SRI LANKA: Death toll nears 25,000 but relief efforts hampered by destroyed roads and looters

As the death toll in Sri Lanka increases, destroyed roads keep journalists and supplies out of affected areas

By Munza Mushtaq
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Colombo: The Sri Lankan death toll is nearing 25,000, while another at least 15,000 are still missing. The one time beautiful and lush island is now mostly a pile of rubble.

It's been more than 72 hours since the deadly tsunamis engulfed Sri Lanka, but the aftermath and shock continues to pile on.

For many of those children who were victim to the tsunami, the beach was one of their favorite places to be. The calm waves, white sand and blue-green ocean were a real treat to look at. Many of them were not even old enough to speak, but our children some small, some big and some even unborn are no longer with us. Hundreds of them have drowned or gone missing in those killer waves. Sources from the North East say that an orphanage in Mulaitivu, which housed some 175 orphans, has been completely washed away. Only 55 of the children's bodies have been found as of yet.  

Some men and women were seen clutching onto their darling children when their bodies were found. Samantha, a 26-year-old who survived the tsunami that struck Matar says, “Death cannot be avoided. If one has to die he will die, but I wish I died with them too, because then I wouldn’t have to miss them so much. I have no family now, I’m all alone."

Many of the survivors who relate their stories say that they managed to swim through the strong and dirty muddy waves, while some men said that they even climbed trees in fear of losing their life, although many of those trees were uprooted by strong waves and provided little safety.

At least a hundred tourists are believed to have died due to the tidal waves. The dead bodies of 20 Japanese tourists were found at Sri Lanka’s famous Yala National park, situated in the Southern part of the island. Five Indians died in Trincomalee while they were holidaying at a beach hotel there. Reports also say that six Americans have also died. Many Europeans who were holidaying in the South are also feared to have died. Many of Sri Lanka’s hotels are either badly damaged or completely destroyed. Only a pile of debris is seen now at many places where the hotels stood.

Relief efforts are underway both internationally and locally. Monetary aid, dry rations, medicinal material, doctors, nurses and other special aid workers from all over the country and the world are coming to Sri Lanka to help the survivors, including some 2.5 million displaced persons. Many Sri Lankans, in their own small personal capacities, are also joining the relief effort. The Sri Lankan Government, the country’s main opposition and all other parties have shed their political differences to help ease the catastrophe the country is facing.

Nearly 400 looting incidents have been reported from affected areas in North East and the South, including the districts of Hambantota, Galle, Matara and Hikkaduwa, Batticaloa, Ampara, and Trincomalee. Many such looters were arrested, but police headquarters have already dispatched special teams to apprehend any more looters. Security has been also tightened in all affected areas because of the looting.

Only journalists and personnel attached to relief operations are allowed to travel to many of the tsunami hit areas, as the roads are either completely destroyed or terribly strewn with debris, making it hard for normal transport to travel in and out. Many people currently at shelter homes are without food, water and other basic necessities because relief workers are finding it difficult to get to those shelter points.

With the Government announcing December 31st as a day of national mourning, Sri Lankans are not likely to forget the tsunami any time soon. Building Sri Lanka is going to be much more difficult than initially speculated. The North and East coast, which has already been destroyed by a two-decade long war is now a mere pile of concrete and ruins. Hotels, houses, shops--some of which have historic value--are no more. Rebuilding them will be a monumental task. December 26th 2004 will go down in Sri Lankan history as the country’s "day of disaster."

Munza Mushtaq is a journalist in Colombo who writes for the Daily Mirror and Lanka Academic. Mushtaq also represented Sri Lanka at the South Asian Forum for Energy Journalists earlier this year.