Monday, December 29, 2014

Sri Lanka: After the Tsunami

"The Queen of the Sea": Wreck of the holiday train in which some 1700 people died On December 26th 2004

I have visited Sri Lanka many times. Perhaps the most memorable, and certainly the most poignant visit was in April 2005, just a few months after the Tsunami in which over 30,000 Sri Lankans had died. The most horrific sight we saw was the wreckage of the train, close to the main road between Colombo and Galle, near the village of Telwatta.

Tourists surveying the damage

Close up of damage to a second class carriage

Close by were the temporary huts and tents in which those who had lost their homes were living. I have often wondered how long people remained in them before they were re-housed.

Temporary housing on the Colombo Galle road

Temporary housing among the palm trees

Tents on the beach

Perhaps the most surprising sight was this sign photographed outside a tent, not far from the train wreckage.

Antiques open for business?

I remember that our driver found it amusing, and I suspect that I did too. We were not sure whether it was an indication of its owner's sense of humour, or of an indefatigable spirit and a determination to get his antiques business going again.

We also visited the cricket stadium in Galle, which had been badly damaged by the Tsunami, and was used as a temporary camp for people displaced by the Tsunami.

Cricket ground at Galle just after Tsunami

Renovation of this stadium did not begin until over a year after our visit.

Cricket ground at Galle April 2005

On our return we were taken to visit the Turtle Sanctuary which had been almost destroyed, but had somehow managed to reopen in March. Apparently in the aftermath of the Tsunami local fisherman, desperately in need of money, had turned to turtle egg poaching.

Tank in turtle sanctuary damaged by Tsunami

I did wonder at the time whether we were being voyeuristic in visiting the scene of so much recent horror, but people were very glad to see us, to witness their plight, to encourage tourism to recover and perhaps to put pressure on the authorities whose response was much criticised. I remember one man in particular going out of his way to shake my hand and tell me how grateful they were for the response of the Government and people of the UK to their tragedy. "We will never forget their generosity" he told me.

Among many memories of this trip is the remarkable story we were told when revisiting a hotel on the south coast in which we had stayed on a previous visit: apparently one of the elephants kept there had sensed that something catastrophic was happening, had broken free from its chains, picked up its keeper, and charged to higher ground before the tidal wave arrived.

I notice that Laura Davies, the UK's Deputy High Commissioner in Sri Lanka has written a blog in which a number of people have been invited to share their reminiscences of this dreadful calamity. It is well worth reading.


  1. You were sensitive to the locals' feelings... I too would wonder at the time whether visitors were being voyeuristic in visiting the scene of so much recent horror. But a photographic trip is a wake up call to outsiders sitting in their splendid comfort 5,000 ks away AND a huge prod to governments who have cut back and back on foreign aid.

    I felt exactly the same way after Melbourne's Black Saturday bush fires of 2009. It didn't compare with the Sri Lankan tragedy in scale, but the physical devastation and stench will stay with me forever.

    1. Yes I seem to remember that we were encouraged to go on the trip to Galle by a Sri Lankan colleague who arranged the transport for us. Otherwise I doubt we would have gone. It was important though to the local economy that tourists returned.