SIMPLY drive from the east to the west coast; then you will see the difference and understand why we are angry,â€ a shopkeeper at Batticaloa told us.
With those words ringing in our ears, we set off on our six-day journey from the east coast district of Batticaloa along the coastline to Arugam Bay, around the scenic southern shores to historic Galle in the west and back to Colombo.
Our mission was to document the rebuilding of lives in this beautiful teardrop-shaped island that had lost 40,000 on Dec 26 last year.
Signs of poverty are everywhere around the under-developed east coast. Years of fruitless fighting between the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have led to a state of neglect and helpless frustration in the people.
V. Chatrakumal and his wife Tafurwani have to carry jugs of water twice daily to nourish close to 2,000 casuarina trees along the coastline in Thiruchendoor. The Batticaloa District Municipal Council planted the trees along the damaged coastline in hope that they will prevent more damage of future tsunamis. –Pic by Art Chen.
The tiny towns here resemble Kuala Lumpur 50 years ago. Rows of tightly-wedged shops sell everything from spices and rice to motorbikes. Passing herds of cows, bullock carts and ancient buses jam the dusty lanes. Red pillar-shaped letterboxes and phone boxes that have long been emptied of its coins are reminders of colonial presence.
Well water in Thiruchendoor is undrinkable as it is drawn from the salt-soaked earth. Broken concrete skeletons of homes dot the land, most with entire walls crumbled to the ground.
The Thiruchendoor Murugan Temple continues to draw devotees although its back portion remains sunken halfway into the sand.
Assistant priest S. Sabesau, 20, pointed to the tip of the tower where he had clung on for 10 terrifying minutes as the water flooded the land during the tsunami.
â€œAs the gods have spared my life, I will devote it to serving the temple,â€ he said.
Till past midnight, the Lake View Innâ€™s popular rooftop restaurant was rumbling with a boisterous party of youths singing in Tamil, English and Singhalese.
â€œThe youths have nowhere to hang out; there is no cinema, bowling alley or karaoke to keep them busy,â€ Selvarajah Ranjan, a Kalmunai district excise inspector informed us.
â€œWe have prayed for peace for years. With the accord signed in 2002, we are happy to get to play cricket and football in the evenings. Last time, the 7pm curfew prevented us from gathering after work.â€
Batticaloa Municipal Commissioner Saravanamuthu Navaneethan told us that similar to the situation in Aceh, Indonesia, re-housing was a problem due to the lack of land as whole villages were washed away.
All that remains of the once vibrant Sainthamaruthu village are broken concrete and empty doorways. –Pic by Chin Mui Yoon.
A government-ordered 100m or 200m no-build buffer zone has created additional confusion. To help the people, Navaneethan added, the council has exempted the people from paying tax the whole year.
Thousands are still living in camps where home is in tents and transitional homes of barracks or crude wooden huts.
We decided not to go north to Trincomalee, as it was still controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
â€œYou had tea with the Tigers but you didnâ€™t know,â€ said our dependable driver Thomas after we emerged from a meal of delicious string hoppers and curries at an old restaurant north of Batticaloa.
There is simmering resentment beneath the seeming calm as people feel development has been far more efficient in the Singhalese areas in the west coast.
â€œThe Ampara district is the worst affected in Sri Lanka with over 10,000 deaths and 183,000 homeless. Yet not even 10% of the people have got their houses back,â€ seethed a teacher, M. Azmi, 26, after accompanying us to a Muslim camp for 4, 000 displaced residents of the former fishing village of Nintavur.
â€œI drove to Galle and there were so many construction projects. Why donâ€™t we see more rebuilding here? The people are just wasting away in the camps with no work and livelihoods.â€
Travelling south along the coastline, Sri Lankaâ€™s natural beauty is apparent even in between the sad sights of flooded wastelands and villages reduced to ghost towns.
The road is often sandwiched between emerald padi fields and forests. Herds of shiny black buffaloes crossing rivers and the many elephant corridors point to the abundant wildlife here.
We chanced upon fishermen diving into lagoons, and some casting glittering saris into the water to haul in small fish to sell for a few cents.
Heavily armed soldiers manning sandbag-barricaded checkpoints often stopped us for queries. Despite the visible armed presence everywhere in the east, we felt no sense of danger.
Crowds of beggars, many of whom were children and the elderly, encircled us whenever we stopped at little towns for a break.
The road conditions often had us tossed up against the van ceiling or flung forward each time Thomas braked to allow cows crossing ahead. It was impossible to drive without keeping a finger on the horn.
The people here may be poor but they are certainly not deprived of friendliness or kindness. Thomas must have stopped a hundred times to ask for directions. A simple call of thambi (little brother) instantly drew a smiling passerby to his aid.
While stopping to photograph fishermen on a bridge at Pottuvil, our van stalled and traffic was forming behind us. Without a word, several men hopped off the bus behind and began pushing the vehicle. They ran off before we could say thanks.
As we travelled south towards Hambantota, the roads became smoother. Dusty lanes gave way to tarred ones and the pastoral landscape changed into one of Sri Lankaâ€™s glorious beaches of slender coconut trees.
In Galle, we met a lad who happily pointed out his little tree house along the beach that had been his home for six months. Tired of the hot conditions in his tent shared with five siblings, he salvaged wooden planks and plastic sheets to form a shelter in the open branches of an old tree.
A lot of people have become fearful of the ocean. But many have no choice but to continue turning to the sea to sustain their lives.
Sri Lanka is a land of fascinating beauty where each stunning sunset is only rivalled by tomorrowâ€™s masterpiece. But so much sadness and tragedy lie amidst this beautiful land.
It wasnâ€™t the historic buildings or the rock fortresses, but the peopleâ€™s zeal for life that made us long to return here in hope that 2006 will usher in a better tomorrow for them.
|Â HomePage||Malasian Star|