Once Sri Lanka's surf paradise, Arugam Bay offers only rubble and mass graves after the tsunami
Lost to the sea
By Kavan Ratnatunga
Arugam Bay on the south-east coast of Lanka is surf paradise. Many travel there directly from the airport ignoring the country’smany other attractions. In the aftermath of the tsunami, on December 30, I joined Lt.Col. Anil Amerasekara, Daya Fernando who had a beach house in Arugam Bay and Lalith Karunaratna who is an engineer from Sony in Dubai to deliver relief aid from the Thawalama organisation to Pottuvil and Arugam Bay.

Driving south to Lahugala, we passed many aid trucks on the road each with a large white banner in front proclaiming the name of the organization. An idea probably started by aid sent by one TV station and copied by many. I was glad our vehicle had no banner, there was no need for self-publicity at this time. Lahugala near the STF camp was crammed with trucks. There were far more items than could be stored for distribution to the victims. All possible rooms which had any storage space were piled to the ceiling. One needed to "know someone" to get any aid stored under cover. Dry rations unloaded next to the road were soaking in the rain for lack of covered space.

We dropped off all of the relief supplies at the local administration office at Lahugala which agreed to distribute them to the tsunami victims when needed over the next few weeks.

Driving east to Pottuvil, we passed beautiful green paddy-fields and then saw the Pottuvil to Arugam Bay bridge in the distant horizon. Half of the bridge had been washed away and the other half stood ending in midair. The surroundings abruptly changed to a barren land washed away by the tsunami.The town was a huge mess, though in the process of being cleaned. Earth moving plows were hard at work. All of the shops near the coast had been washed away leaving empty shells. The dead had been buried in mass graves. We were told that some of the foreigners had been photographed before burial and sites recorded, but I suspect this was not done systematically.

It was amazing to see the Buddha statue next to the bridge absolutely undamaged. Even the plate glass in front of it and the Bodhi tree near it were unscathed, even though there was much destruction to the Pottuvil village behind it and the distant half of the large bridge was completely destroyed and washed away.

We went by boat under the bridge and across the causeway, to get to Arugam Bay. Walking onto devastated land was an eerie feeling. The residents had all left leaving a ghost town behind. A stray dog was looking for lunch. Items that had floated in had landed in unexpected places. There were beds from guest-houses next to smashed up cars and boats.

Suddenly we came up to a large sign which read "Tsunami Beach Hotel Restaurant" below a painted tidal wave. We had clearly reached surf paradise, but sadly it had been an untimely death for many from surfing a tsunami.

The Bank of Ceylon next to the Pizzeria, Bier Garten and Internet Café were reminders of the rich international culture in Arugam Bay. A laptop could be seen open on the ground where the receding wave had left it. An album of photographs showed glimpses of a happier past.

After about a two km walk in the light rain through the devastated land we reached Daya's partly destroyed beach house. The front door and half the kitchen had been washed away. The first wave had struck about 9 a.m. and the second which was much stronger soon after. It had gone over the electricity posts which are probably around 25 feet high. The two caretakers had luckily lived through the ordeal with the tourists who had been in residence. They were able to swim as a small group and ride out the wave.

They told the story of the night before the tsunami when an wild elephant had come to the back of the hotel and refused to go away, even when chased. The caretakers are now convinced the elephant was trying to warn them of the tsunami.

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