Shattered seaside community grieves, starts picking up the pieces

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."

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