Sunday, January 09, 2005

Getting to Batticaloa

I got to Batticaloa on the East Coast on the 9th of January driving down the hills from Kandy almost directly East. See this map. We had a late start around 11 am. For the journey, there was Iqbal ( a plant scientist at the Institute of Fundamental Studies), Naushad - a daring driver held back only by his 15 seater van and Jayasundera who had worked with Manjula and Janaki to put together an emergency water treatment plant. We have removed one seat to accomodate the water treatment plant and we fit in comforably in the van.

The landscape changes from steep green mountains with distant vistas of irrigation tanks and paddy fields in the middle of the main cultivation season to the rolling plains punctuated by outcroppings of hillocks and water works. See photo. Its been rainy heavy. After about 70 km we pass the Maha Oya Junction where you choose to turn to Ampara or Batticaloa. One passess several army and police checkpoints and then two LTTE checkpoints and then government check points to reach Batticaloa. The checking is cursory - the two barrels which are part of the water treatment plant draw attention - Naushard is the one to be questioned he is able to close conversations quickly by claiming that he is taking Doctors to the Coast.

After Maha Oya, it seems that the NGO's are signposted more than the LTTE. The roads remain passable although the infrastructure in the Tiger areas are poorer in this stretch. Even getting close to the coastal towns, such as Eravur, the infrastruture is still intact, the shops have goods, and people are getting about their business. The obvious signs initialy of what had happened here are the refugee camps that have now been set up either in schools, government offices, places of worship or in tent camps.

Iqbal knows the Acting Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Prof. Raveendranath well from his time as a Lecturer in the eastern university in its formative days and we visit with him - our primary contact - that job is prominent in Batticaloa and its not a job that has been safe or kind to its incumbent. Ravi has arranged to lodge us in the University guest house and introduced us to Dr. Manobhavan Manoharan of the Department of Agricultural Engineering to attend to us.

The guest house is full - there are teams of greek and portuguese doctors and relief workers to assess damage and to plan long-term work there, there are two Professors whose house was damaged. Yoga the guest house keeper has reserved two rooms for the four of us. Yoga had lost a brother or was it his brother-in-law south of Batticaloa and he had ridden in a circuitious way one evening to console and condole to Kalmunai on his bike and gotten back the next day - he runs a good operation.

Batticaloa is the town as well as the appellation for the district and a lagoon - and its on the coast and its lagoon is large and inland wetlands is extended - it is quite prominent if you look at a map of Sri Lanka (zoom in using geolanka or see image of Batticaloa Roads ).

I am up early - at 4 am - I try to write but the words dont come- Iqbal gets up too soon after and then we decide to go out for tea and to see first hand - Naushard is a sleep - we hitch a ride to the town with one of the drivers at the hotel - a few hotels are open, from where a three wheel driver takes us around - beyond the main bridge across the lagoon (Chenkaladi) and to a place that I recall as the road to Navalkudy which is a strip of land which stands between the lagoon and the sea. This took the full brunt of the carnage and about 80% of the people in some of the villages died.

As we approach the coast, the level of the carnage builds up - about 1 -km away there are signs of inundation of misplaced debris - boats inland, flooding and then vehicles broken up - its been two weeks since and the roads are clear, the bodies are gone, much has been put in place - yet as one gets closer passing some NGO offices, the Irrigation Department regional office, houses tilt unnaturally, doors frames are broken and then when you get to 250 meters from the beach, then the houses are just destroyed - as if some giant in a peevish fit would disarrange it all - Iqbal notices that the coconut trees and the mangroves continue to live and stand. Right around them is destruction. Houses collapsed. Electric posts bent into two around a coconut tree. This strip of land goes several kilometers before it gets to the moutn of the lagoon. However, the road has been washed off about 300 meter and it is unpassable even for a three wheeler. We stop walk the dunes see that some rare structures had done slightly better - but the design of these houses had no consideration to cyclones let alone Tsunamis. A cyclone had devastated Batti in 1978 and it had not really recovered from that yet.

The driver says that the waves reached 20 meters here - there is , a tower of some sort which has been truncated around that height - why that its peak would get lopped off is a mystery.