imprisonment: The twilight of freedom?
By G.L. Peiris
It was the English political
philosopher, Edmund Burke, who made the apt comment that all
that is required for the triumph of evil is that men and women
of goodwill do nothing.
'Evil' must surely include the dilution, and....
month: no relief for victims
children return to school
month after the monster
Emperor's new clothes By
sunshine amidst the sorrow
imprisonment: The twilight of freedom?
By G.L. Peiris
It was the English political
philosopher, Edmund Burke, who made the apt comment that
all that is required for the triumph of evil is that men
and women of goodwill do nothing.
'Evil' must surely include the dilution, and the
eventual disappearance, of freedom in all its
The history of human civilisation, in a
variety of cultures straddling the globe, demonstrates
beyond doubt that the spirit of liberty seldom, if ever,
is extinguished overnight.
Each inroad is tentative and cautious; its impact
However, the process of erosion, once begun,
moves forward, often by imperceptible degrees until, in
the fullness of time, it reaches its culmination.
The only durable safeguard against this
is heightened public awareness leading to increased
public involvement. It is this practical truth that is
enshrined in Harold Laski's prophetic observation that
"eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
It is my belief that, throughout the
annals of freedom in our land, illuminated by such inspiring
judgments as that of the Supreme Court in the Bracegyrdle
case, one of the gravest setbacks is represented by the recent
judgment of the Divisional Bench of the Supreme Court in S.B.
Dissanayake's case. It is of overriding importance, I am
convinced, that not only those dealing in one way or another
with the law but the public at large should have knowledge of,
and sensitivity to, the issues involved in this judgment.
I proceed to offer, in question and
answer form for convenience, a simple and succinct analysis of
the implications of this judgment which constitutes a
regrettable blemish on Sri Lanka's proud legal system.
1. What is the effect of the judgment
of a Divisional Bench of the Supreme Court in S.B.
The National Organising Secretary of
the largest political party in the opposition in Sri Lanka's
parliament, an elected member of parliament and one of his
party's most effective strategists and speakers in the
sovereign legislature and in the country at large, is doing
hard labour for two years in
This fate has befallen him because of
certain words which he used in the course of a political
speech, expressing a view that had been adopted as formally
declared policy by the political party in which he held high
office. In fact, the gist of the impugned statement consisted
of a principle which had been explicitly endorsed by the
parliamentary group of the United National Party prior to its
articulation in a public speech by S.B. Dissanayake.
This is the first time a member of
parliament and a senior office-bearer of a political party has
been imprisoned in our country for contempt of court; and the
conviction and sentence are in respect of a statement made at
a public rally, which was held by the Divisional Bench to have
the effect of "scandalising the court." This was the
substantial basis for S.B. Dissanayake's imprisonment.
2. What is meant by "scandalising
the court" and is this idea useful or appropriate today?
"Scandalising the court" is
one of the forms of contempt of court, liability for which is
intended to provide legitimate protection within defined
limits for courts of law in the exercise of their
It is clearly recognised in all legal
systems that a court of law has power to punish for an act of
contempt committed in the court itself (for example, abusing
the judge while he is on the bench, threatening counsel or
making a disturbance which interferes with the proceedings) or
outside (for instance, intimidating witnesses or tampering
with evidence) if the latter category of act impedes the
administration of justice. But the concept of "scandalising
the court" has been frowned upon in modern democratic
societies as archaic, authoritarian and indeed harmful.
3. Is there clear judicial authority
characterising the notion of "scandalising the
court" as undemocratic and out of line with modern
There is. More than a century ago, the
Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which was then the
highest judicial tribunal for the entire Commonwealth, said
that "committals for contempt of court by scandalising
the court itself have become obsolete." In keeping with
this view, no such proceedings have been successfully
instituted in England for at least 65 years.
4. Why is it that courts throughout the
democratic world, in sharp contrast with the approach of the
Divisional Bench in S.B. Dissanayake's case, have been
inclined to consign the concept of "scandalising the
court" to the dustbin of legal history?
This has happened because of the
manifest acknowledgement that the idea of "scandalising
the court" has a chilling effect on the right to freedom
of expression. This has been aptly described as "the
matrix of all human freedom" and is entitled to firm
entrenchment in all societies which genuinely cherish the
spirit of liberty.
"Scandalising the court" is an outmoded idea
which inhibits the fundamental right to freedom of speech and
expression which has received pride of place in such landmark
international instruments as the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and
5. But in order to preclude impairment
of its stature and to ensure retention of the esteem and
regard of the Sri Lankan community, wasn't the Divisional
Bench justified in resorting to the notion of "scandalising
the court" as a source of protection?
Respect in all relationships, private
or public, has to be earned.
It cannot be demanded or compulsorily exacted. Respect
is either spontaneous and therefore of intrinsic value; or
coerced and consequently a mere sham.
It is well to fortify ourselves with
the practical wisdom pervading an Australian judgment:
"Public institutions in a free society must stand
upon their own merits; they cannot be propped up if their
conduct does not command the respect and confidence of the
community. If their conduct justifies the respect and
confidence of the community, they do not need the protection
of special rules."
6. The Divisional Bench thought it
proper to send S.B. Dissanayake to prison for two years
because of "a vituperative and slanderous tirade"
directed against the court.
Wasn't that a natural and legitimate reaction?
Not if the standards set, and the
criteria applied by courts in modern democracies are taken as
Michael Foot, as prominent at the
relevant time in the Labour Party of Britain as S.B.
Dissanayake is today in the UNP, poured verbal vitriol on a
celebrated judgment of Lord Denning, one of England's most
revered judges, and indeed described Lord Denning as an ass.
A leading British newspaper, The Observer, carried an
article with the banner headline:
"Why Denning is an Ass."
Lord Denning, far from contemplating the imprisonment
of first rank politicians and journalists on the ground of
"scandalising the court", professed himself capable
of accepting such harshly expressed criticism with poise and
If further examples of informed and
enlightened judicial attitudes are required, a Canadian
judgement furnishes an even more telling illustration. At the
conclusion of a bitterly contested trial in Ontario, counsel
representing the unsuccessful litigant threw decorum to the
winds to such an extent as to proclaim that litigating in that
jurisdiction is a "charade" because the judiciary is
"warped" and "the courts and the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police are sticking so close together you would think
that they were put together with Krazy Glue."
Not even strictures of this severity
were considered by a court upholding liberal values to warrant
the sanctions imposed on S.B. Dissanayake by Chief Justice
Sarath Silva and his bretheren on the Divisional Bench.
7. But, whatever the applicable
authority may be, is it right in principle to leave the
highest court in Sri Lanka exposed to criticism which it
purports to find slanderous and hurtful?
In the setting of a hierarchy of values
suitable for a modern democratic society, the sensitivity of
judges must yield to higher concerns relating to freedom of
expression, the right to articulate dissent and the role of
the opposition in a parliamentary democracy.
The jarring note struck by the
Divisional Bench, and its far-reaching onslaught on the
foundations of freedom, are all too evident when one
considers, by way of refreshing contrast, two salient points
persuasively made by courts in modern democratic societies.
The first is that, because of the
inherent importance of the functions discharged by the courts,
they cannot but be the focus of adverse comment and criticism,
not all of which can be reasonably expected to be
"sweetly reasoned or well-founded".
There is an overriding need for tolerance and
"The courts are not fragile flowers that will
wither in the hot heat of controversy".
The second consideration is that
criticism, to be regarded as permissible, does not necessarily
have to be correct in substance, tenor and perspective.
In the words of the Privy Council, "the path of
criticism is a public way; the wrong headed are permitted to
err therein. Justice is not a cloistered virtue."
Tolerance of excess, in other words, is a necessary part of
the price to be paid for preserving the vigour and vitality of
core democratic freedoms.
8. In the swirling mist enveloping the
issues in S.B. Dissnayake's case, we have perhaps lost sight
of the essential question relating to the nature of the
wrongdoing imputed to him. What was it, precisely, that he was
sent to prison with hard labour for?
The backdrop to this consists of a
sequence of events which are overtly and intensely political
The constitution of Sri Lanka empowers
the president to refer questions of law or fact of
considerable public importance to the Supreme Court for an
opinion which the court is required to express after an
President Kumaratunga purported to
invoke the consultative jurisdiction conferred on the Supreme
Court by this provision, in a situation where she wished to
take over the defence portfolio from Tilak Marapana, PC, who
had been designated to hold this portfolio by former Prime
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who commanded a majority in
parliament at that time.
The gist of the question referred to the Supreme Court
for its opinion was whether powers and responsibilities
subsumed in the presidential prerogative, defined in the
relevant provisions of the constitution, obligated the
President to hold the defence portfolio herself.
While the court was deliberating on
this issue, S.B. Dissanayake, in a public speech made a
statement, the gravamen of which was that an opinion given by
the Supreme Court in the exercise of its consultative
jurisdiction had no binding force and need not necessarily be
If S.B. Dissanayake erred in expressing
this view, so did the attorney general of the republic and
President's Counsel, K.N. Choksy, among other legal
The former, in his submissions in the Supreme Court in
proceedings involving the special determination on the Tax
Amnesty Law, specifically and emphatically supported the view
which received expression in S.B. Dissanayake's speech. The
latter, in a statement which he issued to all media under his
own name as Minister of Finance during the closing stages of
the parliamentary election campaign in 2004, stated exactly
the same view.
What is more, this was (and is) none other than the
view of the UNP officially adopted at a meeting in the
precincts of parliament by its parliamentary group and
therefore a view that S.B. Dissanayake, as a member of that
party, was both entitled and required to articulate on its
The Divisional Bench was at great pains
to insist that this view about the legal effect of a
consultative opinion, was wrong.
This is wholly irrelevant.
It is certainly not the law that a major public figure,
expressing a controversial view on a matter of public
importance at a political rally, is entitled to protection
against imprisonment for contempt of court, only if he
succeeds in persuading the court which subsequently tries him
for contempt, that the view he expressed is worthy of
acceptance by that court as the correct view.
Such a proposition has only to be
stated for its absurdity, and indeed its daunting
consequences, to become apparent.
The essential point is that, having regard to positions
which had been taken in public contexts on this identical
issue by leading personalities in the law, S.B. Dissanayake, a
layman, had no reason to believe, at the time he made the
impugned statement, that the view he was expressing was
incorrect, let alone perverse. If only correct views on legal
matters can be publicly expressed by politicians and others,
the parameters of public discourse in our country, or indeed
anywhere else, will be uninvitingly narrow.
9. But doesn't that comment overlook
the fact that S.B. Dissanayake's speech was couched in abusive
language and, in particular, that he used a pejorative
expression that would necessarily have been expected to cause
offence to the court?
This circumstance has no bearing
whatever on incidence of liability for contempt of court.
Nothing is more definitely settled in the governing law
than that mere abuse or vituperation, by itself, does not
amount to contempt of court. The greatest latitude has been
shown by judges in modern democracies in permitting the
expression of views, however intemperate or extravagant, on
public issues. It has been emphasised repeatedly that contempt
of court cannot be resorted to justifiably as a shield to
buttress the ego or the self-esteem of judges. These factors
must succumb to the primacy of interests pertaining to the
indispensable right of expression and dissent.
10. In that case, if abusive remarks,
on their own, do not constitute good and sufficient grounds
for meting out punishment for contempt of court, what is the
additional element required for penal consequences to follow?
The superadded requirement
pertains to the integrity of processes involving the
administration of justice.
The cardinal component of the requisites of liability
for contempt of court is that the impugned statement should
have the effect, either generally or in a particular case, of
impeding the smooth and effective administration of justice by
tending to diminish the esteem in which the court is held by
the community, or in some other material way.
11. How is this requirement to be
applied to the circumstances of S.B. Dissanayake's case?
The only possible substantial complaint
in this situation is that of perceived usurpation by an
unauthorised person of the court's inalienable function. The
bench of five judges were giving their minds to the
Presidential reference and had not yet transmitted their
opinion on the Defence Ministry issue at the time S.B.
Dissanayake made the impugned observations. These remarks
could validly have attracted liability for contempt of court
only on the basis that they were open to reasonable
construction as a hindrance to, or obstruction of, the course
This would have been the case if the
statement attributed to S.B. Dissanayake was of such a nature
as to induce in the public mind, in all the circumstances of
the case, the perception that there was a real danger of the
court's function being usurped, by some form of duress or
intimidation, by the maker of the impugned statement.
The test stipulated in this regard by the law is that
this danger must be serious and imminent, not merely remote or
In S.B. Dissanayake's case it certainly
made a difference that the Presidential reference was being
deliberated upon not by a jury but by a bench comprising five
judges of the Supreme Court.
The rationale underpinning this difference is that
trained judges are much less likely than a jury consisting of
laymen to be swayed or deflected from the discharge of their
proper function by statements of the kind made by S.B.
Dissanayake. Consequently, on account of the high degree of
improbability of damage inflicted on the administration of
justice by the utterance of S.B. Dissanayake, his conviction
for contempt of court is unwarranted in principle.
12. Granting all that has been said so
far, is there any compelling reason why the general public
should regard the conviction of S B Dissanayake, and the
sentence passed on him as a matter of direct concern to them?
Isn't it simply a question of a politician, however
prominent in the public life of the country, taking a
calculated risk and paying the penalty in terms of the loss of
his own freedom?
The issues involved far transcend the
anguish and tribulations of an individual.
The reasons for intensity and continuity of involvement
on the part of society at large are both urgent and
Basic features of the proceedings in
the Supreme Court in S.B. Dissanayake's case entail immediate
jeopardy to core values which form the bedrock of the
protection accorded to defendants in all criminal trials in
our country. One of the most fundamental among these values is
the undisputed right of an accused person to remain silent and
to refuse steadfastly to contribute in any way to the proof of
his own guilt.
Firmly entrenched principles regulating the burden of
proof require the prosecution, if they can, to establish in
their entirety the ingredients of liability without reliance
on any response or evidence to be obtained from the accused
Nevertheless, surprisingly and indeed
distressingly, Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva directed the
registrar to read out the impugned statement, sentence by
sentence, to S.B. Dissanayake who was then ordered to declare
whether he uttered each word, phrase and sentence.
This procedure, totally incompatible with the privilege
against self-incrimination and the presumption of innocence -
pivotal principles which govern all criminal proceedings -
amounted to a clear travesty of justice.
t represented cavalier dismissal of received wisdom
which had nurtured the development of the law over centuries.
The chosen procedure had the effect of rejecting, with disdain
and obviously with inadequate appreciation of the seminal
issues involved, a whole range of levers and mechanisms which
had been designed by successive generations of judges to
ensure justice and fairplay in criminal proceedings.
On any objective appraisal, it signified the low water
mark in the judiciary's commitment to the cause of freedom in
If the public remains insensitive to
the implications of this anomaly, it does so at its own peril.
The inescapable reality is that flawed judicial action,
wittingly or unwittingly weakening the foundations of freedom,
is fraught with as much danger as, if not even greater danger
than, executive caprice or excess.
So destructive a trend, initiated by the judgment, may
be difficult or even impossible to control at a subsequent
stage, once acquiescence becomes established.
13. Leaving aside sanctity of legal
principles contravened by the judgment, can it be supported at
least from the standpoint of common sense or reasonableness?
Unfortunately, the judgment is just as
vulnerable in this sense as it is on the ground of
unjustifiable departure from hallowed principle. The palpable
unreasonableness of the approach adopted by the court can be
demonstrated by asking two simple questions:
Can any politician who, like S.B. Dissanayake, delivers
several public speeches a day as part of his accustomed
routine, possibly recall every word, sentence or phrase which
he is said to have used in a speech made by him several months
ago? If not, is it at all consistent with everyday notions of
justice and equity to require a politician in that category to
declare the authenticity of the words he used, and on pain of
conviction and imprisonment, to accept or repudiate
responsibility for each word, phrase or sentence?
14. Even if the judgment is exposed to
criticism on the basis that its underlying premises are not in
harmony with the cultural ethos of a modern democratic
society, must it nevertheless be accepted as a lawful judgment
having the force of law?
The judgment is not even lawful, in the
sense that some of its salient conclusions are demonstrably
contrary to provisions of statute law which it was bound to
Judges are not above the law.
Courts of justice, even when they operate at the apex
of the country's judicial system, must necessarily act within
the borders of their jurisdiction. If they overstep these
bounds, their orders, decrees, and judgments are null and void
in the eyes of the law.
In S.B. Dissanayake's case the
Divisional Bench purported to pass sentence in reliance upon a
constitutional provision which referred to
"imprisonment" as one of the forms of punishment
which the court was empowered to mete out. The meaning of
"imprisonment" in the sense in which it is used in
this constitutional provision, has to be ascertained by
reference to the Interpretation Ordinance.
The applicability of the latter in this context is made
clear by provision contained in Section 2 of that Ordinance.
The word "imprisonment" in
the constitutional provision under which S.B. Dissanayake was
sentenced, is defined by Section 2 (x) of the Interpretation
Ordinance as having the meaning of "simple
imprisonment." However it was a sentence of rigorous
imprisonment, and not one of simple imprisonment, which the
Divisional Bench purportedly imposed on S.B. Dissanayake.
It follows that the court, in passing
the sentence which it professed to do, exceeded the
jurisdiction which the constitution conferred upon it. The
inevitable consequence of this is voidness in contemplation of
law. S.B. Dissanayake, then, is doing hard labour in Welikada
prison only because the court acted in disregard of a
statutory provision, by which it was mandatorily governed.
15. Quite apart from the legality of
the sentence, was two years' imprisonment with hard labour a
proportionate sentence in S.B. Dissanayake's case?
A member of parliament and general
secretary of a leading political party who asserted in a
public speech that if the leader of his party lost the
presidential election, this could only be because of a
pre-judgment on the part of the court, was admonished but not
imprisoned for a single day for contempt of court. A newspaper
which published the speech, was treated with equal leniency.
With one recent exception which has
attracted trenchant criticism both here and overseas, no one
has been imprisoned in Sri Lanka for contempt of court more
than a quarter of the period of the sentence imposed on S.B.
Dissanayake. In several cases the contemnor, upon conviction,
suffered no other discomfort than being admonished and sent
A perceived inequality of treatment in
respect of a matter so vital as the severity of a custodial
sentence is injurious to the court's stature because of the
paramount need for consistency and uniformity of approach. A
significant consideration in this regard is encapsulated in
Lord Hewart's celebrated dictum that justice must not only be
done, but must manifestly and apparently be seen to be done.
16. Finally, what is the most
disturbing aspect of the judgment and the sentence in S.B.
Dissanayake's case for Sri Lankan society, as a whole?
The crucial need is to rid ourselves of
a sense of complacency arising from the facile assumption that
these are misfortunes visited upon others, not upon oneself. A
society which gradually loses the capacity to feel and to
express outrage is destined to fall prey to onslaughts, of
progressively enhanced frequency and increasing severity,
against the lifelines of liberty.
As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, freedom cannot be
enjoyed selectively or in segments; either it permeates
society through all its layers, or it does not exist at all in
any wholesome sense.
In the midst of the turbulent
conditions prevailing in Sri Lanka today, we can do no better
than remind ourselves of the immortal words of John Donne:
". Never send to know
For whom the bell tolls:
It tolls for thee."
The writer, Professor G L Peiris,
D.Phil. (Oxford), Ph.D (Sri Lanka), was Rhodes Scholar and
Distinguished Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, University
of Oxford, Distinguished Visiting Fellow of Christ's College,
Cambridge, and Smuts Visiting Fellow in Commonwealth Studies
in the University of Cambridge; Butterworths Visiting Fellow
in the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of
London; Emeritus Professor of Law and former Dean of the
Faculty of Law and Vice-Chancellor of the University of
month: no relief for victims
Plaque at the site of the Siribopura development project
President Chandrika Kumaratunga a few days back
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema in
the deep south
Standing in front of a structure which
was originally his home, K. D. S. Chandana tries hard to wash
his Canter lorry - his only worldly possession - with a
A short distance away in the Hambantota
town, or rather what used to be the town, uncleared debris
still remains as a reminder of the day the tsunami struck.
Apart from the bare and empty spaces,
the only change to take place since December 26, 2004 are the
tents that have been pitched to house the displaced.
Like Chandana, these displaced people,
after surviving the tsunami, are now engaged in a battle - a
battle to survive and return to their normal lives as soon as
Looking around him, Chandana looked
surprised that it is one month since the tsunami, as nothing
around him seems to have changed much.
Looking somewhat composed, Chandana
said that he was now living with a friend and then as if
understanding the uneasiness of the moment as questions loomed
about his family, quickly said that his eldest daughter was
with his sister.
"My daughter and I are the only
survivors from our family. She is with my sister till I sort
things out," he said.
Chandana lost his wife and three kids -
a five year old, three year old and a seven month old baby -
to the tsunami.
One month later, Chandana is still
trying to pick up the pieces of his life while returning to
normalcy to him now seems only a distant possibility.
"I haven't received anything. The
police got details and I received money for three of the dead
family members as we couldn't find the body of my
youngest," he said.
His survival now depends on the help he
receives from his friends and family.
Chandana also has doubts about
As a businessman, he says, he would
find it difficult to continue with his livelihood if relocated
to the interior.
"I can only engage myself in
agriculture in the interior and I'm not used to it," he
M. S. Samsudeen from the US houses in
the town walks in the now bare land and stands on the soil
where his house used to be.
"There were about 200 houses in
this scheme and they all belonged to the fishermen," he
The land area around Samsudeen, except
his, was marked into slots by ropes and polythene streams.
These slots have been marked by their
former owners for easy identification of their land.
Looking at two men who were a few feet
away marking their territory, Samsudeen observed that even
though there were 'rumours' of being relocated they prefer to
stay in their original lands.
"We are all fishermen and how can
we do our job if we are sent far from the sea," he said.
Some of the villagers in Samsudeen's
scheme are in the nearby mosque while some have found shelter
in the houses of relatives and friends.
Compensation promised by the government
for the dead have not been received by many.
Most people in Hambantota are yet to
even receive death certificates for their departed loved ones.
"My daughter-in-law and grandson
lost their lives and I received compensation for only the
little boy. We are yet to find the body of my
daughter-in-law," Samsudeen said.
The compound of the mosque is filled
with tents housing most of the displaced families in the area.
It is inter-racial harmony at its best
- Muslim and Sinhalese families sharing tents, becoming one in
circumstances that left their lives in tatters.
Unlike Chandana or Samsudeen, the
displaced in the mosque were not going to take things lying
Walking forward to meet the media, they
expressed disgust at the incompetence of the authorities to
bring back some sense of normalcy to their lives, even one
month after the tsunami devastation.
Pointing their fingers at the tents,
temporary water and sanitation and other relief aid, they said
that none were from the government.
"All these were given to us from
private donors," they said.
In the same vein they observed that
they are yet to receive any of the relief provided by the
government - compensation or even the promised Rs. 350 coupon,
entitling those affected to dry rations and money from the
co-operative outlet in the area.
"We have no confidence in the
government," they said.
Claiming that the whole devastation has
now taken on a political twist, they were unanimous in the
sentiment of the poor who were affected being left with
nothing while the rich have taken it as an opportunity to oil
The people also questioned as to how
certain projects - the Hambantota harbour and new township
projects - which were held back due to the lack of funds,
suddenly seem to be taking off the ground.
They alleged that the government
without helping the families affected by the tsunami is going
ahead with its development projects.
None of the displaced in the Hambantota
town are willing to be relocated to lands in the interior.
However, the government headed by
President Chandrika Kumaratunga laid the foundation to the
first housing development project in Siribopura last week.
Under the project, the Hambantota town
is expected to be relocated to the 500 acre site, on which
nearly 3,000 houses are to be built, along with the key town
According to the site manager at
Siribopura, once the ongoing clearing operation comes to an
end within a week or two, the construction phase would begin.
The project is expected to be completed
in six months.
If the fisherfolk are relocated to the
new venue, they would have to make a cumbersome journey to the
shores by bus or another mode of transport.
As pointed out by Samsudeen and the
other displaced fishermen, they would have to leave their
boats on the beach and chances are that when they return the
following morning thieves would have stolen the diesel, nets
or for that matter even the boats as there would be no
security once dusk falls on the shores. The sentiments were
echoed by fisherfolk right along the southern coastal stretch.
Even in Tangalle, Mirissa and Weligama,
the fisherfolk who have now returned to their original lands
prefer to even live in makeshift tents and carry on with their
livelihood rather than be relocated elsewhere.
Taking up another livelihood for these
fishermen, whose ancestors too have engaged in the same
profession, seems an impossible task.
The task of clearing the debris of
their shattered houses has now been left to the displaced
people themselves. Right along the coastal line, people are
engaged in clearing the carnage the tsunami bequeathed them.
It is however ironic that military
personnel from various countries who arrived in Sri Lanka to
help with the relief effort and the clearing process are
slowly moving out of affected areas.
The reason for moving out, they point
out, is the fact that they have nothing to do as the Sri
Lankan authorities have not assigned any tasks to them.
With such a background, it is now up to
those displaced to take up the task of clearing the coastal
The US marines, whose presence in the
country caused much controversy, were not seen deployed in any
of the southern cities during last week.
One month after the tsunami, the plight
of those affected remain the same.
Charging that they have been a
neglected lot who have now become pawns on the political chess
board, returning to their normal lives seems nothing but a
heap scorn on JVP, government
The government and especially the JVP
has come under fire by the fishing community who charge
that one month after the tsunami, there has been no
change in their lives.
Fisherfolk along the Galle Road
protested that they are now being pushed to become
beggars, adding that they have not received any proper
relief aid or even help to proceed with their
L. H. Simon Silva heading a protest
campaign in his village - Kathaluwa - claimed that as
fishermen, they need the authorities to provide them
with the necessary equipment to commence their work.
Villagers in Kathaluwa can fish only
for half of the year and they are now left with two
months to land their catch.
"We have only two months left and
if we don't go fishing now, we will have to starve for
the next six months," Silva said.
The villagers claimed that they had not
received any relief from the government.
"We have only received private aid
and we are now wondering why the country should have a
government. The foreigners seem to be doing a far better
job than our local politicians," Silva charged.
Questioning the JVP's role in the
government, Silva queried as to why the so called common
man's party was not addressing the real issues faced by
JVP MP Ajith Kumara had earlier in the
day visited the scene of the protest and asked Silva to
stop the protest along with fellow villagers, claiming
that it was tarnishing his image as a politician.
Angered by this, Silva said that he
could not understand how such people were representing
the poor masses of the nation.
"The public servants are paid a
salary, the money we have is what we earn from fishing.
Now we can't do that. We have no aid from the
government. What are we to do?" he questioned.
The non-issuance of death certificates
to a vast number of those killed is likely to cause a
In Hambantota alone, the worst affected
area along the southern coastal belt, more than 4,000
persons have been buried - but only a few of them have
People who have not yet received a
death certificate for their missing or even dead
relatives say that according to officials, it would take
up to three months to receive a death certificate.
Persons whose bodies were retrieved and
identified were paid compensation once the death
certificate was produced.
However, while only a few dead bodies
out of the tens of thousands who perished on December 26
were identified, a majority of them were buried in mass
As pointed out by K. D. S. Chandana and
M. S. Samsudeen from Hambantota, some of the bodies of
their dear-departed were never retrieved, at least by
them. As a result, they have not received any
certification confirming their loved ones' deaths and
have also not received the promised compensation as the
deaths cannot be confirmed.
According to Hambantota Divisional
Secretary, H. D. Piyasiri, the issue of non payment of
compensation has posed quite a problem as people are now
becoming restless as they have not found their missing
loved ones or even received any compensation.
However, Piyasiri admitted that the
mass burials conducted during the first few weeks after
the tsunami would indeed pose legal issues with the
question of death certificates coming into play.
In some instances, it would result in
an inquiry, which would have to either be financed by
the state or individuals seeking legal relief.
Piyasiri observed that problems would
occur in land issues.
In the event of the loss of the lives
of both parents, children who wish to settle land or
inheritance issues would have to face an inquiry to
confirm the deaths and based on the outcome, receive the
death certificates to proceed with the legal action.
The JMO office in Colombo last week
said that they were ready to go to the affected areas to
conduct inquiries, but were unable to do so as they were
requested not to go to the areas affected.
you're at the train-wreck!
The train wreck at Thelwatte, which has
become a tourist attraction when not properly
supervised, could become a dangerous place.
Thousands who flock to the venue seem
to go berserk and run all over the place.
Locals who visit the place tend to even
crawl under the train and sometimes try to climb into
Looking at the sight, military
personnel nearby try to caution people by saying that
the train although standing upright, is still unstable.
"It is not 100% safe and people
will have to keep that in mind and be cautious,"
said one military officer.
Since the train was put back on track,
thousands passing by made the site a definite stop for a
Although thousands visit the site
during weekdays, weekends see large numbers turning up
to click a few shots. Sometimes the numbers go to over
1,000 visitors a day.
Young, old and even infants have been
photographed next to the train.
children return to school
study the remnants of their school
Sitting inside recently reopened
schools, students kept looking over their shoulders at a calm
and serene sea - with palpable fear.
The few students who were brave enough
to walk into the schools in the areas worst affected in the
Hambantota, Matara and Galle Districts, exhibited the trauma
brought about by the tsunami disaster.
Principal, Mahamaya Girls College,
Matara, N. Haththotuwa explained that the broken boundary
walls of the school has made matters worse as the students now
had a clear vision of the sea, which has affected their lives
in many ways.
School principals together with the
teachers in all the schools were busy trying to retrieve the
remaining student records while trying to address the
psychological trauma of the students.
A teacher in a leading school in Matara
on January 26, one month after the tsunami, kept consoling a
student who said that she was now afraid to step into the
school in case another wave came. Parents outside most of the
schools in the Galle and Matara Districts kept looking at the
sea with an expression that spoke a thousand words - the fears
of another tsunami and the immediate need for relocation for
the safety of students and teachers alike.
According to the Education for All and
MDG Monitoring Unit, 73 schools in all the affected areas are
to be relocated while 100 are to be rehabilitated.
A teacher at the Thalalla Maha
Vidyalaya in the Hambantota District clad in white looked
mournfully at the sea, as memories of the daughter she lost
kept flooding back into her mind.
Walking in the school grounds, she
heaves a sigh of despair - her daughter was washed into the
school where she breathed her last on December 26, 2004.
Now that the schools have reopened, the
uphill task of rebuilding the infrastructure to once again
allow the education system in the Southern Province to run a
smooth course, still poses a great hurdle to authorities.
School principals, teachers and foreign
psychologists are engaged in post tsunami trauma management
with children, but the carnage that surrounds them makes it
difficult for them to completely wipe out their tragic
The immediate issue, as pointed out by
several principals, was the rebuilding of schools and return
to normalcy as that too would help ease the tension in the
minds of the young ones.
In the case of rebuilding, most private
entrepreneurs have come forward to provide necessary funds to
rebuild schools, but the red tape in the state sector has made
the task next to impossible.
Vice Principal, Thalalla Maha Vidyalaya,
P. Hettiarachchi observed that so far private donors have come
forward to build several of the school buildings completely
damaged by the tsunami.
The barrier ironically is none other
than the Education Ministry and the red tape that comes with
Being a government school, renovations
or additions to the building have to be done with permission
from the Ministry.
Although the funds are all ready to be
utilised, rebuilding has to be set aside till the Ministry
grants "permission to proceed."
Haththotuwa also noted that the
school's request for a new boundary wall is yet to be granted,
while such a measure would bring about some sense of normalcy
to the school.
According to Haththotuwa, since
Mahamaya is a school identified to be relocated, authorities
are more involved in finding a suitable location for the
Freedom to make decisions
On the contrary, the school adjoining
Mahamaya, St. Mary's Convent has already commenced its
rebuilding operations and the first things to be rebuilt was
the boundary wall.
Sister Sandamali Kurera observed that
the convent has more freedom in making decisions with regard
to rebuilding and renovations as it was a semi-government
"We are a government assisted
private school, so we have more freedom when it comes to
making decisions," she said.
The delay in the process of rebuilding
the minds of the school children depends heavily on the
rebuilding of school infrastructure.
As Hettiarachchi pointed out, "we
can somehow build their minds, but the problem is the need for
However, building minds too is expected
to take time.
Schools in the affected areas have
allocated the first few weeks to address the psychological
issues of the students.
"Teachers are now involved in
mental rehabilitation," Hettiarachchi said. His comments
were echoed by Haththotuwa and Sister Kurera.
Haththotuwa explained that while
guiding students towards their respective religions, they are
also reminded of the importance of survival.
"We cannot stop here. The Ministry
has so far not indicated any postponement in public exams. So
we must go on," she said.
Every school in the affected areas has
recorded deaths of students as well as teachers.
The uncleared debris and empty spaces,
which were originally buildings that housed their classrooms
would be a constant reminder of that fateful day.
Peraliya Sri Jinaratana Maha Vidyalaya,
which educated more than 900 students in its four buildings,
is now left with one building, and that too partly damaged.
The school which now serves as an aid
point and IDP camp, has been shifted to a nearby school in
On January 25, the first day of the new
school term, the areas affected by the tsunami saw only a
handful of students from Sri Jinaratana Maha Vidayalaya
A parent who wished to remain anonymous
said that till the rebuilding was completed and life returns
to normal, students would be hesitant to go to school.
"We try to take them to school,
but halfway down the road they look at the sea and refuse to
proceed any further and run back home," she said.
As pointed out by all the principals
who spoke to The Sunday Leader, the sooner the rebuilding
process begins, the better it would be for the healing
But the rebuilding process itself
depends on the state.
One hundred and seventy six of the
3,547 schools in the north - east and southern provinces have
been partially or fully damaged.
According to the details of damage
caused by the tsunami to schools in coastal areas in the
country prepared by the Education for All and MDG Monitoring
Unit of the Education Ministry, the estimated cost of the
renovation of schools would be Rs. 10,392.5 million.
According to a report from the Centre
for National Operations, none of the schools in Kilinochchi
have been damaged by the tsunami.
The estimated cost of Rs. 2,282 million
to renovate the schools in the Ampara District is the highest
amount, according to the report.
The costs estimated for the renovation
of schools in the Hambantota District are expected to be Rs.
485 million, Matara District - Rs. 985.5 million, Galle
District - Rs. 1768 million, Kalutara District - Rs. 725
million, Gampaha District - Rs. 216.5 million, Batticaloa
District - Rs. 1857.5 million, Trincomalee District - Rs.
971.5 million, Mullaitivu District - Rs. 590.5 million and
Jaffna District - Rs. 511 million.
However, none of the estimates involve
the cost for the supply of classroom furniture as UNICEF has
agreed to supply furniture to all the damaged schools.
- Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
month after the monster
drinks kurumba atop the debris of what used to be her
Text and photos by Amantha Perera
That was the day the beer ran out.
Three Sundays after the tsunami, at the famous watering hole,
Subraj in Batticaloa, the beer finished. The Subraj, a
favourite among NGO workers, journalists and just plain
visitors to the city of singing fish looked biblical- like,
the site of the famous tower of Babel.
Before the brew finished, spirits were
overflowing in many incomprehensible tongues. Parachute
journalists, whose knowledge of Sri Lanka was limited to one
word - tsunami - were toasting with get-rich-quick fixers
making a killing. A guy wearing a Medicines Sans Frontiers
t-shirt was running around waving an empty bottle, trying
desperately to get the attention of overworked waiters for
another fill. There were tables outside as well. An order took
a minimum of one hour to reach the table.
A month after the monster waves hit the
coast, the beer ran dry at the Subraj.
A few blocks away, Logi, an aid worker
with Sarvodaya was just about to call it a day. Her sleeping
quarters were on the second floor of the Sarvodaya office in
Batticaloa, half filled with tsunami relief material.
Since December 26, she has been working
14 hour shifts without going home, and tomorrow was going to
be a hectic day. A district legal officer with Sarvodaya, the
31 year old Logi was visiting refugee camps and collecting
data on lost documentation. It's not sexy sort of aid work.
She travels with an oversized, transparent suitcase filled
with papers, sits at a tin shack all day and interviews
people. Each one would have to trace his or her history to the
On a bike
Travelling to the camps was a problem,
given that Sarvodaya was short of vehicles and Logi's own
chally bike was damaged by the tsunami. "It sounds like a
boat now," she said. Given that there were so many
motorbikes sounding like boats along the tsunami ravaged
coastline, Logi pulled no. 375 at the garage. Till the repairs
are carried out, Logi finds her way about.
She gets up at 4.30 a.m. in the
morning, no hot water bath, no four by four with A/C and
driver waiting downstairs. She does paper work till 8 a.m.,
then prepares for the day ahead. Her first stop for the day is
Onndachchimadam about 25 kilometres south of Batticaloa. The
Onndachchimadam bridge that linked Batticaloa with the
devastated Kalmunai was damaged. While engineers constructed a
temporary link, those who had to cross the causeway, lined up
on planks and crossed one after the other. Logi talked with
civilians at the nearby kovil, half of which was in the
lagoon. "It took the kovil away," she said looking
bewildered at the submerged parts.
At the nearby beach, everything was
smashed, houses, kovils, schools everything. One month after
the tsunami, a back-hoe was just reaching the scene to clear
the road. By then residents and scavengers had removed what
ever they could from the houses. Kala, whose house was reduced
to a pile of bricks stood on top of them and watched the
back-hoe remove debris at her neighbour's house.
Those like Kala watched in silence as
the back-hoe moved to clear away a lifetime's hard work. When
the back-hoe's shovel swirled towards her house, Kala winced.
"They spend most of their lifetime trying to build a
house, and now what?" Logi remarked.
A little distance away Pavithan and
Gajendran who looked barely into their teens carried away
wooden railings from a house ripped apart by the tsunami. The
owner had hired them to remove whatever possible, he has no
intention of coming back. His house situated about 100 metres
from the beach was virtually tossed up and ripped apart by the
Logi next lugged her suitcase to the
Chittipalam welfare camp housed at a school. The classrooms
have been turned into one room homes for six families.
Children run all over the place. At the camp kitchen, a
watchful STF officer kept an eye on the massive vat that
cooked the rice. A camp resident turned porridge with the help
of what looked like a small oar, sweat peeling off him.
Logi set up office right in front,
close to the entrance. There people line up, scraps of paper
in hand to register for new documents. From 10 a.m. till 5
p.m. in the evening that was what she and her two colleagues
did, take down names, one after the other. There was a lunch
break at 1.30 p.m.
So far there had been no outbreak of
disease at the camp. The Centre for National Operations in
Colombo said that prompt preventive action was the reason.
There were posters that warned of disease and preventive
measures at the camps. But visiting doctors from Canada held
their breath at the camp.
"This is a possible breeding
ground for respiratory diseases," they said. If pneumonia
broke out it will be like wildfire, warned the doctors working
in coordination with the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation.
During her lunch break Logi told tales
- horror stories rather. "A young girl from
Onndachchimadam lost her husband to the tsunami in Galle. Now
she is walking around as if in a daze.
"Another woman, four months
pregnant survived, but the husband died and the village people
said it was her bad karma that killed the husband. She
attempted suicide thrice, once by taking poison, then by
swallowing shreds of glass. That failed and she hung her self.
"A family lost all three children
who were away at the aunt's place for Christmas. A woman just
gave birth to a still born, the doctors say it's the tsunami
trauma," the stories went on.
"Everything is tsunami"
"It is tsunami, tsunami, and
tsunami. Everything is tsunami, now," Logi said half
jokingly. After lunch she returned to the camp and took down
names. Thereafter at dusk she started her 25 kilometre journey
back, reached Batticaloa around 7 p.m., did some paper work
till around 9 - dinner and then bed.
For Logi, the documentation was serious
business, "they need this, they have lost almost all
government papers they had, even to make a police complaint
they need this now." Listening to the deaths, the
marriages and the births while sitting next to each other had
become too much to bear for the three Sarvodaya workers. Next
day they decided to take a break - if visiting refugees in
Tiger held areas was any break at all.
Logi travelled to Panichchankerni near
Vakarai on the Batticaloa - Trincomalee highway The main
tsunami welfare camp is housed near the Panichchankerni
Vidyalaya. Villagers displaced from the nearby fishing village
were housed at the camp which was one of the many tent cities
that now dot the disaster areas.
The tents were okay for the sun, but
not for the rain. When the rain came, the refugees ran to the
school. When school commenced, rain or sun, they would have to
stay in the tent city.
At the school, Logi watched as free
books provided by Sarvodaya were distributed among kids. They
clutched the books and walked across the small stream that had
appeared in front of the school with the recent rains. The
cover was full of messages on mines. Heightened mine awareness
since the tsunami was a unique situation in the conflict
areas. "Mines laid near the camps have been washed away,
so we have to teach the children about them," Logi said.
Posters warning of mines were pasted
near the camps. In the afternoon UNICEF and Sarvodaya
conducted a mine awareness programme for the camp children.
This is post-tsunami Panichchankerni.
Along the beach there are no houses,
everything is wiped out. Only the foundations remain. Even to
get to them, villagers had to navigate through four feet of
water along stretches, accumulated during the tsunami and the
subsequent floods. Near the beach, it was not difficult to
find burnt bodies. Decomposing and with no morgue within 50
kilometres, villagers simply burnt the bodies.
Villages like Panichchankerni bore the
brunt of the hostilities between the Tigers and the security
forces. Even after the ceasefire, sporadic violence has
erupted between LTTE cadres and Karuna supporters in the area.
Forty-five year old Kasumathi
Thangamani, a widow with four children squats on the
foundation of her former small home, drinks kurumba and stares
blankly. Almost half her life she lived through the conflict,
never thought of building a brick house. It was only after the
February 2002 ceasefire that she was able to build a small
brick home with the help of a local NGO.
"Now it's all gone, the waves came
and I ran, and now nothing is here," she said. She was
right in the middle of the double whammy that LTTE Leader
Velupillai Pirapaharan referred to as the two tsunamis during
his talks with the Norwegians. Number one was the war, number
two, the December 26 tidal waves.
The Vakarai hospital was open only a
few weeks before the tsunami and it is no more, so is part of
the bridge that linked Vakarai with Panichchankerni. All
travel beyond that was through boat. A single back-hoe was
trying to do some repairs to the causeway, but with limited
Even if the causeway was unaffected,
don't even think of driving a 30 tonne rig with relief
supplies into the area. The bridge near the Kukul farm camp
can only hold seven tonnes, "If we bring big vehicles
here, we would have to unload everything at one end, transport
them by hand across the bridge, reload and then proceed,"
Logi said, adding, "these people suffered very much
during the war. It was only during the ceasefire that they
were able to do something, now the tsunami has destroyed all
Thangamani lived off a government dole
of Rs. 100 a month and whatever she eked from helping
fishermen. But the tsunami destroyed almost all the boats and
no one dares to go to sea. "I don't know how I am going
to rebuild this," she said.
It was the same hopeless echo that came
from Sinnavani Murugesupullai of Mankerni and Pedurupullai
Allagaiya of Kayankerni, fishermen from villages south of
Panichchankerni in government controlled areas.
Murugesupillai lost his father, his
house, that of his son-in-law and their boats. The family
lived at the welfare camp near the Kajuwatte army camp.
"All 120 boats on the beach were destroyed,"
Murugesupillai said. His boat was in two pieces, lying 400
metres from each another. "No boat, no house, fully
gone," Allagaiya said at the Kayankerni camp. Both said
that they were provided with immediate relief, but had no
plans for the future. They said that if boats were provided to
them, they would return to their former jobs.
Fifteen year old W. Robinson, a member
of 126 Sinhala families living on the Mankerni beach had the
same problem - no boat. His family was living at the Queen of
Angels Church. Unlike the Tamils around them, Robinson and
company were happy to be housed near a damaged army camp
despite a very real threat of mines.
But for all of them, their stay at the
camps appeared to be a long one. At the Kayankerni camp,
return to the destroyed houses appeared such a distant
possibility, that the village primary school had recommenced
inside a large tent in the middle of the camp.
Ramanadan Sundararajan appeared to be
unscathed by the tsunami. He lives in Valachchenai and his
house is intact. "But all my boats are gone," he
said. He is the perennial malu mudalali, lending boats and
equipment to the likes of Robinson and Murugespullai. The
tsunami left him with a house and no way of earning an income.
"I lost 12 boats and nets, I don't live in a welfare camp
but I don't make any money as well," he said. Being the
amiable boss he visits the fishermen who worked for him
regularly handing Rs. 100 notes. "Don't know how long I
can do this," he remarked handing the orange note to
Logi is aware of the situation - the
likes of Sundararajan, rich enough for now, but for how long?
"There are lots of people who are not here at the welfare
camps, living with relatives or at rented places. Sometimes
they don't want to be with the poor, or they are nervous about
the women. There is no way to process all of them."
Too few toilets
After the school she visited the camp
across the road. Six families to a tent live in tents provided
by aid groups, the inside is full of provisions stacked up.
The kitchens are located at the back of the tents, sometimes
next to the lavatories. But the camp residents don't seem to
care, like at all the camps. The lavatory to tent ratio is
unbelievably one sided, too many tents, too few toilets.
"These people are used to this,
they do this at home as well-use the jungle," said a
police officer stationed at the Kayankerni camp.
After a day at the camps, Logi returned
to her sleeping quarters. She decided to go home today to wash
the dirty clothes and prepare something passably civilised to
wear in Colombo where she was expected the next day.
Home was hardly the refuge it is for
others. Walking into her parents' house at Mamamgam, just out
of Batticaloa was like walking into a pink funeral parlour
without a body. Logi lost her 15 year old niece Udaya to the
tsunami. She was at her house by the side of the lagoon when
the waves hit. Her body was found arms raised and eyes open,
as if gasping for breath. It was recovered by her own father.
"When the tsunami came I was
walking from the kovil with my mother, people were running
away. First we thought the bund at the Unnachchi tank had
broken, once my family was safe I went to the hospital,"
She was at the Batticaloa Base Hospital
from 11 a.m. till 5.30 p.m., while helping other victims she
looked for Udaya. She finally found her, stacked on top of
hundreds of other bodies. "I removed my black shawl and
put it on her, there were other bodies and I didn't want to
lose her," Logi said.
The body was later brought to Logi's
parents' home. There were no undertakers available, the body
was washed and dressed at home and laid on a bed. "Then
people were again screaming that the waves were coming back,
we wanted to take the body upstairs, but finally we buried
Udaya's mother still talks fondly of
her young daughter. She shows visitors her sports
certificates. Her three sisters and brother remain silent
beside her. It's the silence that is unbearable.
She is the typical Sri Lankan woman,
hospitality first and sorrow later. She places a cup of tea in
front of visitors. All is silent, a little while later she
breaks the silence and asks "Is it okay?"
The flood gates rupture. The visitor
cannot take any more, he runs out, sits on the mud outside and
sobs. The whole family sobs. It's a choir of sobs.
"This is why I don't come home, I
can't take this," Logi says mid-sob. She turns her head
away from me for the first time in three days and hides.
But Logi is a tough chick, she has
walked over hot coals and travels around Batti in a moped, and
within five minutes turns around to me and says, "Let's
go." We are back on the road, yet another camp, yet
another tale of misery that takes Logi away from her own.
On the way she looks intently at the
sea and muses, "tsunami loves us."
Emperor's new clothes
This Lalkantha chap is, I would say at
a venture a bit of an upstart. I would even go so far as to
say that he is a bit of an upstart with a penchant to be a tad
repetitive in his public utterances. Come to think of it, all
these red chappies are bally upstarts dear, a veritable
bandwagon of brown-skinned Jeffersons Movin' On Up.
You, he says; and I see the
dark-glasses-sporting Somawansa nodding sagely while
Weerawansa blinks his jaundiced eye in full agreement; are
acting in such a manner that brings readily to the minds of
the lower classes, the famous story of the Emperor's New
This particular emperor referred to, if
you recall the tales you may or may not have heard at your
nanny's knee in the days when you romped about in pink
underwear; was the silly fellow who believed he was wearing a
magnificent gown and purple cloak made by an equally
magnificent gaggle of tailors, when in fact he was wearing
nothing at all. To make it worse, the masses - asses as they
were and are and always will be, believed the hubris
surrounding the Emperor's wardrobe and nodded and grinned
inanely pretending to see gorgeous folds of silk, kashmir and
velvet when all they could really see were sagging folds of
The Emperor strutted about proudly
until a clever little tyke whispered boldly what everyone was
thinking. That the Emperor was not wearing any clothes at all.
You, says Lal Kay are exactly like that. The Emperor I mean,
not the tyke. We are to presume then that El Kay sees himself
as the innocent little pup that revealed the truth to the
If the scrambling to gain recognition
after the tsunami fractured the blue party in several places,
the gibberish spoken by you in its aftermath was a cause for
riot. Not least of these incendiary speeches was the one you
made in the land of Humbugs about not wanting to hold
something. What was it now? The Fort? No it was not that. My
hand? I doubt it... no one has yet refused these large hams of
mine... Oh yes I remember now - elections. Yes. You did not
mind holding my hand but you were singularly averse to holding
elections. A sentiment I may as well tell you not looked upon
any too kindly by your red brothers.
From all accounts (none of them
trustworthy) everyone of those dashing young red chaps would
love to tickle my fingers. They were none too pleased about
the election story either. Not a concept well thought out or
discussed with them as members of the alliance, they accused.
A decision that will be fought vehemently from within they
promised. It did not stop Lal Kay and his clan from also
grumbling incessantly that rich people were running the
alliance forgetting that it was the reds who brought them to
Speaking of rich people, Mallo is a
chap who has been living off the fat of this land for yonks -
and it shows. What's more he's been going around calling you
stupid. At best that was a stupid thing to do. The subject of
controversy besides himself is of course the 100 metre coastal
buffer zone so forcefully pronounced by you on every media
channel. Having awoken from his deep dream of sleep in the
City of Angels, he has winged it to Paradise and is now
attempting to cause a ripple or two himself. Just keep him
inland darling that's all I ask. Forbid him specifically to
make any plans to cruise the Indian Ocean in the near future.
Take him deep sea and disaster is sure to follow. Why you ask?
I will tell you why. With Mallo's love of the cup that cheers,
he is sure to rendezvous on the upper deck and accidentally
fall off. If he were to accidentally make a drop like so and
fall off the bally boat, bim! an undersea quake would follow
and before you know it what would we have? Ripple turning to
wave. And the up shot? Another bally tsunami. After floating
about for 10 days the chap will be back making statements
about how stupid everyone is.
Obviously Mallo is not seeing eye to
eye with you on this small matter. A thing you I know are
quite accustomed to. You may remember that when playing with
your Ken and Barbie dolls as a kid in rompers, Mallo had often
cried uncontrollably as you played dress up. Never did he see
eye to eye with you on the subject of evening wear for the
miniature mannequin. If that were not enough, how often had
you told the tiny Clown Prince as a child in a sisterly manner
that it may be alright from time to time to play monster games
but never to grow up to be one. Did he listen? No. And the
upshot? Calling you stupid and causing a rumpus within the
Wait a minute... Wait just a minute.
Mallo is not a chap I often like to agree with if I can help
it, but dash it all... what did he call you again?... I say
darling for once... in a general sort of way he may be
Toodle oo for now.
sunshine amidst the sorrow
|WOMEN shrieking and what sounded like
the roar of a freight train awakened me. I jumped out of
bed and ran to the balcony door of our second-floor
guest room to see water - filled with wood and cars and
pieces of twisted metal - swirling below us. Damika, the
owner of the inn, and some of his family had run up the
stairs to our balcony. I looked over their shoulders at
the rising waves and went cold with fear. I shouted to
Kate, my friend and travel partner, who was getting
ready to go to the beach, to grab her money belt, and
then rushed back to watch the sea escalate to the bottom
of our balcony in an agonisingly prolonged 20 seconds.
It was 9:25 a.m. on December 26 and we
were in Unawatuna. A few minutes earlier, it had been
clear and calm. Kate's decision to take her morning walk
on the beach a half-hour later than usual was one of
many fateful choices that we had made or that had been
made for us. Ultimately, Damika's decision to give us a
room on the second floor instead of the ground floor was
what saved us.
month ago, the tsunami claimed the
lives of over 30,000 Sri Lankans
Many days later, we would learn that
the series of tsunamis unleashed
by an underwater earthquake off the shores of Sumatra
had taken the lives of more than 250,000, including more than
40,000 in Sri Lanka. But on the morning of December 26, there
was no explanation for the relentlessly rising sea. Eventually
it slowed, then stopped, and there was silence. Almost
instantly, it was replaced by screams. Everywhere I looked,
scrambling onto any high surface they could find - rooftops or
Paul, an Englishman who was sleeping in
the room below us, swam out of his room. We hauled him onto
the balcony. A young Sri Lankan woman splashed up to the
stairs shouting: "My grandmother. I let go of her
Damika was banging his chest and
sobbing, "My father, my brother, my uncle ..."
A British teenager, who was in shock,
and screaming "My mum, my dad, my sister, my eight-week
old brother!" was dragged over the railing. He had
lacerations all over his body, and his clothes were torn and
muddy. We tried to console him, but each second brought new
screams of terror.
Now I realise that the strange calm I
felt at the time was shock. The scene outside had become
increasingly more terrifying; more surreal. The water was
slowly receding, but now buildings were starting to collapse
around us, and the noise brought fresh waves of panic. Half of
Damika's house, right in front of our balcony, came crashing
down. Would our building be next? The mantra I repeated to
myself would continue for
the next four days: "I want to go home. I want to
see my family. I don't want to die."
Below us, the water was teeming with
all the objects that once held so much importance:
televisions, furniture, cars, shoes. Life was the only thing
that mattered now, and people were screaming out for the ones
who had lost it. Suddenly, the sister and mother of the
appeared on the balcony of the guesthouse next door.
They were overjoyed to see each other alive, but their father
and baby brother, it seemed, were still missing. At that
moment, the father shouted from the ground floor of our
guesthouse. He was holding the limp baby in his arms. I yelled
down, "Give the baby C.P.R.! Give the baby C.P.R.!"
but neither he nor his wife were able to do anything other
than stroke the motionless bundle.
I furiously tried to remember the
infant C.P.R. lesson I had been given by my friend shortly
before I left. Three fingers and cover the mouth and nose to
give mouth-to-mouth were all I could remember. But it was too
late. Quietly, the mother took her baby up to the balcony and
cradled him to her breast. I walked back upstairs to our room
and threw my soggy money belt on the bed.
Shouts in Sinhalese from the neighbours
across the way brought us to our feet, and to the balcony door
again. Someone had seen another wave coming. That was it.
"We're going to die here," I told Kate. I
thought of my mother having the same look as those
around us - inconsolable sorrow.
There was nothing we could do but wait.
After an interminable hour of intensely watching the receding
water, we saw dry patches of ground. Kate and I decided to
leave. We packed a small backpack for survival: bottled water,
flashlight, water purification tablets, extra socks. My other
belongings were left behind.
Portrait of sorrow
We plowed through the thigh-deep,
debris-filled water toward an undamagedhotel on the hill. The
journey took no more than 15 minutes, but each second brought
jolts of fear that another surge of water was about to strike.
The hotel was filled with people in varying states of shock
and despair. Everyone had stories, stories that on their own
would be chilling almost beyond belief. Together, they created
of sorrow in surreal proportions.
We wanted to be higher still, and, with
the help of a local man, Raja, struggled up the cliff behind
the hotel. Raja told us that the entire bay had emptied of
water; the sea had withdrawn and was no longer visible.
Halfway up, we heard shouts from below and then the dreaded
sound that I still listen for. It was the sound of the ocean
as it pelted its entire being, once again, onto the battered
shore, travelling farther inland as there was less resistance
from the fallen buildings. We ran, stumbling, over logs and up
embankments, through the jungle, helping the injured and
shocked, to get to higher ground. At the top, we turned and
watched the sea engulf the once sleepy tourist-filled village.
Only the coconut trees were visible.
The village at the top had not been
physically affected by the water, but grief was everywhere.
People, dressed only in tattered bathing suits or wet pajamas,
were dazedly walking around asking if others had seen their
wife, daughter, husband, aunt. How could any of us get through
the next minutes, hours, days or years?
Sri Lankan hospitality
Together. That is how. We survived the
trauma of this disaster
because we had the generosity and hospitality of the
Sri Lankans. Every family in the village took in tourists for
the three days we had to wait
before we were evacuated. They shared their meagre
belongings, their limited food and their precious water. They,
who had nothing and had lost much, gave everything. Forty of
us slept on mats outside the home of a family who came around
at regular intervals with sugary tea, bananas and coconuts.
They cooked us dinner for two nights. They let us drink water
out of their well. They slept beside us to protect us from
possible looters. Only one person spoke English, a man named
Siri, who had owned a bar and restaurant on the beach. He had
lost his business, his home and a nephew, yet he never stopped
We gave all our extra money, water
purification tablets, clothing, antibiotics, malaria
medication and shoes to Siri and his family, and also to
Damika when we saw him on the day of our evacuation. By then,
Damika had already buried three members of his family. He now
stood in the only clothes he had, waiting with us for an hour
until our busarrived to take us away, to safety.
Since I will not return to my job as a
Valley Stream South High School on Long Island until
September, I plan to drive around the United States, visit
schools and do presentations on my experience, which revealed
the generosity of a people who live in a country that many
Americans cannot even find on a map.
- Laura Dunham