The devastation came in visual waves from our van window in the wee hours of dawn. Wed left our hotel in Columbo, Sri Lankas capital city, at 5 a.m. to get an early start on our eight-hour drive south along the west coast of Sri Lanka. As the road wound closer to the seaboard we began to see small areas that had been affected by the tsunami but not the immense devastation wed been anticipating. A few hours later it was a different story.
"Stop the van. I want to get out." Wed arrived in Kahawe.
The name may not ring a bell but my relationship with a place Id never visited before was eerie. I, like most people around the world, had become familiar with this area in the days following the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami. Fuelled by dramatic images on television and in newspapers, I had travelled here in my mind to gain some understanding of the devastation and loss that these people must suffer and endure. Its here, just south of Kahawe, where more than 2,800 people died on a train bound for Galle.
What remains of the train stands lonely on the tracks at Kahawe. If you didnt know its tormented history you might think it was a derelict train of bygone days simply left where it last rolled. In fact it was deposited here using cranes and heavy machinery after been pushed several hundred metres by the force of the wave. To get to the railway tracks and to this site, we walk past the obliterated village of Kahawe. Piles of rubble, mostly the brick remains of homes and businesses, interspersed with clothing, household goods and personal belongings, line a well-beaten trail to this impromptu monument.
There are teams of workers everywhere along the coast of Sri Lanka, all sponsored by one aid organization or another, methodically transferring scattered debris into manageable piles and erecting temporary shelters. The monsoons are coming in May and the need to clear debris to minimize mosquito-breeding habitat and thus the spread of Dengue fever and malaria is pressing. Across the tracks in a large field stand hundreds of tents, temporary shelter to thousands of homeless. The tsunami is now more than a month old but the daunting task of clean up and ultimately the rebuilding of homes, businesses and lives is still in its infancy and a pervasive part of daily life.
We stood there in early February in awe of this reality. Who would have thought a month earlier that four people from Squamish, B.C., Canada would be here, literally touching this enigmatic symbol of human suffering. For myself, Jeff Dawson, Peter Gordon and John DeSouza this trip would be a life-altering experience.