BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka – On Wednesday morning, a trail of rusty Massey Ferguson tractors, loaded with volunteers wearing surgical masks and gloves, trudges along a washed-out road to the Navaladi peninsula.
Here, on the white sand beaches of Batticaloa, the tsunami that devastated south Asia slammed without warning into the island of Sri Lanka.
Not even the foundations of houses remain. The dead are tangled in trees and buried under red brick and concrete. Black smoke and military helicopters circle overhead. Searching by smell, the clearance squad discovers five bodies, and the carcasses of a cow and numerous dogs and cats, before noon.
With the death toll in Sri Lanka climbing, this sleepy fishing town has lost at least 1,500 people – 80 percent of whom are women and children, according to city officials. Two hundred were washed away while attending Sunday school. Fifty-seven were buried instantly while offering morning prayers at a Hindu temple. The massive wall of water hit land and destroyed everything in its path.
The city morgue, which has storage facilities for six bodies, was crowded with almost 300 corpses by 2 p.m. on Sunday. On Monday, hospital staff dug two mass graves at the city cemetery, filled them and buried the dead where they lay. Tuesday brought the threat of disease and contamination, and the sun-splashed seaside of Batticaloa turned black with the smoke of hundreds of funeral pyres.
Even for an island nation that has endured 20 years of war, the totality and unexpectedness of the destruction is unfathomable.
“I am in shock, and I am exhausted. The only way I sleep at night is by drinking. Without some alcohol, I see this when I close my eyes,” says S. Ranjari, a local civil servant who, along with a group of teachers, accountants and salesmen, has been on body clearance detail for the past four days.
When the first of three waves hit land at 9 a.m. on a sunny and still Sunday there was complete panic.
“Everyone ran to the water to see what had happened. But when they saw churches and cars and bodies floating in the lagoon, they ran back to the city. For five hours it was total chaos,” says U.N. World Food Program Director Bashir Tani.
Every church, temple and schoolhouse in the region has become a refugee camp. In a district with a population of 500,000, more than 50,000 families are displaced in 93 refugee centers. But neither international nor Sri Lankan government aid has reached Batticaloa.
Asked earlier this week when government supplies would be arriving from Colombo, the chief engineer for the district, Prakesh Dharmarajah, threw up his hands and said wearily, “God only knows.”
What is known is that the region’s commercial fishing industry has been wiped out. Officials speculate that it will take at least a year for the industry to recover. Not only have most of the fishermen been killed, but locals, fearing contamination, are now reluctant to eat anything from the sea.
Also contaminated is the drinking water supply. Island residents rely mostly on ground wells, but they have been flooded with seawater. The local market was also flooded, and fruits and vegetables must be brought in along with drinking water.
Transportation, however, has been slow due to canceled rail service and the large number of bridges that have washed away.
In the coming weeks and months, the battle will be against infection and disease. Medical officials are already reporting cases of diarrhea and respiratory tract infections in refugee camps.
One local doctor stressed that there was a desperate need for injectable antibiotics. “We have stock enough for the next week. Then, I don’t know. Can you get the message out? Can you help?”