “She hated to wear dress. Always wanted trousers and shirts, mostly in red and black.”

Sirithunga himself was looking for his wife. What he didn’t know at that time was that she was dead. So he sent the girl with his teenage daughter to the temple. The daughter does remember the girl but lost track of her when they neared the temple. It was a time of crisis.

Sirithunga had taken Nihal to the mango tree where he had found Hiruni. Seeing a house close by Nihal had spoken to the people there, a youth, who without any prodding confirmed that a girl clinging on to the mango tree had been shouting for help: “Uncle mawa bera ganna.” (Uncle, save me)

The distraught family got another call. After our sister paper, the Lankadeepa, published the account of the missing child, Suneth from the Excise Department had called with information on Hiruni. He had told the family that he was in an oruwa, with two boatmen and a girl and the girl was Nihal’s daughter.

From the Telwatte temple, men, women and children had been ferried across a small area covered by water to the Matiwela village, where most victims had sought shelter.

According to Suneth, he had heard the boatmen discussing who should keep the “anatha” (destitute) girl, that’s why he looked at her closely. The family’s hopes were raised and doubts that she was dead allayed, when they got another call from Nalaka Mendis in Moratuwa, claiming that a relative’s six-year-old son who had been caught in the tsunami had been taken by a boatman in Matiwela and most probably sold to a childless couple in Mulkirigala. That boy had said there were two girls with him.

The boy had been handed over to the relatives at the Meetiyagoda Police Station, says Nihal. Nihal then traced the boatman. “He lives in Matiwela and is about 40 years old. When I asked him he said that he took two children and handed over one to the correct relatives and the other, a girl, to ‘some people who came in uniform’,” laments Nihal, who has been tirelessly going back and forth to Matiwela, while attempting to keep his job as a clerk at the Condominium Management Authority, while this humble family has been engaged in endless religious observances like 49-day Bodhi Poojas.

The saga of tragedy hangs suspended in time as of February 2006. “We cannot give up. If we found her body, we would have accepted what fate or nature dealt to us, however cruel. We would have mourned, done meritorious acts,” says Latha.

In their heart of hearts and in their bones, all three, father, mother and sister, feel that Hiruni is alive……...that she would walk in through the main door and they can pick up the pieces from Boxing Day 2004 and move on with their lives.

“I can’t sleep. Something is burning inside of me. Please, please help us find our little girl,” pleads Nihal as the search continues and the toothbrush hangs forlornly and the school books remain untouched without a line being written.

File not closed
Hiruni’s father has made many complaints and appeals about the missing girl – to the Police Women’s and Children’s Bureau based in Fort on January 11, 2005 (CIB 27/87); Meetiyagoda Police on January 12, 2005 (D.CIB 355/200); back again to the Women’s and Children’s Bureau on January 19, 2005 (CIB 113/156) and Meetiyagoda Police on June 13, 2005 (CIB 01 246/265).

“We interviewed all the persons mentioned in his complaints, recorded statements but have got no concrete proof that the child is somewhere,” a spokesperson for the Women’s and Children’s Bureau told The Sunday Times.

A team even went to Matiwela and visited the boatman’s home, according to the policewoman. “He said he saved four children, one girl and three boys, all around seven years old, because he has a seven-year-old himself. The girl, he had handed over to her father who was in the STF, and the other two boys to their relatives when they came in search of them. One boy was dead by the time he reached him,” she said.

The file on Hiruni is open and more information is awaited, she says, adding that the bureau had received about six complaints from parents or relatives of children who had gone missing after the tsunami. “Two of them were confirmed as dead. The others have not been found.”

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