|Sunday, 30 January 2005|
Touring tsunami ravaged areas :
Concerned or Curious
by Hana Ibrahim
January 25, 2005. On this day, one month ago, I was on my way to Galle.
Intent on reaching the destination, I stepped on the gas, hardly giving thought to the scenery that blurred into splotches of greens, greys, yellows and whites with intermittent patches of bright shades that were people in their festive finery. This was after all a day of celebration.
The coastal scenery in the South had remained unchanged for years and one assumed it would remain so for ever. Not get washed off within the next 24 hours. Catastrophes of the kind that change the landscape beyond recognition happen only in movies, right?
'The Earthquake' is a prime example. 'Day After Tomorrow' is just another movie. And who'd heard of the tsunami in Sri Lanka? So why pause to savour the sameness?
Thirty days on, I am taking the same route, but this time at snail's pace, trying to grasp the enormity of the devastation that occurred barely 24 hours after my earlier journey and fit the mind's eye image of the vibrant towns and villages into this...this... barren wasteland of dead vegetation and piles of rubble that were once houses, shops, schools, restaurants.... Trying to comprehend the loss of life and the struggle for survival..... And I am not alone.
For, the outpouring of sympathy that was the immediate reaction to the tsunami, appears to have transformed itself into overwhelming, even insensitive, vulgar curiosity, with bus loads of new fangled 'pilgrims' making their way down the coastal track to marvel at the devastation caused by nature on the rampage.
The assorted carriages of the ill- fated Matara-bound train, emptied of its gruesome contents, cleansed into conformity and set upright on a piece of undamaged track adjacent to Peraliya Sri Jinaratne Maha Vidyalaya close to Hikkaduwa, has emerged as the 'piece de resistance' of these tours.
The arriving hoards, more curious than concerned, scrutinise the compartments from roof to rail, crawl under the carriages, walk around, test the seats and pose for photographs, perhaps as a memento of an unforgettable visit to a place of unmatched tragedy.
The fascination borders on the macabre, but what appears more unforgiving is the manner in which the 'tourists' hound the villagers, most of whom have been forced to seek shelter at Sri Jinaratne Maha Vidyalaya, with insensitive, crass and often inane questions.
"Thousands of people come to see the train every day. They come by vans and buses and in cars and play loud music. It's worse during the weekend. We don't mind that. But what we don't like is the way they keep pestering us for information about the train, how many people died, whether we were in the train, whether we saw the bodies scattered around, how the tragedy happened, how the authorities removed the bodies from the train......" says E.G. Bandulatha, a native of Peraliya, whose house and business were washed away by the killer waves.
Bandulatha and her husband owned a successful grocery store and were relatively well off. But the tsunami washed away their livelihood and every thing they possessed, leaving the couple and their four children destitute. Now they spend their nights with relatives, deep in the village and the days at the welfare centre, hoping they wouldn't have to continue this vagabond existence for long.
They were nowhere close to the train on that fateful day, but they suffered their own trauma in fighting for survival. And like many others at the centre, December 26 is a memory they'd rather not dredge over and over again, merely to appease the curiosity of an itinerant.
"We'd like to move forward, look ahead and prepare for our future," says W.H. Upasena, another villager rendered destitute by the tsunami, more concerned with the lopsided and shortsighted distribution of aid than the viewing pleasure of the 'tourists'.
"They give us dry rations and expect us to cook our meals, but don't think far enough to provide us with cooking utensils. Everything we owned have been washed away, so how are we to manage our cooking?" he asks. Upasena's query is echoed by many in and outside the camp, who say that they are often forced to go hungry, because they don't have the means to cook a meal.
What the villagers don't say is also the insensitive manner in which the 'tourists' turn the tour into picnics, enjoying their packed lunches or sandwiches and snacks among the rubbles, while the villagers hungry for the teeniest luxury, look on. They don't comment on this action, but wonder why people coming to view their plight can't be bothered to share their largess.
The scene at Peraliya is repeated along the coast in Galle and Matara and beyond, though not with the same intensity. The Galle Bus Stand and the Cricket Stadium, though in focus immediately after the tsunami, have been cleaned up and normalcy restored to a certain extent. Photo ops are limited here, especially at the Stand which is back in business minus portions of its structure.
Ditto the Stadium, which though knocked out of kilter has been put to rights as much as possible, with the debris neatly piled in a corner. But stretches of devastation with landmarks and boundary lines totally obliterated, wattle and daub huts and brick and mortar reduced to equal piles of useless dross and colourful tents pitched amidst the uncleared rubbles, offer enough visuals for the 'tourist' to 'ooh' and 'aah' and wonder aloud about the degree of devastation.
The 'tsunami tours' as one bright spark dubbed it, is perhaps necessary, though not in its voyeuristic sense, to keep in touch with the reality of what is being said as being done to help the victims, and what's really being done or rather not done.
For, to travel down the coastal belt one month on, is to discover that contrary to what's being said, the tsunami hit landscape remains pretty much the same as it was two weeks after the disaster, with only the road cleared up, bridges repaired (albeit temporary structures) and the debris piled on the way side.
Even the victims choosing to beg for handouts along road remain the same. The grievances also remain the same with many complaining of not receiving any relief, and others alleging that relief is being doled out to people unaffected by the tsunami, to people whose houses are intact, to people who pretend to be victims.
The fishermen complain that no steps have been taken to repair the fishing boats and equipment, so that they can get back to sea and earn a living.
And fishermen whose boats survived the disaster, as the 300 boats from Tangalle that were at mid sea during the tsunami, complain that they can't sell the fish because no one is eating fish.
Home owners complain about vanishing boundaries and the 100 meter buffer zone retarding resettlement and creating complications. They also complain about the haphazard manner in which relief is being distributed and how no effort has been made to set up a data base so that rebuilding and rehabilitation efforts could be prioritised and the most deserving given first preference.
School children complain of not being able to go to school because they don't have any books, and the allowances they were supposed to get to buy essentials is being held back by the teachers.
The complaints are a mile long and often tend to overshadow what little that's actually being done. It also overshadows the work of the good Samaritans - relief agencies setting up camps providing medicine and medical care, large hearted people taking in the displaced, ordinary people rallying around to help the less fortunate... On the so called 'tsunami tour' one of the pleasant surprises you encounter are members of the Indian Navy busy rummaging among the rubbles of destruction, looking for reusable bricks and blocks of cement, to construct toilets and kitchens for the displaced.
Identifying themselves as 'Indians' they say no job is too little for
them if they could help bring back the smile onto the faces of the
displaced. And that perhaps sums up the spirit of post tsunami camaraderie
and the spirit of helping out. And perhaps that's what the tours should be
about. Not gaping in 'awe' but helping where you could.
From a distance it looks like a huge blue canopy spread over a football ground. Closer inspection reveal the canopy to be the tops of neatly aligned tents, covering what could possibly be a football ground. The area is a hive of activity with men and women busy going about their daily chores.
This is the welfare centre at the Maliadda Vijaya Maha Vidyalaya. Sixty four fisher families from Tangalle, rendered homeless by the tsunami are housed in 36 tents and the school building in the adjoining hillock.
Run by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, as a long - term project, this is perhaps the best manage to welfare centre in the southern coast. The tents and the auxiliary buildings including 21 toilets, a kitchen, a dining hall and a medical centre were put up the by ANCL staff in a matter of hours, when schools reopened last week and the displaced had to be moved to a new location.
The centre also has a police post and a saloon of sorts where volunteer hair stylists trim and style hair on request. On this Tuesday, a few hours after the occupants moved in, the saloon is busy, so is the kitchen where lunch is being prepared by volunteers from the camp under the supervision of a full time cook from Colombo.
Tuesday is also the day when volunteer doctors do their round. Three doctors, two Sri Lankans and a South Korean, do the rounds lending their ear to the woes of the displaced and dispensing medicine. The medical facility is run by the Matara Red Cross and is sponsored by the South Korean government. Two nurses also volunteer their service along with the doctors, and medicine is dispensed to cover any and all ailments.
According to a doctor on call, the Maliadda camp is relatively healthy with no outbreak of any contagious diseases. "We've been treating wounds, body aches, mild fever, occasional diarrhoea, along with diabetes and hypertension," says one of the visiting doctors.
A makeshift tent can never be a home. But at the Maliadda camp, every attempt is made to make the displaced feel like they have a place they can call their own, and four walls to shut off the outside world, when it becomes too intrusive. Many prefer to keep to themselves and rarely venture out of their tent. Others needing the company of fellow beings, to ward of their loneliness, talk about feeling safe in the camp.
Produced by Lake House