2005-09-05 SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka through the eyes of a journalist

The convocation of the VII General Conference in Sri Lanka, the ?Pearl of the Indian Ocean?, the ?Queen of the Mannar?, the ?Splendid Island?, with all of these titles by which it is known, arouses in me the need to learn more about this place by investigating something that illustrates for me this unknown country and the great Asian continent. I dedicated some time in the holidays for this. Having a book in hand, ?El despertar de Asia? (The awakening of Asia) written by Georgina Higueras in a synthetic way, with an attractive journalistic style, with a language full of statistical references, I did a tour of China, Taiwan, Japan, Iran, India, Indonesia, Iraq and even Australia. The journalistic profession obliges one to bear witness and to struggle to access the places where news is born, to search for information and, maybe without thinking, write it there where one finds oneself in a more or less quiet corner to broadcast rapidly and to be part of the first edition.

In this Asian panorama, which the author of this book offers, Sri Lanka occupies a small space to describe the effects of the ?tsunami?, a Japanese word made well known by this tragedy. The huge wave devastated 75% of the coastline of this island, thus becoming one of the greatest catastrophes possible. By putting together a collection of pictures of the tsunami, including pictures of Panadura, Trincomale, Galle, Negombo, Nilaveli y Atagama, the author described how this catastrophe affected the economy and the daily life of its inhabitants.

70 % of the Sri Lankan fishing fleet remain destroyed. A large number of the people who died or have disappeared are from the 200,000 fishermen and their families. Another 100,000 families that inhabited the sector as shipbuilders, makers of fishing nets, salespeople, motor repairers and also those who lived closest to the coast have also suffered great personal and financial losses.

Negombo, situated about forty kilometres to the north of Colombo, which is hosting the VII General Conference, is one of the principal fishing cities of Sri Lanka. In this central zone of the west coast of the island, people have not lamented loss of human life, but after the catastrophe, its look has been desolate. In the large natural lake that sometimes acts as a port, bows and sterns of boats have surfaced, many of which were destroyed when the huge wave threw them against the bridge that crosses the lake, pushing some against others and dropping a lot of them on land.

In comparison with the fishermen of the east coast, those of Negombo are nearly fortunate. In many villages, such as Velur, not even devastation is felt as the tsunami destroyed everything totally, including entire families, especially women and children. In many towns, the only building left standing was the mosque or the church, causing many superstitions. More than 80% of fishermen in Sri Lanka are Catholics and the rest, especially on the east coast, are Moslems.

The Sri Lankan fleet consisted of 29,694 boats, of which only 1,500 were more than ten metres in length. Another 1,5000 were between nine and ten metres and the 11,000 others of fibreglass were between five and eight metres of length. The rest were boats without motors: canoes, catamarans and sailboats.

According to the Ministry of Fish and Ocean Resources, in 2003 the catch of fish in Sri Lanka rose to 300,000 tons, part of which was exported principally to the European Union, Japan and the United States of America: 15,690 tons of tuna, shark, sole and prawns. The rest was consumed by the Sri Lankan people. The majority of the inhabitants of the island are great consumers of fish, but after the catastrophe, no one wants to eat fish. They say that the fish are feeding on the dead bodies in the ocean.

Only three ports were spared the destruction of the tsunami: Kalpitiya, in the northeast of Sri Lanka, and those close to Colombo, Mutual and Chilaw. In these ports the great concern is the superstition that the deaths have contaminated the waters of the Indian Ocean. If the people continue to refrain from eating fish, for them, the worst is yet to come.


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