Special to Revolution
by Michael Slate
Revolution #3, May 22, 2005, posted at revcom.us
In March and April, Revolution correspondent Michael Slate traveled all over Sri Lanka, one of the places hardest hit by the tsunami of December 2004. Slate talked to many different people about the tsunami and the oppression and suffering that continue to unfold. This is the second in a series of reports by Slate that will appear in Revolution over the coming weeks.
The heart of the city of Galle is an old Fort built as an anchor for Dutch colonial rule in the 1600s. Over the centuries, the Dutch came and left as did the Portuguese and the British. But the Fort remains and inside its walls lie the center of tourism in Galle town and all the people who keep the tourist machine well oiled and running.
Just outside the walls of the Fort, on the back side of it, sits a large outdoor bus terminal and a haphazard marketplace where people sell boiled gram (a grain), fruits, King coconuts, vegetables, lunch packets, and deep-fried snacks. At night little oil-fueled torches light up the vendors' carts.
On December 26 all this was wiped out in a matter of minutes.
On the other side of the Fort is a small fishing beach. In the best of times 80 boats used to launch from this beach each evening and return again in the morning with the catch. An entire community has been built up around the work of the beach. The fishermen don't live on this beach but their lives are centered here. Equipment is stored in sheds that dot the beach. There are people who mend the nets and fix the engines. Some wield hammers, chisels, and long knives to carve catamarans out of tree trunks. Others repair the fiberglass day boats. Along the sides of the road fishmongers peddle the night's catch. The Fisherman's Association meets on this beach. The tsunami hit this beach hard.
We arrived at this beach just at the time the fishermen usually come back home from the sea. Instead of the 80 boats that would've come ashore few months earlier, now only a handful were being pulled up onto the sand. Crews of six to ten men strained every muscle on their arms, legs and backs as they leaned into logs laid across the width of the boat to provide leverage for pushing the boats up onto the beach. A work-gang chant provided the rhythm for their task; an old half-gallon plastic Coke bottle filled with water served as a roller underneath the boat to ease its path through the sand.
As soon as we arrived a group of fishermen gathered around. Linus, in his early thirties, spoke first. "We start fishing about 4 or 5 in the evening and end at about 9 or 10 the next morning. You can't say for sure what you will catch—sometimes you come back with 1500 rupees worth of catch and other times with nothing.
"When the tsunami came I was at the lighthouse and somehow managed to escape from that. There was a whole body of water that kept coming at us. After that I found my way to town and to this site here. We came to the site to recover whatever we could. None of our stuff was here. There were nets, machines, and boats all over the place. So we just tried to salvage what we could. Fourteen boats were completely lost and other boats were damaged, and people are trying to repair them."
Amin joined in, "I do a small boat. I leave in the evening and come back in the morning, that's how I live— catching fish. We were at home when the tsunami hit and when we heard the news we came here. Everything was gone. All of the sheds got washed away. My own boat got crushed there."
Amanthi, well into his forties, was the old man on the beach that day. He leaned back on one of the broken boats and told his story with a nervous laugh. "I was here when the wave hit. This is the remains of my boat. The wave hit and I climbed this tree, and then with the wave I swum over to the other tree. My intestines came out and I was in hospital."
Rahul, a net repairman, cut in here and told a story that rang in my ears a few weeks later as I sat talking with people inside Galle Fort. "I was seated here at this spot and I saw this wave of water coming. First I just saw everything being washed away. Then I looked at the sea and I saw this huge wave coming at me. I ran but the wave caught up with me. I tried to swim with the wave, trying to get up to some of those trees up there. Fortunately for me the wave went into the Fort and I was swept into the Fort where I was able to stand up and get out of the water. Then I was screaming for people to look out at what was happening. Now once a week I can do something, but nothing is reliable or steady. All these weeks there has been no income for me."
Galle Fort is a mammoth structure built to withstand anything and everything thrown at it. The walls of the Fort are 30 feet high and 15 feet thick, forming a formidable border between the poverty and desperation of the rest of Galle and the relative ease of the tourist and European expatriate community inside.
The Amangala Hotel, formerly the New Oriental Hotel, is the heart of the Fort. It is the oldest hotel in the country, built in the 1600s as the Dutch Governor's residence. After a major rehab job the hotel reopened in November 2004. Olivia, a British expatriate who fell in love with the old hotel and directed the rehabilitation of it, is now the manager. The hotel comes off a little like a bit of heaven—sitting on the veranda you can easily forget what the rest of Galle is like. The women and men who work there glide silently across the lobby and the hotel grounds, dressed in elegant colonial era gowns and suits.
Olivia invited us to lunch and told her story. "On the day of the tsunami I came early to work. It was Boxing Day. I was really annoyed to be at work nursing a hangover. We had guests in the hotel, and we were serving breakfast. In front of the hotel is a rampart wall with a 30-foot drop down to the fishing beach below us. Extraordinary noises, cracking sounds, were coming from the beach below the wall. We all ran from the veranda and looked over. The buildings below the wall—the sea was over the roofs of the buildings and the cracking was the roofs coming off. Boats and cars and people were sweeping towards the base of the wall. It was a surreal sight, hard to believe or understand. At the time I thought it was high tide or a drain had burst. I had no comprehension of what had happened.
"I have a house about 400 meters away, down at sea level, and my 14-year-old daughter was asleep on the ground floor there. So I ran towards there. There is an old gate through the Fort walls down at sea level and the water was coming through that like a huge fire hydrant, just shooting through, with cars and boats, and hitting the building opposite and flooding the lower part of the Fort. I did manage to telephone my daughter and tell her to get out of bed and get on the roof. But actually she was fine; the walls of the Fort protected her. These were built by the Dutch in the 17th century, and my house had no water in it. It is 10 meters from the beach. I did have a boat outside my front door. It came from outside the Fort, a kilometer down the street, and it took the U.S. Marines to move it two weeks later. At that stage, though, I was very unaware that this had happened everywhere, that it had affected the whole town. In the Fort at the time it seemed like a disaster to us but, in comparison to what had happened outside, we were really very unaffected. The walls saved us from that."
Olivia isn't an uncaring person. Nor is she intentionally oblivious about the world outside the walls of the Fort. She just hasn't had much interaction with it or knowledge of it. The relationship between life inside the Fort and the rest of Galle is an eerie shadow of the way the world is set up—so many people in the imperialist world blind to the lopsidedness imperialism enforces and what it means for the masses of people in oppressed nations.
The tsunami helped open Olivia's eyes. And once her eyes were opened she really strained to do what she could to help the people. She let volunteers crash at the hotel. She helped feed people and raised funds to help the fishermen replace their lost equipment or the local tuk-tuk driver replace his three-wheeler taxi.
"The first inkling that this was bigger than just here was a telephone call we had from friends who live in Tangalle, which is two hours south of here, going `Did that happen to you?' They already had information that there had been an earthquake, and this was the wave that came from that.
"People started gathering here. This is at the highest point of the Fort and so the community of the Fort all came here. We had thousands of people, cars—then people appearing from the town soaked, shocked and terrified. We realized we had to feed them. We had so many people here that day; we cooked for everybody, made tea, looked after them. Then a crazy German guy turned up and sat and played the piano—which was a real `playing while Rome burned,' but it calmed everybody.
"It wasn't until the morning of the next day that I walked out into the town. We had looked from the ramparts down and could see fishing boats and buses and water everywhere—in the middle of the cricket pitch, in places that they would normally never be. The next day I walked out and around to the bus station—those are the clips of film that I think everybody saw. The chaos and devastation—a place where you recognize things was gone. The guy who mended my shoes was gone. The fruit market was gone. The fish market was gone. The streets were devastated. There were cars in the second stories of buildings. I then went into complete shock.
"The initial reaction when we saw bodies in the water from here was to throw ropes over the walls to people. We tried to find things that would float to go and rescue people. The initial reaction is just to do—and for the first month afterwards it was just doing, doing things that you would never ever do and had never done before in your life and never thought you would do.
"I don't have a feeling of desperation. I'm here in the Fort, and here you can forget that it happened. Out there it is right there in front of you. But in the people we've helped and the livelihoods we've helped and the positive things we've done, it is giving people some hope."
Olivia recommended that we take another drive up the coast to the village/camp called Peraliya. She told us about a crew of volunteer doctors from Germany and Denmark who were working with some volunteers from the U.S. in a medical clinic set up as part of rebuilding after the tsunami.
We met Alison soon after we arrived in Peraliya. She's an Australian woman who was living with her boyfriend on the Upper Eastside of New York City when she saw the first reports of the tsunami on CNN. At one point Alison, who had been a nurse, felt she couldn't just sit in New York and passively watch so much suffering on TV. She and her boyfriend had spent the last few years making documentary films about the lives of people in rural areas of different African countries. Now they pulled together a small crew of friends, flew to Colombo, rented a van and loaded it up with food, other materials and medical supplies they brought from New York. They drove down the Coast highway and found Peraliya.
Alison has been in Peraliya since early January, and it is beginning to take a toll. She cries often during the day and worries that this is a sign she needs to take a break. But she feels she can't leave, there is still so much to do. As we talked Alison took us on a walk back to the lagoon and the river. Three months after the tsunami the signs of broken lives and death are all over this area. A white wedding dress on a hanger is laid out in one part of the lagoon. Suitcases and briefcases, belonging to both the villagers and the passengers on the tsunami-wrecked Queen of the Sea train, lay bent and broken open along the edges of the lagoon and sometimes partly submerged in it. Children's clothing and toys were tangled up in tree roots, as are notebooks with washed-out writing. In the middle of all this—in between the debris, the tree roots, and the swamp grass—every now and then bodies still surface.
"There was a 20-foot wave that came through this village and it went three miles inland. Even to this day I got 67 bodies this week, and there are still thousands in there. It's just too much to do, and the police have just given up on it. Once a day someone comes with a bagged body—they think I'm the body lady and they bring a tooth or a mouth or a leg or something.
"There are about 2,500 bodies buried on the beach across the street. They were deteriorating so fast and smelling and just totally unrecognizable so they had to bury them quick. The spot they chose is right in front of the beach and it's only about two feet deep and there are 2,500 bodies. And there are about 60 bodies over there at that spot. It's just too shallow. A few months ago Interpol came through, the Germans and the British, and they dug all the bodies up with bulldozers, looking for Europeans, to identify them. This is a very Buddhist area and it is disrespectful to dig up bodies again, and people were all very upset.
"We are just wondering what is going to happen to the bodies. They actually have to be moved to another spot. But if they are gonna do it, they better do it quick because they only have a few weeks. That ocean is going to come through there, and that can lead to a whole bag of other problems—disease and contaminated water."
Back inside the village clinic, Alison set about closing down shop for the day. All along one of the makeshift walls the staff had hung a series of children's crayon drawings about the tsunami. They were incredibly moving and impossible to look at without tearing up.
Alison sighed as she talked about one of the hardest things she had to do that day. "A lady came to me and she was crying and crying. She was a lovely lady, and she lost her daughter. She came to me and said that she knows that I have seen all the bodies and that I have been walking back there and finding bodies. She said that she had seen thousands and she said she saw everybody looking for her daughter. She asked if I remembered one with a denim skirt and she described what the child was wearing. What do you say? I tried to reassure her and told her to think that maybe that day a beautiful dolphin took her daughter away and now she's in a beautiful place. But she is obsessed with trying to find the body. And I understand that cuz I was at the World Trade Center when it came down and I collected about 67 bags of bodies and body parts. I went through a year working down there and all the relatives were trying to find their relatives and sometimes they would only find a finger. One day we found a heart sitting on a piece of metal, somebody's heart. And people were so happy just to get one little thing back, just for closure. But I don't remember...when I find the bodies these days, even though the organs are all still intact, the skull is unrecognizable. So I can't tell if it's her daughter or not out there. What do you say to them?"
Alison's question haunted me for quite some time. It was a question that would be asked time and time again as we pulled out of Galle and made our way east and north—to Ampara, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee—the places hardest hit by the tsunami.