Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Very little water but lots of champagne”: panic in Sri Lankan paradise”

31.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Sri Lanka’s famous Taprobane Island, a speck of palm-fringed paradise just off the southern coast, was lashed by the deadly tsunami, leaving its visitors stranded but its world-renowned villa spared.

Owner Geoffrey Dobbs, who threw the historical villa’s doors open to well-heeled paying guests after refurbishing it in the 1990s, was swimming off the island when the massive waves struck, his mother told AFP Thursday.

Marie Dobbs said that the first sign of something being awry was a colony of bats flying out of their cave near the rocky island, which is normally reached on foot from the mainland through ankle-to-knee-high water.

"We thought that was strange, bats don’t fly in the day time," she said.

Then, "the ocean just rose, rose, rose, like a wall."

Dobbs and his brother, who was also in the water, grabbed a catamaran and held on until it dumped them back to shore, while his sister-in-law grabbed a coconut palm.

Four guests swimming in the infinity-edge pool saw the salt water rise up before it engulfed them, but they clung to the walls of the pool to stay in.

With the high waters surrounding the island, they were all stuck, with no water supply or power.

"We had very little water, but we had lots of champagne. We had all the luxury, but not the essentials. We were all quite jolly about it," quipped Marie.

"We spent the day speculating, eating cashew nuts… We just thought it was local. We only gradually heard it was a national disaster through text messages."

Nearly 119,000 people have been left dead, mostly in Asia, by the tsunamis which also struck Indonesia, Thailand and India.

The following day, a staff member whisked them all to two other exclusive hotels owned by Dobbs’ in the fort town of Galle.

Despite everyone by then beginning to realise the extent of the devastation, which has left at least 24,743 Sri Lankans dead and another million homeless, some US guests moaned about the inconvenience of the calamity.

"They were complaining about the screams from down there keeping their children awake," she said, motioning towards the Indian Ocean and the totally wrecked coast.

"You just couldn’t get through to them about what was happening."

Dobbs, who spends half of his time in Sri Lanka and half in Hong Kong, immediately joined the massive relief operation, taking a truck up and down the devastated coast with food and other supplies, his mother said.

Taprobane’s villa was built by Frenchman Count de Mauny, bought by American author Paul Bowles after his death, and later snapped up by Dobbs.

While it lost only its wooden pier and balustraded entrance, Dobbs’ fourth luxury property — which its brochure claims is one of the world’s top 20 villas — was completely washed away at Tangalle, a village further west.

"It was my favourite," she sighed. "Geoffrey was building me a house next door, but luckily hadn’t gone further than the foundations."

Priests, volunteers keep hope alive for tsunami victims

31.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Catholic priest Nihal Nanayakkara has not slept since Christmas. Not only is he the priest of a church in this tragedy-struck town, but also caretaker of thousands of tsunami victims taking refuge in the building.

On Boxing Day, when tsunami waves lashed the coastline of Sri Lanka, thousands of people from Galle rushed in terror to the safety of Nanayakkara’s church.

"Sometimes I rest like this," he says, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes momentarily.

"I strongly believe that God is giving us this strength."

In his white robes tied neatly with a black belt, the vicar-general has been organising relief for refugees and travelling across the worst-hit parts of the southern Sri Lankan coast to help co-ordinate the overall recovery.

In between, he has held joint burial services along with Buddhist monks and Muslim priests for some of the nearly 25,000 killed by the giant wall of water that slammed into Sri Lanka’s shore at the weekend. Most of the dead are now being piled into mass graves.

"We are also holding memorial services daily and other services to give strength to the people and offer them the confidence that they need to start a normal life again," he tells AFP.

In the church, refugees are for the moment well-supplied with water, food and medical help — many flitting between here and what’s left of their homes.

The situation in other affected parts of Sri Lanka however continues to be weak as relief measures were facing difficulties to reach the needy after a complete breakdown of infrastructure.

But Nanayakkara says the next challenge was to get people to leave his church.

"Most have lost everything. They have only the clothes they are wearing. Their main hope is to live a decent, ordinary and simple life," he says.

In a situation when death had just brushed them, small miracles are bolstering the spirits of victims.

One such is the lost and found statue of Our Lady of Matar, the revered statue for catholics in Sri Lanka’s southern region.

The statue was washed out of the church, but on Wednesday morning a Buddhist found it nearly two kilometres away at his home. He brought it back to the church.

"It is a miraculous statue. I was there. We brought the statue back in procession and rang the bells so people knew," Nanayakkara says.

This was the third time that the statue had been lost and found.

"People were crying, they were so happy. Normally they would have clapped, but this time they did not because of the tragic situation in the country," the priest adds.

Outside Nanayakkara’s church the scene continues to be one of chaos and panic.

At a makeshift medical clinic, amid the stench of burning rubbish, nursing aide Nilupul Chaminda is standing and eating his breakfast.

It is midday and he is in the middle of his third 15-hour day.

"Sometimes no meals at all," he says. Asked if he’s tired, the answer is in negative.

"A lot of Sri Lankans have died."

He and a four member team of Saint John Ambulance Brigade workers are preparing for their afternoon run Thursday to treat refugees at several Buddhist temples, packing a van with antibiotics, painkillers, antiseptic, bandages and plasters.

On the way to the first temple, amid another endless traffic snarl, panic suddenly grips people on the streets.

Fuelled by rumour that another tsunami has hit India and is about to pummel this southern coastal city again, people run helter-skelter and screams ring through the air.

Shouting at each other and asking what the other knew, a few men pick up planks of wood, while many run to higher ground. Chaminda’s team frantically makes mobile telephone calls and turns on the radio to track the fresh tsunami warning.

With no confirmed warning, the group pushes on, but the situation reminds that Sri Lankans continue to live in fear.

At the other Sugatharama temple, 129 families are sheltered and many others have arrived in the past one hour to escape the rumoured wave.

Listless women lie on mats on the cement floor — some suckling babies — while others staring blankly into space. The only sign of normalcy are children playing outside the temple.

"At the moment they have enough relief items because of all the donations. We are managing and things are calm," says J.K. Rajapakse, a teacher who has been working 18-hour days as a volunteer here.

However, the looming danger is deteriorating sanitary conditions.

"There are not enough toilets. This is going to be a problem," Rajapakse says.

"A lot of these people are used to just using the beach as they are fishing families. This place is strange for them."

The medical workers treat infected wounds of the gathered victims, hand out sanitary napkins to women and offer advice.

Then it’s off to the next temple.

Bodies still entombed in train swallowed by tsunami

30.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

The buzz of an electric chain saw pierces the air as it cuts through a coconut palm pinning a bloated corpse. It is the only sound of rescue here where the sea swallowed an entire train packed with 1,500 passengers.

At this site of mass death and destruction — where the Indian Ocean sped in and flipped over the train like a toy, killing all but 200 of its passengers — there is a severe shortage of recovery gear.

"We want some machines to push the carriages (so we can) get at the bodies," says an airforce officer leading a team of about 200 airforce and navy rescue workers here, just south of the resort of Hikkaduwa popular with divers for its rich coral life.

"We need cranes."

Rescue workers with no protective gear except surgical gloves and face masks to help them stave off the stench, still have to retrieve 400 bodies trapped inside the gnarled carriages.

The putrid smell of decaying flesh is rapidly getting worse.

Bodies of many more people who lived along the train line are cooking in the tropical sun hundreds of meters away from the track and the water’s edge.

"Look, a child’s body," says Chandana Pushpalal, 38, pointing to a tiny figure under a pile of rubble. "About 10 months old … There are many, many more bodies … you must take pictures."

It is three days since tsunamis hit the palm-fringed island republic of Sri Lanka, killing at least 18,000 people, including the 1,300 passengers on board the train travelling from Colombo to Galle.

Near the end of its 112 kilometres (72 miles) journey from capital Colombo to the resort city of Galle, it was hit by a tidal wave.

Karl Max Hantke, 75, who usually spends three months of every year at a house near the railway track said he saw the first wave rush over the tracks and stop the train.

A few minutes later, he says a second wave came in totally flipping the track and derailing the train.

"People were screaming ‘help, help’," he said shaking his head, still shocked at the size of the calamity. "You could not help."

He was watching from the roof of his flooded home.

Some 200 of the train’s passengers, mostly people going home on a holy Poya (full moon) day, are believed to have jumped out of the train after the first wave and ran for their lives.

Most were still inside when the bigger wave washed over them.

Sujeeva Priyadarshini, 22, lost her brother at their home by the track.

"I was at home when the first wave hit. But for the second, I ran… I heard my brother shouting. I looked and … my father came back to take his body away."

Nearby, bulldozers are collecting the dead and beginning to push them into a shallow mass grave under swaying coconut palms a few metres from the water.

There are people trying to salvage what is left of their ruined homes.

A man pleads with the coroner who is counting the bodies as they are pushed into the grave. The elderly man wants to take away the bodies of his children for a private funeral, a luxury thousands could not afford.

The government has streamlined burial procedures and wants to bury bodies as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of disease.

Official estimates place the death toll at about 18,000 killed. Most of the bodies have been disposed in mass graves as identification was difficult.

Airmen and sailors are going through luggage from the train to see if they can find identity papers or telephone numbers to alert the next of kin. That process is as difficult as the recovery of the bodies in this former paradise where a train was turned into a tomb.

Stench of death chases patients away from Sri Lankan hospital

29.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

The stubborn stench hanging in the air at the small Sri Lankan district hospital where more than 150 corpses have been brought is so bad that a policeman is retching in the front garden.

"We have room for only two bodies" in refrigeration, says Dr. Manorie Talgaswatta, who was on duty when the first casualties arrived here Sunday after the deadly tsunami hit the normally tranquil coastal village of Tangalle.

"We were separating the dead bodies from the rest and leaving them on the floor because there was no room. Some of the dead were taken to their neighbours or relatives before we even recorded them," she says.

Within half an hour, the four doctors on duty ran out of the medicines they needed and sent an ambulance to fetch their pharmacist for access to more.

"In the end, we didn’t even have any plasters left," she says.

Hours later, medical reinforcements arrived with extra supplies and more than 750 people were treated, Talgaswatta says. Most were suffering from respiratory distress and lucky to be alive after nearly drowning.

Many were admitted to beds here but by late Tuesday only 20 remained, the stink from the corpses rotting in the humidity and the floors awash with blood and grime too horrendous for the sick to bear.

"They left as soon as possible. The floors were only cleaned today… some people left against our medical advice," she says, speaking several hours after most of the dead were finally taken away for a mass burial by the government.

Now the 152-bed facility is almost deserted, but still the corpses come, another ambulance unloading two more wrapped in plastic. They wait to be claimed under a boddhi tree, covered with flies.

Exhausted nurses gather in the empty concrete corridors wearing handkerchiefs or face masks in a bid to avoid the smell.

Twenty-eight kilometres (miles) along a road lined with countless houses flying makeshift white flags outside — a mark of respect for the dead — lies the larger fort city of Matara, where the latest official death count is 560.

At the general hospital’s reception area, a computer screen flashes an endless stream of gruesome photographs of victims yet to be identified. Dozens of anxious relatives and some who are merely curious huddle around.

"We really need medicines now. Pain killers and antibiotics. The main patient complaint is pain," says intern doctor Shamila Imbulapitiya, who was flown back from her break in Colombo by helicopter to help treat the survivors.

She has been treating mainly fractures and cuts at the 990-bed hospital and says many wounds are becoming infected from the salt water and mud.

The tsunami reached 200 metres (yards) from the main hospital building, with her own quarters here inundated, ruining her own papers and leaving her effectively homeless.

"Just like a patient, I slept in the ward… it’s our duty. I’m happy to be helping the people who have been affected by the floods," she says.

Dr. Asanga Balasuriya, working with the emergency treatment unit, says Sri Lanka has never seen anything like this — even its terrible and infamous suicide bombers have not wrecked such widespread devastation.

"There are so many bodies, so many patients, it’s taking time. We couldn’t cope. Now with the donations, we are okay, and the admissions are going down, we can cope," he says.

Many patients now, however, need to be urgently treated in the temporary refugee camps that have been set up in schools and temples.

"If someone in the family has died, and they have minor injuries, they don’t want to come here."

Survivors count blessings as Sri Lanka begins mass funerals

28.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

In the horror of Sri Lanka’s tidal wave tragedy, undertaker Mahilal Punchihewa manages to raise a smile. He has just seen his Galle shopfront and home washed away but doesn’t care. His three daughters and four grandchildren are safe.

"We have lost before," said Punchihewa, whose pet dog Doggie somehow survived the carnage that has claimed 11,000 lives across the country.

Amid the bloody tragedy of this island nation, tales of foreigners and locals who cheated death are mounting even as the mass burials get underway.

Despite their bloody wounds and little hope of returning home soon, foreign tourists at the hospital in the coastal town of Matara, 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of Colombo, are counting their blessings.

Swiss tourist Aline Blaser lies on a stained mattress in grim Ward No. 4 as her boyfriend undergoes surgery. She has tears in her eyes as she recounts fighting her way to safety when the tsunami hit at the nearby Tangalle beach.

The wall she and her boyfriend hid behind collapsed under the waves pinning down her boyfriend.

"He was trapped. He could do nothing," the 23-year-old said. "I don’t know how, but he got out."

She, meanwhile, became entangled in mangrove trees. "I thought I was dead, but when the waves went down, I could take in some air."

Belgian Peter Ector, 44, lies on a bed outside the ward next to his Italian wife, Sandra Stefani. Both were badly cut and bruised.

They were separated when the waves hit them during breakfast on Tangalle beach. They hid behind the guesthouse kitchen, but it collapsed.

"It was a battle to stay afloat. There were a lot of objects in the water…. we went to look at our guest house and it was not there any more."

"We have been very lucky. A German couple saw their child swept away from them," Ector said.

Stefani, 46, said when she surfaced all she could see was water. She did not know which way to swim. She pointed to the outside of the hospital and said: "They keep on bringing corpses in."

Meters away in the hospital courtyard, eight corpses lie bloated and mis-shapen almost beyond recognition. The bodies were covered with flies. The families were yet to claim the bodies.

The authorities said they could no longer keep most of the decomposing bodies.

A batch of 250 were buried at a mass funeral at the main cemetery here Monday after it became clear identification was almost impossible, a police official said.

"We have taken photographs and finger prints before the funerals," he told AFP. "We have also had religious rites before the burial at the cemetery which is on high ground."

The move came as the government announced the police had been ordered to short circuit usually tedious legal procedures in disposing of bodies.

The streamlining was announced as hospitals reported thousands of bodies piling up after Sunday’s unprecedented tsunamis that lashed nearly three quarters of the island’s coast.

On Matara’s waterfront, retired army major general Krishan de Silva salvages a few electrical appliances from the little left of his childhood home.

He was in Colombo when the tsunami struck, but his brother had been washing his car in his front yard. The car now lies mangled 15-metres (yards) further inland.

"I have never faced a natural disaster like this before," de Silva said.

His mother clutches a photograph of her daughter and some saucepans as she strides back to the town. "It is OK," she says philosophically, "We just don’t have a place to stay."

Shattered seaside community grieves, starts picking up the pieces

28.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Pala Withanage gestures towards the flattened remains of his wooden seaside home, then he points a few hundred metres inland. That’s where they found his wife’s body.

"I will never come back to this area. I want to stay far away from here," he says, wringing his hands and still in a daze two days after a tsunami roared through this resort town on a holy Sri Lankan poya (full moon) day.

"Without my wife I don’t want to live. But because of my child, I will," he says, wearing a grubby white shirt and rolled up trousers, the only clothes he has left. His seven-year-old daughter escaped the carnage.

A friend uncovers a mangled purple bicycle from inland, another of 30-year-old Withanage’s ruined possessions that were swept away by the tsunami’s unleashed by Sunday’s earthquake off Indonesia, but he barely registers interest.

His neighbour, W. P. Chandrapala, lost 27 of his relatives in surrounding areas but he rescued his 92-year-old mother when he fought his way back home after the calamity.

She survived by clinging to the rear window frame of his house and was screaming his name when he arrived.

"It’s all finished. Look," he says, pointing out smashed up cupboards, the debris caught in the window frames, the five-foot high water mark inside. A "Happy Birthday" sign painted on the wall has been smeared by the sea.

Chandrapala, 53, who earns his living as a driver, often for the tourists or the foreigners who have made Polhena their home, has lived here for 16 years and intends to rebuild.

"As long as I live, I’ll stay here. It’s a very nice place. I have good neighbours," he says with defiance.

Across the road directly on the beach is a smashed-up house belonging to an 85-year-old retired German man Chandrapala called Mr. Grutzener and who also survived.

"My son carried him out on his back," Chandrapala says.

A few hundred metres away, the playground of Polhena School is awash with skulls and human bones from the graves at the seaside cemetery in front, which have been smashed up.

A fresh bloated corpse washed in from sea lies on one of them.

The 400 students and 39 teachers at the local school had begun their vacation a few days before the disaster. Entire sections of its few buildings were torn down by the thundering sea.

"I am very sad. I studied here," says Roshan Amith Rangana, 15, as he pushes his uncle’s bicycle surveying the wreckage. His own home and family grocery shop were also washed away.

"I don’t like this place anymore," he says quietly.

Chandani Hewage, a petite woman with gold studs in her ears who teaches at another nearby school, is relieved that her home is still standing. But it looks as if someone has picked it up and shaken it.

"What shall we do? All the people, all the property. And who can donate to help us?" she asks quietly, referring to the fact that hundreds of thousands of other Sri Lankans are affected elsewhere.

The local temple behind her house was crowded with people attending a fair. White, yellow, red, blue and orange striped flags hanging there to celebrate holy "poya day", or full moon day, now hang limp but clean, unscathed by the roar underneath.

At a house nearby, another corpse lies wrapped in plastic on what appears to be a broken door, waiting to be collected as the day’s heat intensifies.

British tourist Richard Balcombe, 49, stumbles past in a daze. He was staying at the nearby Sunil Rest guesthouse, where he has spent two months a year for the past six years.

"It’s finished," he says, shaking his head.

"I had 3,200 pounds hidden in the mother’s cupboard (at the guesthouse) and was going to give it to the family to help them," he says. But last night, someone stole it.

Asked if he would holiday here again Balcome too is defiant: "I will come back again."

Back at the wreckage of widower Withanage’s home, there is a very brief moment of happiness for him.

"It’s her ID card. I found it in her bag," he says, pushing it forward, pointing to her face. "Her name was Gayan."

Laughter turns to terror for couple in Sri Lanka tidal wave disaster

27.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

American tourist Matthew O’Connell started laughing when he saw his hotel room filling with water. But when a raging wall of tidal wave water ripped him and Israeli friend Sue Mor apart, the laughter turned to sheer terror.

O’Connell and Mor told Monday of how they survived after being separated by floodwaters at Ambalangoda, lucky to escape being among an estimated 70 foreign tourists among a nationwide death toll of 5,880 dead.

Mor said she woke up O’Connell when the first waves brought in water, but he did not take her seriously. He got up, went out and on his way back found he could not close the door behind him as water surged into their guest house.

"I was laughing as I tried to close the door. Then it went from really amusing to deadly serious," O’Connell said dressed in clothes given by local people — a woman’s blouse and a curtain.

Both were bruised and ended up at the main Karapitiya hospital which is overflowing with the dead and the wounded.

"The (local) people were so kind," she said and pointed to a bag of food she carried. "This bag of food is from local people."

Mor and O’Connell’s testimony was typical of accounts given by foreign tourists across Sri Lanka.

Norwegian Bjorn Risoy, 29, was at the resort of Hikkaduwa when water burst through his hotel door. His friend had cuts which needed stitching up. They were moved to the hospital here from a smaller medical facility near Hikkaduwa.

They said they saw children thrown onto fencing along the beach.

"We are fine, we managed to climb a tree, but children in the beach were thrown on to the fences," Risoy said. "Someone drove us to a hospital."

Hotel worker Upul Aponsu said his hotel was initially under five feet of water when the first wave hit.

"But five minutes later, the second wave came which was 25 feet high. I ran and I saw buses floating on the water."

Security guard Indra Siri was busy trying to save his bank’s ATM after the bank itself was deluged by the lashing waves.

"The water came and we all ran. I was inside and the water came from behind my back," the 52-year-old security guard of the bank said.

"But I am not leaving the place as there is lot of cash in there," he said pointing to the bank’s still erect ATM unit.

The tsunamis were triggered by a huge earthquake off northeast Indonesia, several thousand kilometres (miles) from Sri Lanka. Giant waves also slammed into Thailand, Myanmar, southern India, Malaysia and the Maldives.

"I do not know if there is anything left of the hotel where I was staying," said George (eds one name) from Switzerland.

"I was at the second storey of my hotel when it all happened and the police are now closing off the areas to stop looting."

Numerous incidents of looting were reported from across the country and the police imposed a curfew during the night, which was eased early Monday in certain parts.

Galle police officials said that nearly 500 people died here.

"We are still finding bodies," said police officer Nimal Perera. "I have been a police officer for 18 years and never saw anything like this. There was a car parked outside our police station and now I can’t see where it is."

"At around 0930 am the waves hit my hotel building," said French tourist Olivier, 41, who was on holiday with his wife and three children and staying at the Galle Hotel. "People are so shocked that they can’t do anything."

The waves were seen almost 500 metres inland from the coast and volunteers were still fishing out dead bodies.

More than 300 bodies were in the hospital Sunday evening, with froth coming out of their mouths, an AFP correspondent said.

Sri Lanka’s Muslims begin to bury their dead amid pleas for help

27.12.2004 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Current Affairs ::

Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority began to bury their dead here Monday, a day after tsunamis killed more than 5,800 people along the island’s coastline, amid pleas for help.

"We need help … We need everything such as water, food, electricity," said Shaul Hameed as volunteers dug graves at a mosque compound located on high ground in this city, 112 kilometres (72 miles) south of the capital Colombo.

At the mosque were the bodies of 75 Muslims who perished along with 500 others in this predominantly majority Sinhalese region. Nationwide, the toll stood at more than 10,800.

More than 150 local Muslims were still missing in this city.

Elders appealed for any assistance for their community, left without food and drinking water after huge tidal waves washed away homes along three-quarters of the island’s coastline Sunday.

"These people have no houses as more than 500 houses were destroyed in this area," Hameed said.

The mosque has been sheltering more than 1,000 homeless people since the disaster struck.

The government said a major relief operation was under way but little of that was seen in this city.

Communication lines and roads were cut off by the flooding that left a massive trail of destruction.

Nearly 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 19 million population are followers of Buddhism while Muslims account for about 7.5 percent. Christians also constitute about 7.5 percent while Hindus account the rest.

Muslims are recognised in Sri Lanka as a distinct ethnic community rather than just a religious group.

Residents here said one of the main hospitals in the neighbourhood was also was hit by flood water. A nurse who gave her name only as Silva said she ran upstairs when the water started coming in.

Nearly 500 people were in the hospital and were relocated to other institutions.

Sri Lanka has launched a massive humanitarian operation after the deadly tsunamis, the worst disaster to hit this island country. The death toll included 70 were foreign tourists while 1,555 people were reported missing.

The tidal waves were caused by a massive earthquake west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra that registered 9.0 on the Richter scale. It was the fourth-strongest temblor since 1900.