Friday, February 04, 2005

Sri Lanka correspondent writes the Tsunami

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka / February 1, 2005
Butterfly Peace Garden (Tsunami Report # 3)

Dear friends

It is the week after Duruthu Full Moon Poya. I have been trying to find time to write you for several days but the tempo of work has been steadily increasing with the waxing of the moon as though the two were diabolically linked. We know the Tsunami came from an underwater shifting of tectonic plates off the coast of Sumatra and not from the moon, nor from God. A high Buddhist cleric, the Venerable Nayake Thera of Rangiri Dambulla temple has declared that the disaster is unconnected to any act of karma, for people of all religious affiliations were affected. The law of “Utu Niyamaya” applies here, that is, the law of physical matter. There is a good scientific explanation. Pundits and pandits of every stripe have declared on all sides of this issue. Most, but not all, agree this is not an act of divine retribution.

Even so we are adrift in irrationality. Nobody can find time or space enough in their lives to deal with the grief that eddies all around. We are too busy picking up the pieces and beginning again. If the tidal wave of water was twenty meters high, the wave of sadness sweeping across Sri Lanka reaches the moon. Even through we are the ones left behind to sing hymns for the drowned, it feels sometimes that we are straining to walk under an invisible sea of tears ourselves. We have somehow drowned with those who went out to sea.

One month ago on Uduvap Full Moon, out of the clear blue, this Tsunami arrived and took Lanka in its embrace. For a brief ten minutes from one seaside town to the next it had its way with her, tearing the resplendent coastal raiment to shreds and shaking the island to its core. It was rape by someone you know and trust. Someone true blue and treacherous – the sea. This Tsunami killed up to 40,000 people and displaced about 1,000,000 in Sri Lanka alone. Three quarters of these are in the north and east.

I live in Kallady, not far from Batticaloa town. Returning from Colombo on January 7, I was accompanied by the Butterfly Garden driver, Raymond, and Papati Amma, Professor Patricia Lawrence of the Anthropology Department, University of Colorado, Boulder, an old friend of the children of the Garden and student of the ancient culture of Mattakalappu.

As soon as we arrived in Kallady, before going home, we asked Raymond to take us down to the sea. Nothing could prepare us for what we saw there - the enormity of the destruction, the intimacy of suggestive detail. Your mind fills will hyperbole: Dresden, Hiroshima, the Blitz – this is very big. Tracers of news stories about the big earthquakes flash across your mind, those in China, Turkey or Bam (which occurred only last year on the same day). It is all the same in one respect: this is too big for human comprehension. Too sad for words.

There are people in the distance picking distractedly through the rubble. From afar they look like rubble birds, scorched starlings, ants. As far as you can see in front of you and to the west there are ruined neighbourhoods. To the east is the sea. Vast as it may be, it seems small and inconsequential now compared to the devastation it has caused. The wind that moans through the broken palmyrah and palm trees is haunted. Banana stalks are bent, broken and brown. The tall dune grass is salted, now more grey than green. There are ghosts, bodies under the rubble, bad smells, stagnant pools of water, a single rutted and greasy road winding through perdition over the horizon to land’s end.

We feel compelled to get down from the van and walk; to pay respect and touch the earth of this charnel ground made holy by so many who, a mere three weeks before, lived and died here. Those weeks have fossilized the landscape. It is like walking through a sepia-tone photograph in a scrapbook of ancient history. Is this Pompeii, you wonder?

In other places the clean-up and reconstruction is well underway. We hear the US Marines have landed at Galle amid much controversy. Their bulldozers cleared debris, dump-trucks hauled it away. Plans have been announced by the government for a new model town to be built in the interior, some miles from Hambantota where 4000 people have been buried, most without being identified. Last week the president unveiled a plaque in the middle nowhere heralding the model city of Siribopura to which the entire town of Hambantota will soon miraculously be translated, complete with historical monuments and 3000 housing units on a 500 acre site in the jungle. One problem with this is that fisher folk who make up the majority of the population oppose such a plan. They would have to undertake a cumbersome journey to the shore early each morning before setting out to sea. Fisher people all over the country have asked for consultation with the government before plans like these are visited upon them. They prefer to live in makeshift dwellings and carry on with their traditional ways rather than be relocated elsewhere.

No bulldozers or Marines were apparent in Kallady when Papati Amma and I first visited. Nor have they arrived since. There are refugees camped in every available open space in Batti town. Although an active food and relief effort has started clearing debris and reconstruction - except where it is being done by the displaced people themselves and, oddly, the JVP – seems to be stalled in the vacuum of politics pre-existing the disaster. If anything, the Batticaloa scene has become even more contrary and convoluted. The North / East / South fault lines seems to have fissured even further with the seismic shock emanating out of submarine Sumatra. Any hope for a humanitarian thaw between former rivals and the subsequent resurrection of the peace talks is for the moment eclipsed by backroom political maneuvering. Most people in the East are skeptical of an even-handed distribution of the aid bonanza coming in from abroad.

How many people died in Kallady area, I wonder? Who really knows? The numbers are meaningless without faces to go with them but, conservatively, over 5000, if you factor in Kalady, Dutch Bar, Pudumuhuthuvarum and Navaladi - a salty windblown tongue of land that narrows down to Bar Mouth and then disappears under the waves where ocean and lagoon merge. How many died here? Far more than those who survive.

As your eyes grow accustomed to the panorama of ruin you begin to pick up detail. A ochre-hued wall blasted open as though by mortar fire reveals what remains of a shell pink living room in a small three-room bungalow, Family wedding photos lay smashed among shards of broken glass on the crimson concrete floor. Krishna and Arjuna course in their chariot across the battlefield at Kurukshesrta. A smiling Sat Sai Baba hangs daftly askew on a candy-cane striped wall. Snapshots of ruin appear wherever your eyes come to rest, though they rest restlessly and roam on with haste lest the horror of each tableaux be fully realized: a pooja lamp shaped like a peacock overturned beside a broken plaster plaque of Lord Murugan; a sapphire and gold saree tangled in razor wire encrusted with rust and dried mud; a three-wheeler flattened under the trunk of an uprooted neem tree; the gopuram of Thiruchenthur Murugan Kovil sheered away from the temple sinking sadly in the sand; bucking temple broncos with grinning lips and broken limbs smashed on the temple floor; a headless Madonna dressed in blue, power lines tangled in cinderblock and steel, a school bag with a funny bunny sticker, a baby shoe (the kind that lights up with each little step), a bouquet of faded plastic roses. The intimacy and precision of death is everywhere evident.

The wave came unexpectedly. A stranger arrives in the early morning in your yard dressed as the sea. There is no announcement. No knock on the door.

For the next week Patricia and I joined member of the Garden animators accompanying them to villages hit by the Tsunami, listening to stories, sitting in on recovery strategy sessions and meeting the groups of children who came from local camps to participate in full-day Garden programmes. There have been at least a half dozen such programmes thus far which children from Kallady / Dutch Bar, Punnochichimunai, Navaladi I, and Navakuta. The one on Saturday January 22, with children from Navalady, was somewhat nervously anticipated.

Before the wave there were 5,500 people living in Navalady and Pudumuhutuvarum. Of these, there are 1,400 survivors. 50% of the deceased were children. We secured permission from the District Secretary to bring these children into the Butterfly Garden from their temporary settlement camp at Methodist Central College. There are many things I will remember about that day but three recollections come readily to mind along with many mixed emotions.

First there was the enthusiasm of the children, their thirst for play. They descended from the bus and tore through the garden like the Tsunami itself, such was their joy and delirium. They shouted and ran everywhere climbing trees, dancing on tables, chasing the ducks, touching everything with their eyes, their fingers, their unrestrained curiosity. The pelican, from his perch on the bullock cart, cast a wary eye on this uncivil intrusion into his tranquil domain. Every inch of terrain, every member, part and particle of the Garden, including all its people and places was surveyed, slotted, secured. “You are mine” the children seemed to be saying. “This is where we belong. We hereby claim this Garden in the name of the Queen of Chaos.” Within moments of arriving they completely possessed the Garden and for the rest of the day they used it with the anarchic bravado of children playing in their own backyard.

The second thing I remember is being lifted off my feet by a boisterous mob of these kids sometime mid-afternoon and carried from the Garden minaret to the Kuthu Merlai where I was unceremoniously dumped in the sand with kids dancing wildly around chanting, “Tsunami, Tsunami”, as though it were Ring-Around-the-Rosey. I laughed with them but I was a bit shaken by their frenzy and simultaneously astounded by the nerve it took on their part, the freedom they must have felt. Many other adults were carried off in this spontaneous outburst of Tsunami-inspired mischief, even visitors unknown to them from Colombo. This must be therapeutic, I remember thinking, as I dusted myself off. It must be good for them, though no therapist I know would ever be so bold to prescribe this ritual as a collective nostrum for children suffering from Tsunami trauma.

Then there was Sassi and Ganesh, two boys who seemed to forget themselves in the interests of the younger children. What quickly becomes apparent when you see these kids en masse is that many adult care-givers are so grievously assaulted by their own losses that the surviving children in their charge are left to fend for themselves. They tend to congregate in packs and decide on their own agenda. Among them are boys and girls who stand out as leaders. Though their hearts must also be broken, though they too are homeless and adrift, they somehow manage to overcome the misery attendant to this catastrophe and look out for the little ones.

I noticed an infant among the children of Navaladi who seemed tormented unless she rested the arms of a young lad of about fourteen years. Only he could calm her. That was Sassi. The little girl was his niece. Later when I had a chance to talk to him I found out what happened to them.

Sassi was away in Colombo the day the wave hit. When he first caught wind of trouble he was absentmindedly watching TV while eating breakfast at his auntie’s house where he stayed in Colombo. From the sound of the reports he determined there was a lot of water washing around different parts of the country. This did not disturb him particularly. There had been a heavy monsoon for months. Flooding in the East was normal.

Throughout that day the news kept coming in. It gradually dawned on him that this wasn’t just about the usual flooding or mudslides. Soon he was watching international news reports on CNN and BBC. The east of Sri Lanka was pulverized beyond recognition. He saw footage of towns not far from his. He knew them. He had visited them often. There they were on television in ruins. Something was seriously wrong back home. By 9 PM his uncle, a Colombo three-wheeler driver, announced they were going back to Batti to find their family members. Somehow five of them squeezed into the wheeler. They set out for Navalady. Driving through the night over rutted roads and washed-out gullies they arrived at Chekalady the next day by 10 in the morning. Only then did the full impact of the news reports hit home. For him, that’s when the real tidal wave struck.

Don’t go back to Navalay they were told by people in the crowd. The village had been evacuated to makeshift camps around Batti town. The remainder of the day was spent searching for their family in the camps at Hindu College, St. Michael’s, Central College and St. Cecilia’s. Not one member of his immediate family survived. His little niece had been saved by his elder brother who brought this little girl and her mother to safety on the rooftop of a sturdily built home nearby after watching his own house with his mother and two sisters being washed away. Sassi’s brother died with the second wave while trying to rescue another cousin. His father, a fisherman, was returning on his bicycle from selling his morning catch in the town market when the wave scooped him and took him out to sea. Sassi recounted all this in a flat monotone. His eyes brim with inconsolable sorrow. His incandescent smile calms his little niece as she nestles deeper in his arms. Only he can settle her down. She somehow seems to have a reciprocal effect on him.

Ganesh, at twenty one years old, was a leader among the children of the camp. A slight youth with a whisper of a moustache, he smiled often when he talked, encouraging the other children in games and art activities. When we sat quietly with him in the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Garden and asked him how he found his courage he told us it was simply there in what remained, in the children. He also told us his story.

The first wave killed his mother who was in the house cleaning up after breakfast. The second took his father who ran a small beachside shop catering to the simple needs of the fisher folk who lived there about. When Ganeshi realized what was happening he scampered up a palmyrah tree but the tree fell with the second wave and washed into the lagoon. He held tight to the trunk and sailed upstream to a place very near Kallady Bridge where the tree lodged in shallow sand long enough for someone to wade out and rescue him. Ganesh has no idea who saved him. He was almost unconscious having swallowed water and sand, fainting with wealness once ashore. In the Batticaloa hospital, Ganesh discovered hundreds of other in the same or worse shape. He could not abide the ward. All day and night they were bombarded with images of people struggling and dying in the Tstunami. After three days of this torture he escaped and went looking for his brother. He found him at Hindu College Camp.

continued below ...


Altho my friend Poho in Batticalao did not take this pix, and it has actually been judge a serious fraud althogether by the UrbanLegend0-busting website,, I'm posting it because it is anonymous and carries no copyright with it and gives a sense of what a tsunami mite feel like, dwarfing all before it. In this case, allegedly the city of Phuket, Thailand. In imagination we may all put ourselves somewhere in the scene we see. And that is not blogging fake pix, that is boggling real emotions.


continued from above

Tales like these abound. Heroic tales, tragic tales, tales of divine intervention as well as of divine retribution, tales of the disappeared - recounted this time and not silenced, as in the times of political upheaval in the late eighties and early nineties. “This may be one of the healing aspects of the Tsunami,” says Father Paul. “People are speaking about their suffering and loss.” Back then they didn’t dare.

We visited Kalmunai and the village of weavers and fisherman at Maruthamunai where, we are told, the Tsunamii first touched Sri Lankan soil. Virtually everything is flattened, except, miraculously, the mosque. There are places throughout the island where shrines, churches, kovils, and other sacred sites survive while everything else in sight is destroyed: at Komari, the Hindu temple and the Catholic Church; near the now impassable bridge at Potuvil , a small Thai Buddha encased in glass blessing sojourners with the graceful Abhaya Mudra of fearlessness.

We are escorted through the ruins of Maruthamunai by Ameen, one of our new Butterfly Garden animators. He has lost his brother and his family dwelling. His elderly mother survives. Professor Papati is hijacked by eleven-year-old Nitha who invites us all her home near the beach. What remains of this simple dwelling yaws eerily over a crater that has swallowed most of the structure. Nitha introduces her brothers Azeem and Amsar, her sister Fatima Sifna and a little friend from across the street that no longer exists, Nifla Banu, a delicate child dressed in a pastel green party frock. I marvel at her insouciance as she relates how the wave came and disturbed the early morning play of friends in the family compound. She was swept out of her yard and along her street by the surging crest of water. It might almost been a delightful sensation at first. Suddenly, as she passed under a tree, a man shouted and reached down with his hand. She reached up, they connected and he hauled her to safety upon the branch where he was perched. From this vantage point she watched as her mother, her sisters and her auntie were swept away, never to be seen again.

Patricia and Nitha walk down closer to the water. Nitha says she is afraid to look at the sea now, let alone go near it. I catch up with them lazing under a curvaceous palm, talking, almost whispering, tete a tete. Niftha digs up a shell with her toe. It is a perfectly formed talisman encoded with mysterious lavender hieroglyphs known by some around here as a butterfly shell. It has now become the symbol of the Butterfly Garden’s post-Tsunami recovery campaign. Yesterday, in Colombo I picked up the stickers we designed and printed with this shell as the original inspiration. The little butterfly shell excavated from the seashore at Maruthamunai by the unconscious reflex of Nifta’s big toe will someday touch a lot of hearts. The hieroglyphs encoded on its wings will be translated into poetry by children the world over.

That’s how it goes. There are so many stories, so many things I am forgetting to tell you. The main thing is that we are connected and that we stay connected for a long time. Although the obvious relief work and reconstruction need to begin - everywhere in the press it is reported they have begun but my eyes tell me otherwise here in Batti - the work of healing will take time.

We have been working hard over the last two weeks with programs for both children in the Garden and in the camps where they now live. Our main goals since day one of the Tsunami have been threefold:

We will get to the kids immediately and let them know we are there for them, as ever. Just as we have gone through the war years with them we will accompany them through the post-Tsunami recovery period.
We will reach out to as many Tsunami-affected children as we can on the east coast from Vacharai in the north down to Thirukovil while not abandoning any of the interior war-affected villages whose children have been our prime constituency to date.
We will design an over-arching strategy for the next three to five years which accords with the four basic principles of the Garden healing practice with war-affected children – peacefulness/non-violence, presence, poiesis, play – and which can be adapted to meet the particular needs of children and youth directly affected by the Tsunami, as well as their families.

As it is now conceived this reconstituted 3-5 year plan elaborates the Garden’s traditional goals and objectives to include tsunami-specific healing strategies. It has three parts:

The Butterfly Medicine Bag - This is actually a tool kit full of toys for the Spirit. They each represent an aspect of the Earthwork, Artwork and Heartwork of the Garden. Each toy nests in a pocket of its own. The “bag” when not being carried from place to place, can be unfolded and hung on the wall or a tree as a colorful decoration. But it is much more than decoration. Each toy unpacks into a series of activities which address aspects of Garden Path healing techniques such as Body Wisdom, Balance, Storytelling, Mask-making, Dreaming etc. The kit will serve as a training tool for animators as well as for the BPG Tsunami response team now being drafted for training. It will have components for children, youth and adults in families affected by the Tsunami. It will be taught and distributed in Garden programs to children throughout the East and perhaps, hopefully, throughout the country.

Training of Outreach Workers at the Butterfly Garden Centre for Contemplative Arts and Narration - The teams of BPG outreach workers will be composed of senior animators, new animators, children with long histories in the Garden who have participated in our Youth Experimental Program, and returnee ex-militants who will come from Fr. Paul’s Lilies of the Field home. We hope to take residence in a house in Batticaloa refurbished to meet our needs which will be used in collaboration with the Butterfly Garden as a training site. We do not want to usurp the Garden space continually for this kind of use, thus we will create a special training campus.

The Garden Path Centre: Eventually the model evolved with the Butterfly Medicine Bag and in the Butterfly Garden Centre for Contemplative Art will become the template for a Garden Path Centre which will host a full-spectrum program of education for people nationally and throughout the region working with children affected by either war, the tsunami or other trauma-inducing humanitarian emergencies. It will be a centre of retreat, research, education and healing constituted around the ideals of Contemplation, Creativity and Community.

The financial support you have been giving us, both as institutional partners and ordinary citizens in Europe, Canada and the USA will be allocated toward achieving the above goals. We are presently trying to develop useful criteria for evaluating and responding to the help being offered. This is critical since we have been overwhelmed with proposals which, while for the most part genuine and generous, do not necessarily correspond with our own conditions, capacities and goals. Working through the compassion gridlock with sensitivity and evenhandedness while being on an emergency trauma footing requires gifts few of us here seem to possess.
In this regard we have been greatly helped by our partners at the Garden Path Campaign HQ at the Stupid School in Toronto, Canada. We have asked them to act for us in collecting and forwarding all donations and offers of funding and other assistance for the Garden coming from Canada and to liaise with our partner organization in the US, Ashoka Innovators for the Public. Please check for the Garden Path Campaign and Butterfly Garden news at HYPERLINK "" to find out how you can be of further assistance. We regularly consult with Laurie Edwards, Kenneth Bush and Patrick Davidson on matters concerning the Butterfly Garden’s welfare, Tsunami aid and the Garden Path Campaign. Their voluntary support is indispensable in helping us to create a coherent and sustainable response to the present crisis.

Imagine this for a moment. A boy of seven is running from water which is bearing down on him from above. He comes to an inlet on the lagoon where a dhoni (small catamaran boat) is drifting. He realizes that if he can only climb aboard there is a chance he will survive. He tries to hoist himself up but the boat is in motion, already being driven from the shore. He loses his grip, slips and falls in the muck, frantically tries again. His hands are slippery with mud. Suddenly, seconds before the water hits, he is lifted from behind by a stranger who shouts in his ear. “Hang on for your life!” He barely understands what the man is saying, there is so much confusion. The water hits. The boat is propelled skyward and carried aloft to a calm patch of water mid-steam in the lagoon. All the boy knows when he gets his bearings is that he is adrift without a paddle. The turbulence has stopped. He is safe for the moment. But he is not alone. Coiled at his feet is gleaming black snake who also sought refuge in the little canoe and slithered aboard in desperation. Together they drift to their destiny, companions in a narrow, and temporary, victory over certain death.

Death is all around these days but its effects are allayed by the return of sunshine and pleasant weather. There are many ghosts but they seem to stay put on fair days. Last week, on one such day, while cleaning up around the Pilliyar Pillai shrine under the jam tree in front of my house, I noticed a CD glinting in the debris. My curiosity got the better of me. I wondered - which one will it be? I had quite a collection once, all washed away. It is Mozart’s Requiem performed by the Slovak Philharmonic under Zdenek Kosler. I clean it up and put it into ther new CD player. Perfect sound - not a skip, wobble or slide anywhere - lachrymose, profound, cathartic. Reflecting upon this I consider the transcendence of art. The randomness of chance. The mystery of who shall live and who shall die.

I play the rubble requiem over and over. Music is always here, poetry, grace. You have to be silent and still enough to find it in a world like gone mad with grief and greed. For something sublime to emerge out of this emergency we have to take a moment to breath. It is our only hope. “Be still and know that I am here,” says the swallow tail butterfly fanning itself on the eekle broom; the green barbet cadging berries in the jam tree.


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