Hambantota, Memories Of A Tsunami Devastated Town

© Sunimal Perera

"And when one weeps with eyes of welling tears.
Remembering a realm of pristine charm.
The thoughts languish on some fond bygone years.
The sadness rife surveying nature's harm.
A heavy heart now beats in soft refrain,
To quell the surging ghosts of this terrain !"
© Sunimal Perera, Montreal,Canada

This is a view of Hambantota Bay looking in a southerly direction from where approximately the local fishmarket used to stand in the 60's as I recall , and all that is left now as depicted is a wasteland of debris, desolation and emptiness which epitomises what the Tsunami left behind in Hambantota as part of its sad legacy which also echoed along thousands of kilometres of the coastal belt of Sri Lanka in a trail of horror and devastation never before seen in such magnitude in this part of the world.

A twisted and unretrieved bicycle, a boat washed ashore, perhaps some poor mortals' only means of transportation and livelihood also bear testimony to Hambantota's devastations as a vast expanse of empty lonely space as far as the eye can see, which stares back in solemn silence as one gazes in disbelief at this heartbreaking landscape where only, a now tranquil bay in the distance seems calm compared to its picture post card setting of just a month ago!

My memories of this idyllic beachside town goes back to a time when I was a little boy filled with a sense of adventure and the love of the ocean and the times I spent in Hambantota with two members of my immediate family.
A maternal uncle and aunt were once stationed there with their families, the former as Divisional Revenue Officer and subsequently Assistant Commissioner of Agrarian Services and the latter whose husband was the Government Agent, a tall broad shouldered and disciplined gentleman well known and respected in the community and various enclaves of the many Governent Officers stationed there at the time, being the Chief Government representative for the Region.

Hambantota holds cherished memories for me as I spent many long holidays there with my relatives and also lived for sometime with my Uncle and Aunt who occupied the Residency at the time, through whom I was privileged to enjoy the beauty of this pristine place and around whom my time in Hambantota was richly spent and embellished with the joyful exuberance of life which both my aunt and uncle generated as they were wonderful people who brought so much joy into my life.

In those days it was a haven for holidaymakers both in Hambantota and nearby Bundala, wild life buffs enroute to Yala and Weerawila Game Sanctuaries and pilgrims on their way to Tissamaharama and Kataragama.
My personal anecdotes about Hambantota are cherished and etched in my memory forever while my immediate thoughts reflect upon the countless number of residents and visitors who became victims to the ravages of a cruel sea in deadly turbulence set in place by an equally deadly subterranean earthquake whose coming they never knew until it was practically upon them in the flash of an eye!

Reflecting on the post Tsunami Hambantota today as I survey the damage caused consequently, I am deeply saddened by the battering it has taken from the onslaught and hope fervently that Hambantota will be restored to at least a semblance of its former beauty which perhaps in an idyllic sense was incomparable to any other location I have ever been in and I say this as a personal tribute from the depths of my heart to the town and its townfolk, simple, warm hearted, friendly people typifying most of Sri Lanka whose pain and grief I share very deeply.
I had many friends there some of them poor fisherfolk who put out to sea in their huge catamarans and later the mechanized fishing boats and the gang of fisherfolk who cast the Ma Della or Big Net each Sunday and dragged it in to their hypnotic chant of Odi Helleiya as I watched in fascination at the vast array of fish, prawns and crabs as they were arranged into pre-auction baskets taken from the net. Invariably being recognized as the 'podi sir ' from the ' Ejantha Gedara' as I was sometimes called, I was invariably given a medium sized Bonito or Tuna fish which I would carry home and into the kitchen for a delectable Ambul Thiyal they were eventually transformed into by the cullinary expertise of the servants and in particularly a Malay boy who was a local resident through whom I made many Malay friends.
Hambantota has a large Malay population alongside the Sinhalese residents and I have sadly recieved information that many families , some closely known to me were decimated and wiped out by the Tsunami and I dedicate this narrative to their memory as well as all of Hambantota.

This was the town where the famous British writer Sir Leonard Woolf served as Government Agent and was inspired to write his memorable novel "The Village In The Jungle" , Sinhala Translation Beddegama, based on a nearby vilage deep in the recesses of the fauna infested Ruhuna Jungles and lived in the same majestic Residency or Government House that I occupied many years later courtesy of my Uncle and Aunt .It was a glorious tribute to Dutch Architecture once typifying the period of Dutch Occupation of Ceylon with a Garrison and Parade Ground to match, restored to an even greater ambience of British architectural traditions refurbished and built solidly atop a hill , a vast house with huge rooms, massive oak doors, a regal interior of spacious living and dining quarters both for its Prominent Occupants and servants as well as a row of vast stables designed originally for Horses and converted to garages.
The walled Residency had a commanding view of the entire Hambantota Bay and ocean surrounding it, with miles and miles of endless wild coastline interspaced in places with steep columns of rocks and the remnants of an ancient pier washed away with time and only the concrete columns now standing, where the ocean surf boomed constantly, crashing huge waves against them as I recall listening in awe to the sound of the surf from my room, often late into the night, a sound which fascinates me to this day wherever the surf booms against rocks and I travel back in time to Hambantota albeit with a haunting ring to it accompanying the many voices of the dead whose spirits surely linger on along the coast !

Mercifully the Residency has been spared of the ravages of the perilous Tsunami and still languishes as a majestic sentinel almost in sad perspective bearing testimony to a vast tragedy that unfolded there as the rest of coastal Hambantota has been reduced mostly to rubble and debris and most of its humanity who lived along the coastline washed away to sea together with their livelihood as this has been an area of heavy human casualties where the low lying areas were once heavily inhabited and only a lonely high wind now prevails across the beaches, desolate but for the purple periwinkles and ipomea swaying sadly in iambic rhythm to a staccato of the leaves of sentinel Palms dotting the coastline almost as in a requiem for the dead.

But Oh how horrendous it was! when the tsunami struck this tranquil beachside town and enveloped its helpless, screaming residents in a instant and caught them unawares that fateful morning of the murderous crashing of gigantic waves, the flailing hapless victims carried by the swirling merciless vortex of churning black water to be battered against the rocks and concrete of collapsed buildings, their bodies crushed beyond recognition, their very souls torn apart as the wailings of the living for the dead rose in a strange crescendo long after the wrath of nature had subsided taking its toll and the lucky survivors had an incredible mind shattering story to tell.

( To Be Continued......)



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