17 Apr

Colombo & Tsunami

I like the little I know of Sri Lanka. Colombo seems more spacious and cleaner than other South Asian cities. It’s less crowded, and being near the sea helps. Last Thursday afternoon, I was shocked to travel just two or three miles south of Colombo along the Galle Road to spot evidence of the tsunami’s destruction. Colombo itself shows no signs, in fact I expected none, because it is so far in the lee of Sri Lanka, well in the shadow zone. On previous visits I stayed at a hotel on Galle Road, 400 metres from the beach, the railway line running between the hotel and the sea. A couple of miles further on we began to see shells of houses or piles of rubble just beyond that line. The minibus turned right off Galle Road, bumping closer to the sea between single storey dwellings. Then left onto a dirt track parallel to the shore, leading to the local harbour. On our right, fishermen and their families occupy a strip of land 100 metres across. A few days before the Chinese prime minister was here to inaugurate a project to restore this little harbour and a dozen others like it round the southern coast, so this village had been tidied up–as far as any devastation can be tidied up. It was late afternoon on a public holiday–New Year’s Day in Sri Lanka and southern India–but the men couldn’t work if they wanted to. A small group came over and explained how the waves came in, sweeping away houses, boats, nets, despite a substantial breakwater 800 metres from shore. Two families live in shacks next to the rubble of their homes, protecting their plots even though the government has banned rebuilding within 100 metres of the sea. That takes in all the land these and neighbouring families live on. “We have filled in the forms to get money for nets and boats,” says one man, “but we have had no money at all.” Only two children give full smiles as they stand with their mother for a photograph; the adults and older children have an air of sombre resignation–forms but no money. Further down the coast it’s worse, we know. One train carried hundreds down this line to be drowned. Today, deep grey clouds hover above an inland storm; the blackest of crows squabble in the coconut trees; the sea sparkles. On the way to this sad place, we saw a motor scooter and autorickshaw collide; on our way back, an errant pick-up truck brought mayhem to traffic returning to the city. Normal service has been resumed.

17 April, 2005