PERALIYA, Sri Lanka—The international police agency Interpol dug up a mass grave here, looking for Europeans killed when the Dec. 26 tsunami washed a train off its tracks. They found two, among 2,000 bodies bulldozed into a huge hole, identifying them by their larger skeletons and dental fillings.
The action upset local villagers, said Alison Thompson, volunteer head of medical services at the Sri Lankan village that gained international attention through media coverage of the tsunami disaster.
Sixteen more bodies were found in Peraliya last Thursday, Thompson told EthicsDaily.com. She said bodies or parts of bodies are found every day in the disaster area that runs inland some three miles from the beach.
Born in Australia, the long-time resident of New York City arrived in Peraliya on Jan. 6. She planned to stay for two weeks but extended her work for five weeks in the village on the coastal road between Colombo and Galle.
“I don’t want to leave too soon,” she said, giving little indication when she might return home.
As for the homes in Peraliya, most were completely demolished. One had an interior wall held together with plumbing fixtures and tiles. Few buildings survived intact, and those that did were damaged.
In the neighboring village of Telwatta, the remaining section of the railway station roof left evidence of how high the water was.
Telwatta’s community leader, a single parent whose wife died several years ago, took comfort that his four children had survived.
Standing on the concrete foundation of his flattened home, washed several feet from its original location, T-nandan recalled how the tsunami came in two waves. The first wave rushed ashore and then the ocean retreated half a mile.
Villagers went out to see what had happened, walking out to the shore, he said. Twenty minutes later the second and more destructive wave came, catching many of the curiosity seekers unaware.
Most Telwatte residences now live in small tents. Their fishing boats were destroyed and nets lost. Their bakery is unusable.
Compared to Telwatte, the scene in Peraliya shows evidence of what a number of foreign volunteers can accomplish, working with villages to remover debris, stack reusable building materials and construct temporary shelters.
The arrival of a German medical team with an X-ray machine added to the list of volunteers from Australia, Britain, Cuba, France and other nations. Nine African-American students from OakwoodCollege in Huntsville, Ala., had been in the village for several weeks.
During a relief and rehabilitation visit, Paul Montacute, director of Baptist World Aid, discussed with Freddy de Alwis, a Sri Lankan Baptist pastor, about funding for the construction of 20 temporary houses in Telwatte and 40 in Peraliya.
The cost for debris removal and construction for each temporary home is $300, said Alwis, who has already been working with the local Buddhist priest and the community council to help displaced persons to rebuild.
According to government decree, outside-funded homes must be built at least 100 meters from the beach. This decision distressed many villagers who lost property. Relocating away from the beach posed a hardship for fisherman.
At the 200 square-foot medical clinic in Peraliya, which serves 300 people daily, childrens’ drawings covered a partition in the crowded room.
One child, Hansami, wrote to Thompson in green crayon, “Tsunami is the most unfortunate moment happen in my life.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.