I was travelling with German university students towards the tsunami-hit northern part of the Indian Ocean's war-torn island in the Alpha - 9 highway, which was famous when the military operation was in full swing some years ago.
While I was on my tsunami-relief mission, still those moments came to my mind.
In the morning of 26th of December 2004, people were running here and there in our residential area where we were staying in Colombo. I went towards the canal where I could see the seawater was moving backwards at a high speed. I was surprised for a moment at what was happening around. A strange atmosphere prevailed around there.
There were hundreds of people coming towards the sea and having a look at it. The sea level had gone unusually down and we could see some of the rocks in the sea that were normally invisible.
I was a little frightened when the water started to flow over the small wall that was built along the canal and started to run.
When I reached the house, the water had started to enter through the side door's crevices and had risen in the house in a few minutes up to about three feet. Though I shouted at my grandmother "get away quickly", her smiling face even at that time of calamity made me admire her courage and spurred me to face any eventuality dauntlessly.
The water had receded, leaving behind clay and mud water everywhere.
The BBC World Service "Breaking News" was about the tsunami devastation in the Asian region, a new phenomenon.
We read about this in mythical stories only, how the ancient South Indian coastal city, the Poompugar, was destroyed by massive tidal waves about a thousand years ago.
When BBC started to telecast some of the devastation in the South East Asian regions, it was terrible to see the extent of flood-ravages. The whole world was shocked at the gravity, severity and scale of devastation around the Indian Ocean's Rim countries.
I was a little stunned over the phenomena, which had suddenly developed in the region.
The giant forces that had been building up deep in the Earth for hundreds of years were released suddenly with the energy of several thousands of Hiroshima-type atom bombs and unleashed a series of killer waves that sped across the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jet airliner and devastated the entire region.
The Indian Ocean tsunami had travelled unnoticed on the surface as far as Africa and killed people and destroyed properties. The tsunami with underwater turbulence sucked people and tossed heavy objects around. Entire beaches have been stripped away by tsunamis.
Many of the dead were children, because they were not strong enough to resist the force of the water. Many people were crushed by debris or when the sea hurled them against structures.
By the end of the day some hundreds of thousands of people were dead or missing and millions more were homeless in most of the Indian Ocean Rim countries, making it perhaps the most destructive tsunami in history.
But I took firm hold of my mind and started to speak to people as to what we could do for those who had been affected.
When I spoke to Karu Jayasuriya, a former Minister of the Sri Lankan Government and asked for urgent help for the Mullaitivu area where at least five thousand people had died, he said Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, a former Minister was coordinating a Northern relief mission and through him, I came to know Asian-German Sports Exchange Program (AGSEP) which was unloading plane loads of goods and medicines from Germany.
While I was visiting the site of the plane-bound cargo containers where they were being sorted for various tsunami-affected areas in different shipments, I was surprised, there were no labourers, and only the German students were sorting out and packing goods and medicines.
* * *
When I was travelling with German university students, Dietmar Doering, the founder of the AGSEP and Ramige, a veteran German documentary film maker, the past events were rolling over my mind.
A local television channel and a young Sinhalese couple also were with us.
When our six-vehicle convoy reached Vavuniya, the Northernmost border town of the Island, which separates the Sri Lankan Government-controlled areas and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)-controlled areas, there were people, who gathered to see what was happening.
It was a usual phenomenon in Asian rural areas as Europeans made visits. Whatever the hidden motive or drive which impelled them to meet the white-skinned foreigners, especially the Europeans, it was something they would not miss as it was a chance in a lifetime among these village folk.
While we were continuing our chat with the rural village folk, the LTTE's political wing leader of Vavuniya came there to confirm a smooth crossover into LTTE controlled areas. After the Ceasefire Agreement between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE, there had been a new development, which enabled the LTTE's political wing to operate in the Sri Lankan Government-controlled traditional Tamil areas.
We started our journey towards Kilinochchi and reached the Omanthai Military Check Point, the Northern most Frontier of the Sri Lanka Army in the mainland and stopped for clearance.
In a few minutes' time, by passing the No Man Zone, we reached the LTTE Check Point.
They were highly concerned about our mission as we were about to visit the Mullaitivu region, which is an LTTE stronghold. The German Television crew had come with satellite equipment for direct transmission of disaster immediately from the spot. We thought whether we would be facing any difficulties because of the security issues. But we had been cleared and were on our way to Kilinochchi.
While we were traveling, we found both sides of the highway were a blend of dense forests and the paddy lands created a lot of excitement and recalled my days in the CARE International nearly a decade ago.
It was hard to accept an offer to work in a war-torn area leaving my career at a consultancy firm, which was headed by Dr. C. Perumal Pillai, a retired Senior Official at the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization.
Dr. Pillai was discouraging me from working in the war-torn area, and apprised me of the difficulties I would have to face while I was working there. Later, to some extent, I realized the truth of what he said when I faced various difficulties, which directly and indirectly affected me.
My short tenure in the war-torn rural and jungle areas not only influenced my lifestyle but also helped me to see the world from a different perspective.
After two hours of our journey we reached Murukandy, a stopover for passengers where a small Hindu temple was found. It has become a tradition for passengers to stop there and worship the statue, which was enshrined in that small temple especially if they were Hindus.
We too stopped for a while and reached Kilinochchi to meet Thaya Master, LTTE's media spokesman who was coordinating our mission in the LTTE-controlled areas. He was startled at the number of people on our mission.
Visiting NGO members and the media people had already secured all accommodation.
We were stalled for a couple of hours. The German T.V. crew and the students were in their vans for hours and it was sad to see their situation.
Somehow or other the LTTE's Political Wing found accommodation and the young Sinhalese couple got a room at the LTTE's Political Wing office. The incident was as surprising as an Israeli couple taking night shelter at the office of the Palestinian rebels.
* * *
We had distributed some medicines to the Kilinochchi hospital and then went to a luxury restaurant surprisingly in the jungle town.
After we had a light meal, I delayed to join the others, settling the bills on behalf of AGSEP. To my chagrin, I found that the six-vehicle convoy had left to Mullaitivu without me. I expected when I changed my vehicle for another that it would lead to some complication. And so it did. But the correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Sinhala service was around there and agreed to take me to Mullaitivu on his motorbike.
Our motorbike was going at a controlled speed because the Paranthan - Mullaitivu highway was heavily damaged by the on-going war and also heavily mined. There were a few miles of repaired roads, after which you would be getting on to a gravelled passage. Along the highway, good stretches of road alternate with bad ones. We had to reduce speed often and then step up. I wondered how our German friends managed to travel through this road.
While we were passing the "Bamboo-River" settlement my CARE day experiences came back to me. The displaced people from Trincomalee, a North Eastern coastal town of the Island, were settled down there several years ago and it was then a flourishing tiny hamlet. Once I attended a function there nearly a decade ago and delivered a speech, which was unforgettable to me.
While our motorbike was quickly passing the "Bamboo-River" area, we reached close to the "New settlement scheme", a relatively new town of some forty years, nestling in the dense jungle area. While going, we were stopped by LTTE policemen, but as we had permits to enter the high security Zone of the LTTE, we managed to pass the Check Point without any hassle.
Our bike sped fast and we reached within half an hour the "New settlement scheme" town. We reached the junction, which connects the road to Mullaitivu Island and the other into dense jungle area in the mainland.
The six-vehicle convoy was slowly negotiating the bend towards Mullaitivu. I signalled with my hand and stopped the vehicle, which was foremost in the convoy. After I spoke to our German friends, I continued my journey on the motorbike, thus spearheading the convoy.
When we reached the tsunami-hit bridge, we stopped over it and had a close view of the devastated bridge and the surrounding area. In the vicinity we could see that LTTE cadres were reconstructing the bridge and excavating the debris under it to enable an uninterrupted water-flow along the narrow canal which links the Indian Ocean and the interior lake.
They narrated the terrific moments and how they managed to escape at the time of the tsunami tidal waves by jumping onto the upper-side of the area. We were horrified when they told how all the passengers and the vehicles passing by were washed away by the mighty tidal waves as though they were driftwood.
The tidal waves had not only devastated human lives but also deprived the survivors of all hope and the meaning for existing. Those horrific moments were again and again assailing me.
The convoy had approached the bridge and stopped near us. The scenic beauty of the narrow lagoon and the surrounding Palmyra trees everywhere cast a fascination over all, despite having depressed moments. But I had mixed feelings of whether to enjoy the tropical beauty or mourn for those who were washed away there a few days ago. The German television crew was busy in documenting the lagoon and the surrounding devastation.
A nauseating stench emanating from decomposed human bodies assailed our noses from the bridge area and all the way thereafter for some time.
We had passed the devastated Mullaitivu town, which was now beyond recognition. Then we returned back and reached the demolished town. When we approached the heart of the Mullaitivu town, we could see the havoc wreaked had completely destroyed the buildings. It was difficult to reconcile that there was a town there earlier.
The Sea Tiger unit of the LTTE cadres at the junction stopped us. They inquired about our mission, as that was the first time that the AGSEP had come into the heart of the LTTE stronghold in Mullaitivu.
After we explained to the LTTE officials they allowed us to proceed to the tsunami-devastated areas and sent with us a member of the Sea Tiger unit to guide us. Our vehicles were passing the sandy passage very slowly, following the LTTE cadre who was riding a motorbike.
We stopped our vehicles near the beach after passing massive debris of tsunami devastation everywhere in the vicinity. We could hardly see a building, which had withstood the tidal waves. The LTTE member told us they were still excavating the dead bodies from a nearby pond, which was once a tiny rainwater reservoir and now turned into a saltwater pond. He was telling how a toddy-tapper who was on top of a coconut tree had saved a person's life who was under the tree, which was near the beach by his timely warning.
It was so horrific to think that many of the tsunami victims were seen being swept out to sea when the ocean retreated. There were large wrecked boats there in the vicinity. As tsunami wave activity is imperceptible in the open ocean, if those vessels had not returned to port they might have escaped that fatal end. The way the boats had been flung to the interior of the land and the extent of the wreckage frightened me. If the fishermen had the right information on time and taken their vessels out to sea, they might have saved their lives and boats as well.
The Pacific Ocean is fixed with sensitive recorders on the sea floor to measure pressure changes in the overhead water, sending the information to sensors on buoys, which, in turn, relay the data to satellites for immediate transmission to warning centres. As there was no warning system for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, the tsunami eluded and caused the worst disaster in the history of the Indian Ocean Rim countries.
We moved towards the narrow lane, which was now covered everywhere with the sand and debris. We found it difficult to determine whether the lane through which we were walking was a busy thoroughfare just a week ago. We were roaming over the ruined buildings and then walked along the beach. It was difficult to reconcile that a once flourishing heavily populated coastal hamlet had been annihilated in just a few minutes.
The LTTE member who was familiar with that area pointed at a ruined road and told us it was a marine drive earlier, linking the coastal areas. He told how the sea had made incursions into the land. The tectonic plates at the bottom of the southern Andaman - Nichobar Island had been shifted upward and the seabed subsequently. Tectonic plate movements had taken place for millions of years resulting in tidal waves when they emitted energy out to the surface as massive earthquakes.
Turning my direction towards the north, I was reminded of how some thousand years ago the city of Poompugar was sunk by tidal waves. Archaeological findings show that the Poompugar city, which was inundated, was off the coast of Tamil Nadu of Southern India as mentioned in Tamil texts. Some other older texts like Tolkappiyam, the oldest surviving Tamil text and grammar book written supposedly around 500 B.C., says that the Poompugar City was supposedly flourishing there around 5000 B.C. before tsunami tidal waves took the city beneath the sea. Most of the people thought it was only a myth until they experienced the 2004-tsunami tidal waves and experienced its massive devastation.
Tsuanami Memories - Prehistoric Asteroid-Collision on Earth
Drifting memories of the ruined Poompugar came back to me while I was moving around the altered coastal line of Mullaitivu, and the prehistoric asteroid which struck the Planet. Geologists Gary Byerly, Xiaogang Xie, Donald Lowe and Joseph Wooden of Louisiana State and Stanford universities published in the journal SCIENCE about the strike. They had found traces of an asteroid-collision that they said would have created a giant tsunami that swept around the earth several times, inundating everything except the mountains and changed drastically and almost all life on land was exterminated. When the asteroid hit, it was vaporized by the extreme energy of the impact.
Condensation of this vapor produced droplets of melt, called spherules, which dropped into the roiling sea over the next few days and were deposited in layers on the sea floor.
This cataclysm some 3.5 billion years ago is the earliest known meteor to hit the Earth, and one of at least four that have been identified in a geologically brief 300-million-year period.
Excerpted from German Memories in Asiaby Rajkumar Kanagasingam Copyright © 2007 by Rajkumar Kanagasingam. Excerpted by permission.
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