You are on page 1of 4

January 5, 2005


Fearing a Sea That Once Sustained, Then Killed


AMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka, Jan. 4 - "A cemetery," R. G. Jayadasa said, explaining what he sees when
he looks out at the sea.

Mr. Jayadasa, 52, had come, like many others, to the edge of this southern town on Tuesday to stare at the
waves rolling in. But between him and the water there was a new, studied distance that was more than just

He pointed to where the tsunami had rewritten the coastline, tracing curves in place of a straight edge. It
seemed to reflect the way the murderous surge also rewrote, perhaps permanently, the covenant between the
people of this island nation and the sea that surrounds it.

"Now people hate the sea - they hate it," said Dudley Silva, an irrigation engineer in Matara, of a population
who until Dec. 26 liked nothing better than a sea bath on a Sunday. On Monday, he said, he had seen a
woman standing and cursing the ocean, waving her arms in fury.

Of the countries affected by the tsunami, none has suffered proportionately more devastation than Sri Lanka,
with 30,000 people reported killed out of a population of just 19.5 million. (Indonesia has three times as
many dead, but it has more than seven times the population.) In Indonesia, India and Thailand, the damage
was largely confined to one geographical area, while 70 percent of Sri Lanka's 830-mile coastline was swept
by the roiling waters.

For fishermen, hotel keepers and all the others who live and work along the coasts, there is a toll beyond lost
lives, homes and livelihoods. There is the new psychological strain of being surrounded by, and still
dependent on, a force that proved so merciless. It took Sri Lanka's civil war 18 years to kill 64,000 people. In
under an hour, the tsumani killed almost half that many.

Subakean Albino, a fisherman, first heard the ocean's calming rhythm when his mother gave birth to him in a
beachfront house 70 years ago. Throughout his adult life, he rose at 3 a.m. and paddled out across the sea's
inky surface, hoping it would provide. On most afternoons, he thanked it for nourishing him and his family.

In Mullaittivu, his fishing town on the northern coast, home to roughly 5,000 people, Hindus worship the sea
as a goddess who provides for her people. Christians like Mr. Albino dab sea water on their foreheads and
eyelids, and pray to the Virgin Mary and St. Anthony, who is believed to have the power to ward off

Churches and temples were built along the shore, allowing people to consecrate milestones like birth,
marriage and death as the surf rolled in. "We played in the sea, we bathed in the sea," said Selva Malar, a 23-
year-old whose name means Rich Flower. "We loved the sea."
In the 1980's, fighting between the Sri Lankan government and ethnic Tamil rebels flared in the area,
prompting many to flee. One was Ms. Malar, who fled to India but found herself far from the ocean.

"We used to go to a church several miles away, near the shore," she said, "just to feel like it was home."

The deep familiarity with the sea is one of the reasons many people remain so bewildered by the tsunami,
which struck on Dec. 26. Sellakandu Selvanayagam, a 71-year-old matriarch, said she could sense when the
weather shifted and the ocean became dangerous. But both she and other longtime coastal residents said they
had no inkling that Sunday that a tsunami was approaching.

"This time we were taken by surprise," she said.

Ms. Selvanayagam was swept away by the first wave and managed to survive by clinging to a mango tree.
Her brother and all seven of his children died.

Mr. Albino ran to safety, but two of his grandchildren were not so lucky. Their mother, Bamini, 29, had left
her children, a 6-year-old daughter and a 6-month-old son, at home and had gone to have a skirt mended by
a neighbor. She was walking home when the first wave hit. She tried to dash to her house but was pushed
inland like a rag doll.

"I got carried away," she said. "I never saw the children."

On Tuesday, Mr. Albino wept when his daughter told the story. He wept as his three daughters clung to each
other for comfort, the children's two aunts pleading, "Come back to me, please come back to me, I am your
big auntie."

In other parts of the town, entire families were wiped out, with one man losing 25 relatives, according to
survivors. On other parts of the coast, whole villages disappeared. In all, 3,000 people are believed to have
perished in a matter of minutes in Mullaittivu and in surrounding villages.

Mr. Albino talks of the sea as if it were part person, part god.

"We see it as a mother," he said of the force that has been his lifelong companion. "Our mother has punished

In Telwatta, in Galle district, the hubris of naming a train the Queen of the Sea became clear at around 9:20
a.m. on that Sunday, when the first wave came rushing in. The water reached the windows of the southbound
express train, which had halted at the village, before receding an unnatural distance back into the sea.

The next wave came with such force that it lifted the train off the tracks and lifted the tracks off the ground. It
left the nine cars scattered far apart, some on their sides, as if a child had thrown down his toy train in a fit of

An estimated 1,200 people died on the train, but the counting is not yet finished. On Monday, eight days after
the tsunami, two of the cars had yet to be lifted to unearth the bodies beneath.

No outsiders are here helping. The Sri Lankan police and army and railway engineers work alone, watched by
desolate civilians. Their effort is a study in the frustrations of limited equipment and unprecedented disaster.
Three earthmovers piled dirt next to a toppled car, trying to fill a watery hole so heavy-lifting machinery
could approach. A crane struggled to raise the engine chassis, failed, struggled again.

Nearby, relatives of R. G. and Milina Jayasinghe watched. The couple, teachers, had boarded in Colombo in
economy class to go see relatives in Tangalle, in the south. Mr. Jayasinghe had been a champion swimmer,
his son said. It did him no good.

On Monday, workers found his yellow laminated identity card from Ananda College in Colombo. Of his wife
there was no trace.

The relatives and onlookers gathered to watch the search, and blamed their government for not getting rescue
workers to this site faster. They blamed the United States and other countries for not warning Sri Lanka of
the coming tsunami.

Indra Gamaga's home was right near where the train had stopped. It had taken the family 17 years of work
and saving to build. Now it is gone, among the hundreds here flattened to their foundations, as is the air-
conditioned bus that provided their income. Her husband is hospitalized with chest and leg pains and a
suddenly inconstant memory.

She had returned Monday for the first time to where her home once stood, finding her gold chain in the
rubble. The visit made her weep, and made her sure that she would never go back there, or anywhere near the
water, to live. The image of so many bodies had lodged in her mind, transposed with the image of the sea.

That evening, at a Buddhist temple where she had gone to collect relief supplies, she clutched three lavender
pillows to her chest. A shudder, visible even in the darkness, passed through her.

The train had been bound south for Matara, on the south coast. There, Our Lady of Matara Church sits just
across a narrow road from the sea, which can be seen out the front door. On the morning of Dec. 26, the Rev.
Charles Hewawasam was just beginning to give Holy Communion when at the sound of a young woman's
shout, he looked up and saw a van wobbling directly toward the church.

So strong was the glare and so strange the image that he did not see the water that was propelling the van
forward. He yelled to his congregation to run, and only when he had reached the top floor of a new building
next door did he realize it was the sea that had come at them.

The pastor ran back downstairs to try to save the 18-inch statue of Mary and Baby Jesus that had made the
church a nationwide pilgrims' destination. It was already gone, and as he searched, another wave, and
another, slammed into the church and the surrounding buildings.

He survived, but the nun who had been giving communion with him died. So did 17 congregants, with an
18th still missing.

The statue, too, survived, miraculously. History, or legend, has it that the statue first came from the sea, when
it was found by fishermen 500 years ago. It was lost twice after that, once in a ship wreck en route to Europe
to be painted and again on the way back, when it was misplaced. It was found both times, and again now,
three days after the tsunami, in a garden. "She came from the sea," Mr. Hewawasam said. "She knows how to

In Hambantota's lagoon, instead of the harvest of fish in the winter and salt in the summer, an army boat is
trolling for bodies from a submerged bus. When L. B. Susanthe walks the 10 feet from his house to the
lagoon's edge, he sees clumps of black hair and a piece of a foot beneath the water.

The wave that smashed like a steamroller through Hambantota's Sunday market and the neighborhood beyond
deposited hundreds of bodies in the lagoon. Eighty more bodies were found on Tuesday, local officials say,
bringing the total recovered in the district to 2,449, with 1,979 people still missing. [Later estimates put the
death toll at 4,500.]
Mr. Susanthe's aunt, who went to the market on the morning of Dec. 26 and never came back, is among them.

Near the edge of the lagoon on Tuesday, dazed families wandered in search of bodies they would never
recognize. One woman, whose house sat between the sea and the lagoon, lost her 4-month-old daughter, her
7-year-old son, her husband and her mother. Two relatives walked with her, each holding an arm.

Mr. Susanthe's house of almost 20 years was left largely undamaged, but his family is planning to move
nonetheless. This winter the lagoon gave not fish but bloated bodies. Who, he asked, wants to wait for
summer and the harvest of bones?

Amy Waldman reported from Hambantota, Telwatta and Matara, Sri Lanka, for this article, and David Rohde
from Mullaittivu.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top

Related Interests