Survivors count blessings as Sri Lanka begins mass funerals

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."

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