|Alfred Ironside, UNICEF's Media Chief|
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UNICEF’s Media Chief, Alfred Ironside, reports from Sri Lanka, one of the countries hardest-hit by the tsunami. He is accompanying UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy on her visit of the devastated region.
By Alfred Ironside
MULLAITIVU, Sri Lanka, 4 January 2005 - Carol Bellamy spent most of the day in and around the town of Mullaitivu, which is in LTTE territory. She met with local NGOs and government representatives and LTTE representatives who have come together to manage relief efforts in a highly organized manner. The needs are enormous, with several thousand dead and tens of thousands displaced.
The town of Mullaitivu had seen resurgence in recent times, when the government-LTTE ceasefire encouraged people to return to areas like this one that had been the scene of regular fighting. There had been much recent construction, and much hope in this seaside district of some 40,000 people – about 23,000 of whom are now in shelters. The town itself, which fronts a beautiful beach and extends inland about two kilometres, was almost entirely destroyed by the tsunami. I don't imagine it was a beautiful town as such, not a resort of any kind, with the main roads being dirt and the primary business being fishing. But it appears to have been a thriving, growing, civilized place, nestled among the palm and coconut trees and an inviting natural beauty.
The tsunami, which locals said came shore at about some ten meters in height, flattened virtually everything in sight. We passed for hundreds of meters through ruined neighbourhoods -- nothing was spared but the trees, which were, like in so many places, the lifeline for those who managed to swim into their upper fronds and hold on.
|Sri Lanka: UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy speaks with a girl who was injured during the tsunami, at the General Hospital in the southern city of Matara. Ms. Bellamy is accompanied by local officials and health workers.|
As Carol surveyed the destruction nearest the beach -- where not even the local churches and mosques could withstand the waves and were demolished, save a singular bell tower -- I walked out onto the sand and looked out at the ocean. It was a good afternoon for being by the sea, which was a cool green colour and lively but not rough. I listened to the waves roll up onto shore.
The sound is a pleasant one, one I associate with warm, bucolic days of contemplation and life loved. To then turn around and see the remains of a great violence and life destroyed was an unsettling and deeply affecting experience. As far inland as the eye carried nary a building stood.
Inland more than a kilometre was the Mullaitivu home for children, a large and clean establishment that cared for orphans but also for children who lacked fathers and whose mothers had enrolled in vocational training in distant places and who needed a place for their children while away.
Home to about 120 youngsters, the facility was destroyed by the waves, killing 80 of the children and half the staff. We met the survivors at a new facility about an hour inland that had been arranged by UNICEF. In new dresses and pants, the children played in a yard on mats which covered the dirt. Neat, clean and beautiful, they seemed like any you might meet in a well-regulated schoolyard. But when Carol began to ask them questions, their rosy features turned blank and silent. None was able to communicate about what had been experienced, if indeed they were able to comprehend it at all.
When later we saw their old, destroyed home near the ocean, the nightmare they had lived through came all too clear. With some walls of the main home still standing, one could peer inside the large dormitory and envision a frightening scene of inrushing seawater, metal-frame beds swept to one end of the room, darkness, panic, drowning. In fact the tangled pile of bed coils, clothes and toys smashed against the inland end of the room told all -- of a deadly force that could not be resisted and could barely be escaped.
"It's so cruel," Carol remarked near the centre of town. "First there was war, then there was hope, and then came calamity. It doesn't seem fair."
The entire time we spent in the ruins of the town I was aware of another sound besides that of the sea. It was the incessant calling of the crows, thousands of them in the trees and in the rubble, constantly rustling and screaming. It was a disturbing echo of life snatched away.