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Tsunami - Sri Lanka
First-hand report

6 January 2005

by Russell Bowden
Honorary Fellow of IFLA
KOTTAWA, Sri Lanka

On Monday we visited the Mount Royal Hotel on the beach at Mount Lavinia where many of you and other friends stay and we walked the length of the beach. The wall between the Hotel's garden and pool and the railway line and the beach was flattened and the garden, pool and ground-floor rooms filled with mud and debris. On the beach nearly everything was flattened with only one restaurant left standing although damaged: otherwise nothing is left except debris. But debris the likes of which I've never seen. Not a whole roof or an entire brick and concrete wall but tiny unrecognisable pieces as the swirling waters smashed everything into smithereens. All this mixed with weeds, plastic and other rubbish. There remains nothing to salvage: only to bulldoze, clear and throw into rubbish dumps. Nothing left with which to rebuild.

On Tuesday we ventured a little further afield to where the road south begins and runs from Moratuwa to Panadura. Between it and the sea is the main railway line south to Gall and Matura filled with low cost housing and shacks of fisherman primarily. What was left? Nothing!! On both sides of the road (which had been bulldozed clear by the Army) nothing but tiny bits of splintered wood, tiny sheets of asbestos and a few bricks remaining concreted together, all draped in plastic vegetation etc. and piled metres high against buildings or posts that withstood the forces as the waters three times rushed in.

First at a few metres high then as it receded showing a bare sea bed never seen before (and onto which an adventurous few went to collect fish left dieing on the bared sea bed) only to return 15 to 20 metres (not feet!!) high and then recede and return again. In 30 minutes it was all over! All on a beautiful early morning with a clear blue sky cooled by the cooling Christmas breezes that blow at this time of year.

On the Wednesday I'd contacted some friends in Galle, 78 miles south who were inland and safe but short of food etc. We decided to venture down south, although the main Galle Road was uncleared, by driving on narrow minor country roads that meander inland from village to village and connect them and inland towns with those on the coast. Using a map and with excellent emergency signing put up by a Soya Bean company we drove through some beautiful scenery where we'd never visited before and arrived to find the family safe. After distributing the food we'd brought we ventured into Galle.

If you've been watching TV you will have seen the main Galle Central Bus Stand and the International Cricket Stadium under water with three girls being swept away as they failed to hold on to the bus stand. At first driving into the town all looks OK until there tell-tale piles of rubbish in drains and in gardens. Then it gets progressively worse as walls are washed away, then vehicles are plastered against houses and trees, then boats appear in gardens and houses and then there is nothing except this incredible debris where it is possible to recognise what had been a chair or a plastic bucket or a sink or a toilet until even these are so destroyed that nothing in the piles of debris can be recognized. This rubbish sometimes is metres high. It all stinks with that sweet smell of death and decaying bodies - by this stage rarely a few human mainly but dogs, cats, goats etc etc.

Galle had been particularly severely hit with the three waves each forced into two as the 16th century fort ramparts withstood the waves (inside it is scarcely damaged) and the floods were funneled into a small space opposite the railway station and directed down a canal into the centre of the town and carrying everything before it including the corber of an old Dutch building. The buildings facing the sea across the bus stand and the cricket ground and the Fort ramparts were the sieve that allowed the waters through but sifted out buses, cars, lorries, three wheelers, bicycles and boats all piled up two stories high against the Stanley Hotel and the newly-opened Cargill's Food City. All of this infiltrated with this unique tidal wave debris. The stench was unbearable. The waters exited down the three narrow main streets to the beaches on the south ripping open steel security shutters of shops and emptying the contents of TV's computers, hardware sacks of rice and dhal etc.etc. on the way. The Fish Market does not remain only the concrete floor. Opposite on the beach 13 ocean-going trawlers smashed together in a huddle!

The next day (Thursday and the fourth day after that on which the Tsunami arrived) we decided to visit Matura from where Mahesh's family come). We knew them all to be safe. To get there we again ventured deep into country lanes but again all extremely helpfully sign-posted and this time with Police, Army and Naval Security (protecting from looting) providing helpful advice. It was a slow journey because of the amount of traffic carrying food and aid collected by the TV stations and banks and voluntary bodies in Colombo and the undamaged areas. We visited places that I'd always wanted to see (but not in these circumstances) and eventually reached Matura to find it not too badly (relatively speaking!!) damaged in that the sea swept in across a newly and solidly-built bus stand to come into the river which quickly and conveniently flushed the waters back into the sea.

We drove along the coast road then being bulldozed clear to Weligama a beautiful small town at the cusp of a wide bay and open un-protectedly to the full force of the ocean waves. The town, half a kilometer inland, had been devastated with the now familiar sight of debris everywhere. The Rest House, where I and friends have stayed for the last nearly forty year stood, but all the doors ripped off the rooms and the bar and furniture all swept away. The garden had obviously been a sea-water pond although now it was all drained but the trees and plants (particularly jak and breadfruit) clearly hated sea water and the leaves were already yellow falling off onto the already terrible debris scattered everywhere. The statue of the Buddha facing the tidal waves, on the corner of the grounds protected by walls all now destroyed, sat serenely under the Bho Tree as it has always done and unscarred by the waters. (As an aside what has been truly amazing has been to see statues of "worthies", St George, Christ and the Virgin Mary and Buddhist dignatories and particularly alters to the Buddha almost all (with few exceptions) remaining entirely unscathed even though all around them and even next to them buildings etc had been washed away – obviously a message for those that wanted to search it out).

On to Unawattuna Bay where so many of us have swam and bathed. Milton's and Sea and Sand hotels on the corner of the Bay and beside the main road left as simple shells as the waves had entered at the front removing door and window frames and then swept out at the back onto the main road destroying the property walls on the way and depositing all that it had picked up on the way either on the road or through other buildings on the land side that it had also destroyed. From the ruins one could survey the entire length of the beach which, on the previous Christmas night had been the venue for beach parties and now with not a building remaining with a frontage undamaged. We visited the Unawattuna Beach Hotel where only three weeks earlier we had been trying unsuccessfully to book rooms for Liz and Moya, Brenda and M. and I. The restaurant on the beach lurching at 45 degrees but in the restaurant dirty glasses and bottles still remaining on the bar! The garden, ground floor rooms and pool were entire wrecks. [Incidentally not getting reservations at this hotel we'd gone further south to Attanagalle and found a beautiful small hotel wide open to the sea with a nice garden and pool and rooms with no steps at sea level. Now all the second floor rooms have unmade beds etc but at ground level nothing remains except the swimming pool filled with deep sea debris and dead crabs all stinking quietly in the sun. The Owner vowed to have it open in three months. I told him of our booking and the deposit we'd paid which he offered to pay back. I refused to take it!!] Incidentally the school at the entrance road to the Beach Hotel destroyed: not a building, not a piece of the four walls enclosing the large sports field left. We drove silently and somberly back to Ratna and Jaya's to bathe off the smells of death and have a couple of very strong arracks.

Yesterday [Friday and the fourth day after the disaster and (for the remainder of the world) New Year's Eve !!!!] we set off back to Colombo along the coast road the military said was clear. Everywhere, where the waters had hit, one saw this total devastation and strange debris created by these churning swirling waters. Hikkaduwa had to be approached from inland as the Police had closed the road because there had been reports of devastated people trying to stop and rob long-distance bus passengers. The waters had destroyed the station and railway lines lay twisted and bent and the level-crossing gates bent and twisted and a collection point for all types of rubbish. The first hotel had no back to it and the waters had washed out the window and door frames on the road side. In the garden battered against the crumbling back of the hotel were two ocean-going trawlers. The main canal emptying the paddy fields inland had served as the conduit for waves entering and destroying entirely the buildings beside it including the police station.

All hotels were the same. What is remarkable is the few numbers of foreigners that were drowned. Throughout the town buildings, even on the land side, were also damaged or destroyed. One man with only the windows washed out had opened and was displaying postcards to sell and (dry out in the sun) to the few foreign tourist wandering disconcertedly though the wreckage and rubble. Otherwise all was strangely silent and the all-pervasive smell of death. The entrance to the town no longer existed with the waters penetrating more than half a mile across the road and into the land utterly flattening walls and houses and then breaking the concrete and bricks into tiny pieces.

So it was for the remainder of the 60 mile journey back to Colombo. In places the waters had swept container lorries loaded with goods yards off the road where they now lay twisted and mangled and almost unrecognizable as vehicles. Cars, buses and lorries hung at odd angles from trees reminding one of those strange draped watches of Salvadore Dali. The railway lines swept hundreds of yards into fields or just hanging in mid-air where the embankment had been removed under it. (Incidentally the train that got swept of its tracks and the people drowned as they sat in their seats still has more than 100 bodies in it that have not yet been evacuated and buried).

If before the road beside the sea had been a tourists paradise and with views always to be remembered but occasionally blocked by hotels and bungalows and high walls or by trees and vegetation not so today. All have gone. The view is now uncluttered by houses and trees. If shops, restaurants and cafes and the cars parked in front of them sometimes blocked the road to cause traffic jams and road rage that is not so today. They too have been washed into the jungles, swamps or paddy fields behind them. The scars will take months and years to heal. Paddy fields have turned rust brown in colour as the salt water destroys the young paddy that had another couple of months before being ripe enough to harvest.

What I can never, never forget (and the images keep coming into the front of my attention like the clips of a movie before ones eyes) are the people. They sit or stand in groups beside the road on both sides looking for relief or food, or water or blankets or clothing or some form of help. I have read of traumatized people but I have never seen them like this. They sit and look into space. They know not where to start. (And if I were them neither should I). Everything is gone. Often family members dead and the bodies missing or buried (because of disease and the stench in mass graves – Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus Christians altogether death not recognising any particular burial requirements of individuals who have neither been recognized or have been made un recognizable. They have no boats (and many were poor fisher people), no houses, no shelter, no water (all the wells were inundated by sea water and are now contaminated with sewage), no ID cards and no money. They are completely destitute even of hope and ideas for any future.

However a most painful feature of all this is the stark and immediate contrast between these scenes of devastation and human misery and the remainder of the country. Drive through Kalutara and down the Galle road south and the houses on the sea side are prosperous and well kept and the towns towards Colombo have their super markets and Cargills' all open with Christmas lights on and decorations nicely displayed. BUT... One hundred yards behind is utter destruction and destitution. Where the waters didn't reach life goes on as before; where it did reach there is death, destruction, disease and no hope. Both exist in two entirely different worlds and only yards from each other.

Assistance there is but my observation is that it is primarily for those with enough energy to push and struggle for what is being given. What is being given is mainly contributed by individuals in the remainder of the country and distributed by well-meaning people (like us) who have driven down with goods or dry rations or even with cooked meals but the assistance is un-planned, uncoordinated and entirely inadequate given the sheer scale of the numbers suffering.

Those on the road get: those off the road or in areas still too difficult to reach and far from Colombo (whose needs are likely to be even greater because of their un-approachability) – don't. The Army and Forces have no doubt done excellent work in clearing aid routes, the Police too in halting looting but the Ministers ‘ponce' around in front of TV cameras and hold unending meetings in Colombo producing reports for the Media but NOTHING seems to be happening. I have seen no clear instructions, for instance, to deliver your aid to local authority officials or offices or to police stations. There appears to have been no orderly gathering of peoples into refugee centres in Temples, Mosques or Churches and no guidance to people on what to do. I have seen a report by a Lankan reporter suggesting that aid channeled through the governments agencies has already gone missing and been diverted to officals' family needs. Where the aid is from the UK, the US, Russia, China, Croatia, the French, the Belgians and many other countries one doesn't know.

One sees planes being emptied in the Katunayake Airport but I saw no signs anywhere on the hundred miles between Matara and Colombo of any of it being moved let alone being distributed to the needy. An opinion strongly shared by a Lankan colleague who made at least two visits south with a seasoned cameraman and reporter. In short: the ordinary man in the street, over the entire island, has responded and assisted magnificently but the Government (with the exception of the police and the armed forces and the telecom engineers, water board engineers and electricity supply people) seems still to be talking about what to do rather than DOING!!

Enough, I hope, to provide a sense of what is happening here from my experiences for all those of you who have been so kind as to communicate expressing your concerns for I and my friends.

A General Note to all Concerned Friends:
I and all friends, thankfully, are safe – although one or two had narrow escapes or suffered flooded houses, ruined TVs and radios etc. etc. My own house is 6 kilometres from the sea and built on high ground so absolutely OK. But what for all the other Lankans? Nothing – only indescribable damage.

Thank you most sincerely.

Russell Bowden
January 2005.

"As the Federation, we request our members to heed the urgent appeals for help and contribute in any way possible, through the national and/or international relief efforts that are being mobilized throughout the world. Library and information services specific needs for conservation, preservation and restoration will no doubt engage IFLA members urgently and for months to come as soon as information is received through various communication channels."

Kay Raseroka
President of IFLA