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After the tsunami - a diary from Sri Lanka

January 13, 2005 By Quirin Schiermeier This article courtesy of Nature News.

In the aftermath of one of the deadliest natural disasters in decades, Quirin Schiermeier travels to Sri Lanka with a team of scientists to see how the area was affected. He reports back with details of their investigations, and impressions of life today

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Day 8: Back home

I'm now back in Germany, busy drafting a news feature describing the science team's survey of the tsunami damage. This is routine business for a reporter, but I'm still struggling to cope with the things I have seen and heard over the last few days. I guess all the team members feel the same. When we said our goodbyes in the lobby of the Trans Asian hotel in Colombo we confessed what a conflicting experience this has been for us: doing science, even having some good fun, amidst all the grief and the destruction. We can go home to our friends and families; the thousands in Sri Lanka who lost everything they had cannot. "At times I feel guilty, even though I know I don't need to," Philip Liu, our team leader, told me.

On Saturday, he and the others presented some preliminary findings to the media and to government officials in Colombo. Before the meeting started, the Sri Lankan minister of science lighted a traditional oil lamp, and the audience stood up. Then there were two minutes of silence. At the end, Sri Lanka's national anthem was played.

The Sri Lankan officials said they will utilize the information presented by Liu and others as best and as fast as they can, to make sure that such a human disaster won't happen again. Someone suggested memorials be put up on all the affected coasts too, to remind future generations about what happened. If the small contribution of this team helps to mitigate the hazards of the sea, I will be happy.

I love the ocean - its sound and its eternal movement - just as all the fishermen we spoke to during this trip do. But if there is one thing we have learned, it is to remember that this beauty holds the potential for mass destruction.

Day 4: Frustration

The destruction becomes ever more horrifying the further south we go. Some areas in Kalmunai, a Muslim community of 90,000 people, are completely wiped out. More than 6,000 people have been killed here; half of them have never been found. The people here are completely unable to cope. Volunteers from a neighbouring village are helping with the clean-up as best they can. I speak with a group of helpers who are dredging loads of unidentifiable dark lumps out of a destroyed house. All wear surgical masks, and not just against the penetrating smell of wet garbage. Just a few hours ago they discovered a human head in an advanced state of decomposition. They buried it on the beach.

Is it possible to be just a reporter here? I feel part of the science team, carrying tools and helping to take samples. And wanting to help, though it is hard or impossible for us to provide any significant aid. Young men and droves of children - no women - gather everywhere we stop, asking us who we are, where we come from, what we are doing. They don't ask for money. Children curiously grasp at the geological field tools, and we just let them play. The people here seem to appreciate that foreigners care at all, even if that care manifests itself as scientific curiosity rather than relief work.

It is getting increasingly difficult to reach the affected areas. We have to drive for hours on roads that alternate between broken asphalt and even worse gravel. It is frustrating to waste hours and hours in the jeep. We frequently need to stop at military posts, some belonging to government troops, some the Tamil Tigers. It is not always clear to me whose territory we are in. Yesterday a bomb went off not far away. The children in a refugee camp we visited get landmine education. Tom Paulson, a colleague from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, helped to hand out landmine pamphlets to children.

We spent the night in an army base. The major served us beer and dinner. Three of us shared one bare room. The beds had no sheets; I didn't dare use the showers. But I slept better than I have done in many luxurious king-size beds before.

Day 2: Hardest hit

Our team splits up in two groups today. One goes north to look for tsunami sediment deposits on beaches further north. I join the group that visits some of the most badly hit regions south of our base.

After just a few kilometres by car, we take the ferry to Kinnya, on the far side of the bay. We have all seen the pictures on TV, but actually standing her is a shock. Every house, every structure, everything within 200 metres or so of the beach is gone, ruined, in pieces. Garbage, bricks, fishing boats: whatever remains of them is scattered everywhere. Maybe a submerged canyon has channelled the energy of the wave here, suggests Liu, the team leader. After just a few hundred metres we pass the former Kinnya District Hospital, which is now a total ruin. Two armed military policemen guard the remnant from looting. What once was a dental chair rots between piles of steel chairs scattered in the glaring sun. Around 40 patients had been in the hospital when the flood came out of the blue; most of them are dead or missing.

The geologists search the ruins for water marks and collect some data, exchanging orders with walkie-talkies. Wherever we stop, local people gather around us, telling us their version of what happened. Memories differ as to when exactly the first wave struck - most of the people here, most of them fishermen, are too poor to be able to afford watches. More than 200 people have been killed in this small strip of land, among them at least 100 children. Abdul Farouth, 39, was lucky: his 7-strong family survived. But his two brothers' wives and three little children are dead.

At least there seems to be enough food and clean water. The medical situation is also under control, with no disease outbreaks so far. Help has come quickly here: UNICEF and the Red Cross teams arrived 24 hours after the catastrophe. Over a thousand survivors live in a refugee camp some two kilometres from the coast. The biggest fear now, says Faruk, a young fisherman, is that the wave might come back. If the government provides permission to build new houses somewhere else, they will move, he says.

The tsunami has swallowed the old coastal road. A rough new track has hastily been built, but proceeding gets more and more difficult as vehicles, cattle and crowds of people congest the road. We decide to turn.

The detour to Muthur proves to be a long, bumpy trip, frequently interrupted by military police. This is Tamil country, and the long civil war has left its traces. The region has been totally neglected. Hardly any government services seem to function, and the poverty is obvious. Still, we pass many laughing faces, waving children, and crowds of men wearing traditional sarongs. These people have not seen many foreigners in their life, and our Jeep is a source of much excitement. What a strange trip.

After more than three hours we reach Muthur, a small Muslim village. Crowds of children surround us as we inspect the area. The beach here has been totally destroyed too. More than 300 people died here. The few adults that have dropped by from the refugee camp lead us to the empty places where their houses stood, providing more sad accounts of wiped-out families, missing people, and dead babies.

Day 1: Arrival

Colombo, Sri Lanka doesn't give the impression of an island recently struck by disaster. Airport staff are wearing friendly smiles, and nowhere can I see the piles of undelivered aid supplies that I had expected. Three Irish ambulance workers disembark with me from the aircraft that flies me in from Dubai, and a small poster near the gate where we enter the airport building welcomes foreign relief workers "helping in this times of crisis". That's all.

With an odd mix of fascination, fear and sleepiness I gaze out the window on the 5-hour car ride to Trincomalee, a small city on the east coast, looking for signs of the catastrophe. I see mad Asian traffic, and streets scenes and people more bizarre than anything I have encountered in Asia before. Elephants pass our way. But there is no sign of despair, or of the hellish Armageddon that I have watched for two weeks now on TV. Then a truck comes our way loaded with something that could be coffins, but I'm not sure. Bandu, my driver, says he has lost two friends, his sister and brother in law and their little child in the tsunami.

I get increasingly nervous as we approach Trincomalee, on one of the most badly hit stretches of the coast. The town was controlled by the Tamil Tigers until the rebels and government troops made peace earlier this year. There are warnings of landmines. Will there be the smell of decomposing corpses in the air? Fortunately not, it turns out.

In the Oceanic Hotel I meet the team of US geologists and Tsunami experts who I will accompany over the next few days. The hotel has been cleaned of mud; it is barely 100 metres from the sea and was hit hard by the waves on 26 December. There is a group of Korean medical workers here, and I hear some Spanish and German in the lobby, but there appear to be no tourists. No one at the hotel was injured or killed, says the manager. In Triconmalee, more then 1,000 have been killed, and hundreds are still missing.

We make a first exploratory trip in two rented Jeeps to the city. Earlier today, Phil Liu, a geologist from Cornell University, got permission from the local chief of the military police for the planned fieldwork. Local fishermen, many of whom have lost their boats, tell us where the wave has hit and where they sought shelter. The geologists search the houses for water marks. T Mahalingam, the security guard in an orphan school, explains how he heard people on the street scream in panic and fled to a nearby hill. Mahalingam is 75 years old; nobody ever told him about tsunamis. There is no one here with a living memory of such a wave. Luckily, the 60 orphans hadn't gone to school on 26 December, when the flood came. Christmas is a holiday in Buddhist Sri Lanka.

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