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Sunday, 27 March 2005  
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Religious dignitaries rescue tsunami victims

by W.T.J.S. Kaviratne - Ambalangoda special correspondent

A visit to tsunami affected coastal belt of South, West, North and East of Sri Lanka strikingly revealed that all religious dignitaries had come to the forefront in providing relief assistance for the affected communities with selfless dedication since the fateful morning of the day of disaster on 26th December 2004.

Ven. Welivitiye Dhammaloka Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Shetararma Pirivena, Weheragoda, Kahawa.

Ven. Bambalapitiye Ananda Tissa Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Chethiyagiri Purana Vihara, Urawatta, Ambalangoda.

Contrary to the trend in the country providing humanitarian assistance, these dedicated teams of Sri Lanka the Buddhist Monks, the Catholic and Christian clergy the Hindu Priests and Muslim Moulavis throughout their humanitarian work maintained a low profile without videographers and cameramen around them.

All these religious dignitaries who refused publicity and live in accordance with the noble teachings of diverse creeds and faiths did not hesitate to provide relief assistance to the affected in whatever possible manner.

Ven. Polwatte Vansika Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Nindana Dharmendarama Temple, Nindana, Batapola.

Ven. Batapola Nanda Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Batapola Subaddarama Temple.

During my recent fact finding mission seeking some of the Buddhist monks who had rendered humanitarian assistance, I found the opportunity to gather firsthand information of their pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

Ven. Batapola Nanda Thera, the Chief Incumbent of Batapola Subaddarama Temple said on the 26th December, 2004, there were several devotees in the temple as it was a Poya Day.

Dr. J. N. Jayathilake, DMO and his hospital staff at Batapola Rural Hospital attended to more than 6,000 patients affected by tsunami.

The Ven. Thera revealed that around 10.00 a.m. an unusual crowd of people arrived at the temple in vehicles. A little later an unprecedented crowd numbering more than 5000 people, was seen in the precincts of the temple.

Providing meals to the ever increasing number of the displaced people arriving at the temple from the highly devastated villages of Peraliya, Thelwatta, Godagama, Kahawa and Akurala proved to be the immediate and important issue according to ven. Nanda Thera.

The members of Dayaka Sabha of the Temple comprising a large gathering of youth of the village, immediately reached the temple for a discussion with the Ven. Batapola Nanda Thera.

In a very systematic manner duties were assigned to different groups before nightfall of the day of disaster.

Just after making necessary arrangements for a crowd of about 3000, the rest of the displaced people were sent to Batapola Central College and other welfare centres of the village.

The whole village of Batapola became a hive of activity in providing relief assistance in numerous ways for the welfare of the displaced.

The Ven. Thera said even the poorest of the poor of the village extended their helping hand bringing at least a packet of lunch to the temple, showing their fellow feeling of the affected in the neighbouring villages of Batapola.

Batapola Subaddarama Temple gradually became the coordinating centre of all the welfare centres of the village and since the fateful morning of 26th December, 2004 till its closure on 17th January 2005, people from distant parts of the country came there for information.

The displaced people running in panic with only the clothes they were wearing were brought to the temple in fully crowded trucks, lorries and buses.

On the first few days villagers of Batapola had to provide the displaced with clothes, food and other items. Tooth brushes, tooth paste, soap and all other essential items were bought by the temple on account to be paid later and Ven. Nanda thera said a bill amounting to Rs. 40,000/ for buying essential items for the displaced people, could not be settled so far.

In order to regulate the distribution of dry rations and other gift packs provided by foreign and local organisations and individuals a Card was issued to all the inmates of the welfare centre of the Batapola Temple, the Ven. Monk said.

A team of Doctors was working round the clock in the Temple and 25 new toilets were also constructed for the benefit of the displaced in the temple premises. Ven. Batapola Nanda Thera said even now the affected people were in the habit of coming to the temple seeking his assistance to resolve numerous problems encountered by them.

Traders from Batapola doing business at the Sunday fair in Hikkaduwa, lost everything they had on that day due to tsunami but they were not paid the relevant compensation allowance granted by the Divisional Secretary.

The Ven. Monk said that Divisional Secretaries of the affected areas were more keen not to pay the government allocations rather than pay them referring to numerous circulars, thus annoying the affected.

The Chief Incumbent of Chethiyagiri Purana Vihara, Urawatta, Ambalangoda, Ven. Bambalapitiye Ananda Tissa Nayaka Thera said that he was engaged in a ritual in the Devalaya located on the upper section of the temple around 9.15 on this fateful morning.

He said there was a crowd of around 100 devotees in the temple precincts. A direct view of the sea is possible from the upper section of the temple. Ven. Ananda Tissa Thera described how the massive second tidal wave surged towards the land over Galle road hurtling down everything in its way.

Immediately after the second wave he found more than five bodies of the dead on the back of the garden of the temple. By noon, more than 1000 villagers had reached the temple seeking shelter as all their houses were washed away by the tidal waves.

All the shops at Parrot Bakery Junction, Urawatta, were destroyed. As the surrounding villages were highly affected no assistance reached the temple and feeding the people on the 26th December, 2004 was a complex problem for the Ven. Thera.

The water found in the drinking wells was polluted and obtaining drinking water was yet another major issue baffling the Ven. Nayaka Thera.

Around 4.30 late afternoon, he could contact his wellwishers in Colombo over the phone.

When he told his plight, nearly 1000 packets of cooked food were brought from Colombo for the inmates of the welfare of the temple.

A few days later numerous foreign organisations and local N.G.O.s provided relief assistance for the benefit of the affected who lived in the temple premises he said.

He said no people's representatives came to the temple all those days and he further said that he considered them as escapists; avoiding the affected ignoring their grievances. The welfare centre of the temple continued for six weeks he said.

The Chief Incumbent thera of Nindana Sri Dharmendarama Temple, Ven. Polwatte Vansika Thera maintained a welfare centre in his temple for 19 days with the support of the young and the old devotees of the temple.

Displaced families from Thelwatta, Kahawa, Peraliya, Akurala, Wenamulla reached the temple in large numbers on the 26th December, 2004, he said.

Health camps were conducted during that period with the assistance of foreign and local Doctors. Children were encouraged to take part in sports in the temple premises as a device to lessen their trauma.

On the first day, villagers of Nindana and Nagahagoda provided 8 barrels to store drinking water for the displaced families.

Using aluminium roofing, temporary tents were erected in the temple. Mr. Pathmalal and Mrs. Lalitha Padmini and Ven. Nandika Thera, Ven. Chandika Thera and Ven. Baddhika Thera had extended their cooperation in the smooth functioning of the activities of the welfare centre, Ven. Polwatte Vanshika Thera said.

Displaced people from Kahawa, Godagama, and Akurala came to Shetrarama Pirivena, Weheragoda, Kahawa as it is the nearest temple situated on a safe area in close proximity to the above mentioned highly devastated coastal villages along the Galle road.

The Chief Incumbent of Shetrarama Tample, Ven. Welivitiya Dhammaloka Thera joined a rescue team and paddled along the gushing water in search of people washed away by the waves. The Ven. Thera and his rescue team could save 10 persons including a Japanese national.

These people were found on trees submerged by the water, the Ven. Monk said. On their way to Kuruppukanda Temple at Godagama, they found several bodies of the dead. The body of late Major Sri Nath was recovered and brought with difficulty to Kuruppukanda Temple.

In the morning of 27th Ven. Thera went to Peraliya accompanied by the police. The rail track of Peraliya where the train accident took place was under water. This Monk was one of the first to reach the place of the train tragedy. On reaching the ill fated train with the assistance of the youngsters several bodies of the passengers were brought out of the carriages and kept on the track, he said.

Referring to the condition of the dead, he said several passengers could have been rescued if reached on the 26th itself. Dr. J. N. Jayathilake, DMO Batapola Rural Hospital said he had sutured nearly 2,000 patients having cut injuries. Since 10.00 a.m. till 2.00 in the morning of December 27, 2004 Dr. Jayathilake had to keep awake treating patients.

Dr. Jayathilake's wife who is a retired teacher and several retired nurses at Batapola and others who could not attend hospitals volunteered to provide their assistance to cope up the situation of emergency.

Around 10.00 a.m. on 26th December, 2004, a small child of about 3 years was brought to Batapola hospital and after treatment he recovered. The second child brought to hospital was already dead Dr. Jayathilake said. Later, all who were brought to hospital numbering 300 already dead. Only three severely affected patients died in the hospital. The number of patients that reached Batapola Rural Hospital increased gradually up to 6,000.

Referring to one of the most touching incidents Dr. Jayathilake said a certain person brought his child of 2 years affected by the polluted water and left him in the ward and went back on a motor bike saying that he had to go back in search of his wife and another child.

Later his wife and the child came to hospital. The sick child was also cured. A few hours later Dr. Jayathilake could identify the body of the man kept on the compound of the hospital.

The man who left on a motor bike in search of his wife and child was caught by the second monstrous wave.

By 8.00 a.m. on December 27, 2004, there were 1,375 bodies lying in Batapola hospital and out of these 750 bodies were identified by the relatives. The remaining 625 bodies were buried in a mass grave at Kondagala, Dorala, Batapola.

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