The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

20 years of war in twenty minutes
There is no journalist's equivalent of a half-mast flag or a two minutes silence. If there was, there should be white space where this column appears. There can be no choice, with 41000 dead in this country (and 11,000 missing) since last Sunday's column was written, in what seems now was a different age.

If the dead creeps upto 50+ thousand, that's almost as much lives as 20 years of war took, remembering that a war mostly takes lives of committed troops, not civilians. So, in place of white space, here is the next best thing. A recounting of a particular detail: Pictures of the orphaned young appeared on national television (Rupavahni) followed by a phone -in program two days after the tsunami struck.

A crying mother phoned in. Viewers expected another victim's voice. But she wasn't a victim at all. The tsunami did not touch this caller in any way - not physically she said. She lived in the interior. Yet, she cried anyway. She said: "I'm a mother of two, I want to take in at least two of these orphans, please let me have them.'' After the drubbing that the senses received following nature's outrageous tantrum last Sunday, this was more than sensational. The tsunami footage conveyed disbelief. Yet this TV picture conveyed even more disbelief to me. I pinched myself? Is this happening?

More crying mothers called in, asking for more babies to adopt. There will never be any real absolution. This will be a crisis three generations from now will still be talking about. But if there are crying mothers safe in their homes who want to adopt tsunami babies, this country cannot be such a bad place -- and life cannot be such a bad thing, even post December 26th….

The tsunami as nature's temper tantrum has been old metaphor that entered the folklore of this country. In Geiger's translation of the Mahawamsa, he writes "the sea became angry and swallowed the land.'' The Mahawamsa's recounting of a "tsunami'' (…it was a tsunami, but nobody knew it as such thousands of years ago during King Kavanthissa's epoch) entered the folklore of this land in this way. But it is not the tsunami's destructive power that the Mahawamsa recounts later in almost lyrical terms, after that pungent line about the "sea that got angry and swallowed the land.'' Viharamahadevi rode to Ruhuna on the wave of the tsunami, it is said, and never came back. They were enraptured by her and married her off when she surfed to the South of the country.

The tsunami two thousand years later on December 2004 left little space for being lyrical. Its destructive power has been described in awesome terms. 23 thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima atom bomb, this tsunami took credit for wobbling the planet around its axis by 2.5 cm violently at the time it struck, as a result making December 26th a shorter day --- while also altering the contours of the world map, literally moving some islands by as much as 36m, and taking 140,000 lives (and counting) in the continent, which is as much as the Hiroshima bomb did. The force behind this wave was such that a day later, a 2.5m wave washed into Mexico across the Pacific, making the tsunami a trans-continental phenomenon. But when there is a tantrum - - there is a catharsis. That's what the old wisdom says. Will nature's tantrum cleanse, will it somehow, despite its rude peremptory anger that made thousands of kids orphans in seconds, cleanse this country and make it whole again -- literally?

Last week saw that query being ventilated under three rubrics: hope, the absurd, and renewal. HOPE: There is hope - - a sort of hope against hope -- that the tsunami's cathartic effect will be that though it destroyed at whim, it would eventually bring this country together. Certainly, if it was some grand natural plan, here was at least one thing right about it! The tsunami was no respecter of persons.

But if the tsunami will bind warring forces and bring them together, last week we also saw, as in the tsunami, two disparate forces. One pulled together, the other pulled apart.

Both Prabhakran and President Kumaratunga issued messages of empathy with the other -- the outsider. Prabhakran said "we feel for our Sinhalese brethren at this hour.'' Sri Lankans heaved a sigh of relief.

But as with the tsusnami wave that drags everything back with it, this goodwill was snatched away with the war of garrulous words. Soon the LTTE was to fault the government with neglecting the North and East in its relief efforts. The LTTE wants exclusive rights over the relief process in the North East and that's the opinion that is currency in BBC CNN and the worldwide channels.

There can be no two ways about it, this is despicable. A rebel movement's desire for hegemony over the administrative process in its areas can be put down to strategic imperative. But this attitude is keeping the aid from moving fast to dying people.

Such zealotry in the midst of a national disaster that has left almost the same number of dead as in 20 years of war, looks to be the LTTE worst moment. Its contention that state aid is not forthcoming is hollow. Nobody is buying the story, and the fact confirmed by the international media is that the LTTE doesn't want international aid agencies to distribute aid either.

This is the worst moment for the LTTE, its most drastic miscalculation since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, unless it reconsiders its attitude. Whatever is left of the LTTE's sense of fairplay is going right down the tubes. But yet, there is hope that the moment will transcend the LTTE's madness. The LTTE sooner or later may come to the realisation that events -- and nature - -are bigger forces that it can ever dream of being.

THE ABSURD: 41 thousand dead, projected now at around 50,000 in the country, and yet, the moments of farce provided some much needed relief at least in terms of the comic. National television relief efforts concentrated on lorries more than bodies, and lorries taking aid to stricken areas went at snails pace so that the cameras could capture their progress through the towns. Disaster relief in slow motion?? Talk about real empathy for men and women who are starving and in need of rapid relief!

Much worse, other TV stations that tested the limits of national patience deserved the sternest reprimand. When the President said at a press conference that she will "hang-them'' there were cheers. The offending program: One TV station showcased a nut case who tests soil samples to say that there is a tsunami expected in January. (A) A tsunami cannot be predicted months in advance, not even by the US geological survey (B) this crackpot's claim that he predicted the December 26th tsunami is a great deal of horse-urine, to put it politely. He is supposed to have said there will be some water trickling down towards Panadura. That's some prediction of an island wide tsunami. But the real offender is the television channel which seeks to panic an already traumatised population by affording air time to a nut-case. The silver lining: Hats off to a President and a government which took an astute decision not to issue a tsunami warning and disrupt the rescue process, when even big brother India made an absolute ass of itself by issuing such a warning when there was no need for one at all last Thursday.

RENEWAL: ….and you know something. People can get carried away by a tsunami wave in their thousands, but they don't want journalists to get carried away, never. But how else does one describe the events of last week?? Those who do not get "carried away'' must have the severest case of arrested development?! In one way what was disconcerting was - at least in some places, in the most fleeting of moments -- a lack of emotion from the people, not an excess of it. But destruction does bring about renewal. Not a single burst of a cracker was heard at midnight on 31st December. There is the faintest glimmer of hope that this nation is maturing at last.

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