Waves Haunt During Somber Cleanup
KAHAWA, Sri Lanka
They laid the bodies on the sand at the edge of the sea. There was a woman’s corpse in an orange and gold sari, a child shrouded in scraps of blue-green cloth. Now the earth would cover them, a few feet from the water that killed them.
Standing in the shadow of a palm tree, a man quietly watched the burial. He watched without wanting to watch; he was sick of looking at bodies.
His name is Pubudu Niranjan, and until Sunday he had a family, a house and a small grocery store where he and his parents sold cookies and cigarettes. Then the sea swallowed the land and left him alone to sift through the ruins.
“Today if I die, I will be happy,” he said.
His seaside village, about 50 miles south of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, has become an open-air morgue. The tsunami tore down walls and flattened houses here in Kahawa, killing hundreds. It also swept a packed morning train off its rails, leaving about 1,500 people dead. The 25 bodies awaiting burial Friday afternoon were pulled from concrete rubble and crumpled blood-red train cars, where they had decayed for days in the tropical heat. Hundreds of others have been buried in a government-owned plot of red earth farther inland.
The water unmade everything the people of Kahawa had spent their lives building. The grass, sodden and yellowed with salt, is littered with family photographs and lost sandals, palm fronds and seaweed. A girl’s lavender beaded necklace lies ground into the sand; a purple sari hangs from a broken concrete balcony, billowing in the sea wind.
Across the road near the beach, Niranjan’s grandmother and grandfather lie side by side. They were buried there long ago in one of the many coastal graveyards flooded by the tsunami. There used to be a marker on their grave, but the sea washed it away.
Amid the train ruins, there is a black leather purse, a bag of elbow macaroni and a bottle of children’s cough medicine. There is a box of creme caramel dessert mix, a blood-spattered leaf and a handful of melted chocolates.
The water that washed through Kahawa on Sunday morning carried away Niranjan’s mother, 64, and his 72-year-old father. It came in stages, rising 6 feet, receding and returning as a wave more than 30 feet high.
When the water first rolled in shortly after 9 a.m. Sunday, Niranjan was asleep. He is 33 and unmarried, and he lives at home. When the wave came back 15 minutes later, he and his older brother, 37, climbed towering coconut palms, but the tree his brother chose was not tall enough, and it collapsed into the water. Niranjan, a short, muscular man, held on so tightly that the tree tore the skin from his inner arms, leaving a line of pink welts.
The four-room house he had shared with his family is now a low pile of chipped cement. On Friday afternoon, he dug through the rubble and carefully arranged salvaged objects on a slab of concrete: a single black leather boot, a pair of aviator sunglasses and a watch with a broken band. A white car is embedded in one of the house’s collapsing walls.
Across a dirt path, what had been the Niranjans' tiny family grocery store was reduced to a pile of stones. Sri Lankan air force cadets in blue and gray camouflage, their mouths and noses covered with scarves and paper masks, walked along the path, carrying bodies on makeshift litters to the beach.
Niranjan, who has taken refuge in a Catholic church, wore a cream-colored polyester woman’s scarf around his neck, and he raised it to cover his nose whenever a body was carried past. The stench was unbearable. He says he has stopped looking at the bodies, but that isn’t exactly true. It is only that he has stopped seeing them.
He works as a prison guard in Galle, the beachfront resort town up the road whose streets have become rivers of debris where newly homeless men in sarongs wander amid the rats. He doesn’t know what he’ll do now, but he thinks that if he can work full time and live somewhere else, he might be able to go on.
“I don’t like this life,” he says. “How can we live here when they are burying bodies everywhere?”
Niranjan used to like the ocean. He ran alongside it in the mornings and played volleyball on the beach. He was born in Kahawa and the sea was always with him, a sound in the back of his ear, a glittering spot in the near distance outside his bedroom window.
Now the water terrifies him. He sees it rising in his sleep, and the nightmare wakes him. The sound he loved, the long, low moan of the surf, makes him shudder. He imitates it with his lips pursed: “Ohhhhh.”
He thinks the waves will return.
“Before, we were swimming,” he says. “Now I don’t look at the water.”
At night, rumors circulate in his neighborhood. People say the water is rising, and they panic. They run inland, tripping over debris and downed power lines.
“Maybe next month or next week or next year the water is coming again,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t know. It’s very dangerous.”
He has not cried for his parents or his brother, or for anyone else.
“How should I cry?” he asks. “It is our whole country. Not just one person is dead, not just three are dead. My cousin’s family has two bodies. I have no mother, no father, no brother.”
It began to rain. Reluctantly, Niranjan crossed the road that runs along the beach and stood off to one side to watch the burial.
An earthmover dug a trench in the sand about 40 feet long and 12 feet deep. Slight men in sarongs and pink rubber gloves heaved the corpses into the hole. The earthmover poured sand over them. They were too badly decayed to identify, and there was no headstone to mark where they lay.