Monday, January 10, 2005

Palamunai in Batticaloa District

Palamunai is about 4 km south of Batticaloa beyond Kattankudy. Neer Mohan of the EUSL was showing us to some camps - we turned towards the sea from the main road which was not affected. Going into the interior we stop at "tent camp" . There are about 30 tents here - each of thm an abode for one household. There are Korean or Japanese signage on the blue tents but there is also signage of more recent vintage claiming it to be "'donated by Hisbullah" who is a politician.

The tents are on the grounds of a mosque. We stop to talk to the camp in-charge who is also the Grama Niladhari - which is a sort of village representitve of the government. The camp seems well organized - he says that they are getting adequate supplies - yet, he worries about the impact the tent lives has on people - they get lazy, socialize in ways that he would not aprove - and so on. He also says that while the government and individuals provide provisions, it all needs to be cooked and they have to organize the displaced into this. It all seems unsympathetic to me until he says that he is a survivor too - he had ended up riding the third wave - the most brutal one - on a plank - claiming that his training in his youth as a reserve policemen where he learnt not to fight the water but to steer himseelf saved him. He was deposited somewhere far away by the wave. He must have been in his fifties.

There are others listening in. They are all happy to talk - this is not the practiced converstations of town-dwellers. They are a mixture of fisher folks, farmers and traders here. They are Ok with being photographed. One of them is an older man in sixties and he has an otherworldly look - he says that its all in the hands of God. We wanted to see what the interior was like so we went in with this man in the jeep. Naushad and Jayasundera had been listening to stories on their own inside the camp and even the worldly Naushard found it jarring to be offered tea in one tent.

As you go close to the sea, the houses get to be more and more packed. The people like to live by the sea. Sometimes back when I was at Peradeniya some of my colleagues did a study of water and sanitation in Kattankudy and found that all the wells were contaminated rather badly. The practice here is when one daughter gets married the parents either leave their house and go elsewhere or build a new house. Land was getting subdivided into smaller and smaller plots and the distances between sanitation pits and wells were shrinking. Settlements such as this was worst near the coast and being separated by water on both sides and there was ethnic tensions magnified by the civil war so they could not easily build outwards.

The devastation here was similar to that in Navalkudy - the damage extended to about a km interior intensifying as you got to the coast. Our guide showed us his house - shattered and beyond disrepair - some how his chimney and water tank stood. His house must have been the first facing the sea. It was set about 50 meters inland and the land where it stood was about 5 meters above the sea. All the houses around it going to about two blocks interior were damaged. His daughters had built houses towards the sea neighbouring his - all three houses were damaged beyond disrepair. He had lost a granddaughter but the others had escaped. How that might happened can only be understood in the realm of fantasy. He knows the sea - he is a fisherman sailing the Eastern seas from Pottuvil to China Bay in Trincomalee spending up to three days away at a time. He is detailed in describing the waves - the three waves how it receded, how it reared up, how they all tried to run, its color (green and then white) and the immensity of it.

Most of the houses by the coast are that of the poor - trapped in many ways - and they live precariously in places that are too crowded for proper santitation, defenceless against even a cyclone, ignored away from the bustle of neighbouring center of Kattankudy - where the shops and many and are stocked well.