Sunday, 11 May 2008

Travel Journal #10: Tsunami

For most of the world the Boxing Day tsunami is slowly becoming a distant memory. Not in Sri Lanka. The country was badly hit by the waves and 35,000 people in the country were killed.

More than three years later the devastation caused by the tsunami is still very much present in the southwest of the country. There are still lots of debris along Galle Road (the main stretch of road following the coast linking Colombo and Galle.) Restoration is still being carried out in several areas but in some of them there isn't much to restore. Buildings destroyed by the tsunami can be seen everywhere along the coast, some of which are still inhabited.

Many countries have sent aid to Sri Lanka to help with the reconstruction. Several plaques can be seen next to reconstructed buildings and temples thanking foreign governments for funding the works.

Everybody around here seem to have lost someone on 26 December 2004, they all have their own tsunami stories to tell. I heard stories from some of those people. According to them the following is what happened.

When the tsunami wave was reaching Sri Lanka not much was noticed apart from an unusually high tide. In some areas, water covered Galle Road and reached the front step of houses closet to the beach. The water then suddenly receded about 1.5 km into the sea; the beaches were simply left without water. Fish were flapping their bodies in the empty ocean. It was the tsunami waves pushing everything towards India.

No one had never seen an empty ocean. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Large numbers of people walked to the beach to try and understand what was going on. A train on its way south from Colombo stopped on its tracks around Peralyia, a small fishing village about 20km north of Hikkaduwa. Some left the train and made their way to the beach to watch the unusual phenomenon. This lasted for about 15 minutes, just enough time for the tsunami waves to hit the southeast coast of India and come back.

It was then that people in Peralyia saw a huge wave coming. They ran for shelter in houses and trees. The lucky ones managed to get on rooftop of buildings. But most headed for the train. The wave hit and with it took some trees, most houses, and the train. When it receded a second time it dragged into the sea all but three train wagons. 1,519 people died in Peralyia, including 1,270 who were in the train.

On the way here I stopped at the tsunami memorial, built close to where the train had stopped. My tour guide was telling me he got called in to the tsunami afflicted area to help the survivors and the aid workers two days after the tragedy. He saw bodies and dead fish everywhere, some of them being devoured by stray dogs.

The debris and half demolished buildings seen all over the southwest coast are a haunting sight, impossible to go unnoticed and not easy to forget. They are a constant reminder of the tragedy (another one) the people of Sri Lanka had to endure that day.

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