A Report from Sri Lanka

I have been living in Germany for more than fifty years, and since 1967, I have travelled with German friends to my home country Sri Lanka in summer and winter holidays. More than 300 people from Neuwied, Altenkirchen and surroundings, have visited my home country. In the course of a trip around the island they had the opportunity to see and learn about the beauty, culture and habits of my country.

After this journey, we used to stay at a hotel on the south coast, Koggala Beach, for two weeks; it’s near my hometown Matara. During these days on the beach, we went to Matara several times, to find out more about people living there and school children of my former school, Rahula College.

Journey to Sri Lanka in winter 2004

If we had started according to our plans on December 20th, I would have been at Yala Nationalpark with my wife and seven friends at the very moment of the tsunami. Most of the visitors, hotel staff and inhabitants of Yala died. Because of familiar reasons I had to delay the journey for one week to December 26th, and that was the day when we were sitting in the plane.

When landing at the airport of Colombo, we got information about the terrible extent of the tragedy. After the first shock and plenty of consideration finding out what to do, we decided to make this trip in a different way. Instead of beach holidays in Koggala, (this had become impossible) we spent the last two weeks at Culture Club Hotel (today: Amaya Lake) in the mountainous area of Dambulla, although most of the tourists there had checked out.

Enormous hospitality and friendliness of the native people, in spite of this sad situation, strengthened our decision to stay in Sri Lanka from December 26th till January 15th 2005 to show our solidarity and to help where it was possible for us.

Although media from Europe warned about epidemic dangers, one week after the catastrophe, I decided to see my family members on the south coast as soon as possible and give them a helping hand and comfort.

As soon as the government had opened again the coastal road to Matara, we took off at Negombo at 5 a.m., a driver, a German friend and I, loaded with hundreds of bottles with drinking-water, heading for the south.

The fishing harbor of Colombo is situated in one the most beautiful lagoons of the west coast with a huge fleet of sailing ships. The bridge where, before, we used to stand and watch the fishermen at work, was badly demolished. More than 200 boats could be seen on the shore, mostly under the water, scattered all over the place and in all directions. The beach, where you usually could see the fish being dried on mats, was deserted. We saw fisher boats being driven off course on the nearby cemetery. In Sri Lanka, more than 20.000 fisher boats were destroyed.
When continuing, I remembered the cool, fresh and salty breeze that we enjoyed when driving along thousands of coconut trees lining the west coast. But this time, when leaving Colombo and coming to Panadura, there was an incredibly bad smell along this coastal road. That is why most people there wore oxygen masks.

On both sides of the road, there were no houses, shops, restaurants or bus stops any more. Not only simple huts of fishermen had been totally swept away by the three tsunami waves, but solid houses as well. I only could guess the shapes of houses, where traders and dealers had run their shops on the edge of the road. Beach bars and restaurants, their roofs made of palm leaves, wonderful places where my German friends and I used to have a cup of tea, had all disappeared.

The roads had been shoveled free by huge excavators and on both sides of the road there were heaps of rubble, bricks, concrete, waste and uprooted trees. Some bridges could be replaced by auxiliary constructions and so we had to drive very slowly. There were big boats and trawlers in Beruwala fishing port lying around upside down on the main road, so that we could hardly pass. The small fisher boats were completely destroyed and in pieces that could be found in gardens and bushes. Fisher nets could be seen on top of the overturned coconut trees.
A fisherman, chewing some betel leaves, was completely in despair and told me that he had been born as an “ocean  boy”; he was used to live with the ocean, had made his living by the ocean, had loved and enjoyed being with this ocean. But now, the sea had taken what he loved most of all: his dear wife. He hadn’t learned anything else but fishing. He told me that most of the native people there refused to eat fish now, because they believed that lots of their family members and other missing people had been swallowed by big fish.

I met a Swiss lady, who used to have an Ayurweda hotel in Ahungalle, sitting on some ruins. She had just cleaned a bit her premises, together with some Srilankan friends. She told me that she managed to save the lives of about 50 people from the village, who climbed up to the third floor of her hotel. With tears in her eyes, she promised to rebuild her guest house with the help of local craftspeople and make it much prettier and safer. In her big despair, she blamed the Great Powers having caused the tsunami because of their tests with bombs under the water and, thus, having convulsed the ocean bed.

The railway line collateral to the coastal road had become partially invisible. The rail tracks were covered by sand heaps or had been flushed towards the inland. The rail traffic up to Matara had become impossible for 120 km because of most of the railway stations being destroyed.

That fatal train was put up again on the rails by foreign rescue people in Talpe, where lots of travelers were killed. I saw bags and suitcases, clothes, in all the buckled compartments. One man of the railway staff told me that this “curd train” (curd is a kind of joghurt) had never left the station in time, because it normally took some time to load and unload these curd pots. Unfortunately, this curd-train was in time on December 26th, and the tsunami waves hit the train when it was unprotected near the coast. Lots of villagers committed a deadly mistake when climbing into that train to find a safe place. The third wafe of more than 6 metres killed more than 1200 people in that place.

On my way to Galle, I could only see bases and groundwork on the left and on the right side of the road; nothing else was left of all the houses standing there before. Many of my fellow countrymen removed wreckage, ruins and waste and built up huge tents. Then they waited with canisters and buckets for fresh drinking water. So, I distributed all the bottles that I had in our van to these people here.

Later that day, I met German security people, Austrian helpers of the Red Cross, who all were on their way to Hambantota in lots of vehicles. I saw four US marines who, using a huge excavator and bulldozer to dig out a big fishing trawler that had run aground. A bit later 400 US marines, who were based at Galle, supported the population with cleanup and bridge construction. A little boy showed me a big poster saying: “America – no war – they rebuild!”

There were three helicopters flying along the coastal road towards the southernmost point of the island to check all the damage. Later I was told that the UNO-Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Anan and our President Mr. Rajapakse were on their way to Hambantota (4500 people died there) to visit all the people who had lost their homes.
After three more tiring hours we reached our district capital Galle, where 4140 people had lost their lives. The main station, the bus station, the market and lots of shops are situated closely behind the Dutch fortress on the coast.

December 26th was the second (Christmas-) holiday, it was a Sunday and a Buddhist Poya day (full moon), and lots of families were on their way to visit relatives. When the first tsunami-wave reached the shore at 10 a. m., the town center was crowded with people, unable to find protection or shelter. It was a very sad view, when standing on that Dutch fortress and looking at my district town Galle.

The cricket-stadium situated close to the fortress, the main station and bus station, all fish and fruit stands on the market, were totally destroyed. Like a miracle the big Buddha-statue in front of the bus station remained nearly undamaged. I was told that a man who climbed this statue luckily survived.

Next stop was Koggala Beach Hotel where we often used to spend untroubled and easygoing holidays on the seaside in summer and winter with numerous German friends. From far away I could see the power of the waves, because the big wall, two meters high, had collapsed and parts of it were on the road. The hotel manager, Mr. Harsha, was sitting in his office, shocked, while some of his staff tried to remove the waste.

Koggala Beach Hotel is a long stretched block of buildings; rooms are only about 30 m from the sea. The second big wave had demolished windows and doors of the ground floor rooms, knocked over the hotel wall and pushed all the furniture on the coastal road.

Mr. Harsha, the manager of Koggala Beach Hotel, who has lots of friends in Neuwied, thanked us for all the generous help from Germany. He could only employ 20 of his 120 staff members, but was confident to get everything repaired in short time and kindly asked his German friends to come again soon and stay at Koggala.
Full of uncertainty and alarming presentiment we went to Matara, my hometown. First, I did not want to realize newspaper reports talking about 1200 dead people, 415 missing, 14500 destroyed houses. Although I had called my sister from Colombo and talked to her, I finally felt relieved to meet her, her husband and children and embrace them. She told me that she had packed her bags, but did not want to leave the house. Fortunately, the third and higher wave had only reached the junction just in front of their house.

My former school, Rahula College, a Buddhist school with 4500 students, was undamaged, because it is situated farer away from the coast. This school had been supported by people of Neuwied in former times already. In summer 2004, they generously had donated money to buy costumes for the school’s dancing group. Start of the school year ( – usually January 1st ) was delayed to January 10th, because school buildings were used to accommodate 2000 homeless people temporarily, most of them children. Many children, living in camps, went back to the ruins of their destroyed houses to look for books and toys.

Two Christian schools, the prison, the Resthouse, the bazaar, the post office, the central bus station and lots of shops are situated in Beach Road, parallel to the coast. December 26th was not a school day, but the majority of people from Matara died in that area. Many prisoners could be rescued, because they managed to escape from the waves and saved their lives.

In Matara, I visited the grave of my parents on the municipal cemetery. Shortly behind their grave, there was a common grave with 568 people from Matara who could be identified and were buried according to Buddhist conventions. When I left the cemetery and my hometown Matara, I decided to come back again as soon as possible.
A fellow-countryman, Wicky, who had taken his studies with me in Germany and had lived with his German wife and children in Berlin, had established a wonderful holiday village “Nature Resort” in Tangalle.  At Christmas, he went to Sri Lanka to celebrate with his guests and staff. On that second Christmas day, when having breakfast, the tsunami-waves hit them all and killed his guests, staff and himself.

I finished my 6-hours-trip along the west coast in Tangalle and returned, taking the road through the mountains back to the hotel “Culture Club” near Dambulla to sum up all these events and impressions and to write this report.
Finally, I want to thank all my friends, particularly family Deckert, who stayed with me during three painful weeks and helped a lot with words and deeds.

Sagara Abegunewardene