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Last Updated: Monday, 3 January, 2005, 12:19 GMT
Search for corpses in ghost town

By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Mullaitivu, north-east Sri Lanka

Tamil Tiger corpse-clearance teams in Mullaitivu
Tigers say the people's suffering is far worse than the civil war
When the tsunami struck rebel-held northern Sri Lanka, fisherman Rajasingham in the town of Mullaitivu assumed the civil war had started again.

"Most of the people thought the army had come to do some military operation and then there was an explosion like a bomb but when we saw the huge waves, only then we knew the danger."

Mr Rajasingham, who like many Tamils goes by only one name, watched as the water dragged away his wife and five-year-old daughter.

He has not found their bodies and it is likely he never will.

His sister and her two children were also swept away. In 10 minutes Mr Rajasingham's life had changed.

"I have been a fisherman a long time but in my life I have never heard of such a thing that huge waves will come along and attack us," he says.

It was almost two years to the day since the Rajasingham family had returned to Mullaitivu, after 14 years as internal refugees from the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers.

Like hundreds of thousands of displaced people, he had just begun to pick up the pieces of his life.

That is what makes this natural disaster so cruel, in an area where it is not uncommon for people to have been displaced 10 or 15 times by the bombing and shelling of the past two decades of ethnic conflict.

I met Mr Rajasingham walking down what was one of the main roads of Mullaitivu. Now it is eerily silent.

Only the bulldozers clearing the wreckage and the sea gulls disturb the ghost town.

Ponds

Strewn around are pieces of clothing, wrecked fishing boats, some of them wrapped around trees by the force of the current, and even an empty rocket-propelled grenade shell that floated in from sea.

Many mothers holding their children were unable to save them
Johnson, Tamil Tiger medic

And the destruction goes on at least a kilometre inland all along the coast.

Tamil Tiger rebels have been put to work clearing the decomposing corpses.

Donning pink rubber gloves and face masks they are now searching ponds and flooded land for dead bodies having already removed them from collapsed buildings and open spaces.

Sometimes they probe for corpses under the water using just their bare feet.

The problem is pulling them out - they just fall apart, explains Johnny, one of the team doing this job.

"It's painful for our minds," says Johnny, adding that it is difficult to express his feelings about the huge number of dead bodies he has collected in the past week.

Tsunami destruction in Mullaitivu
Destruction reaches in a kilometre all down the eastern coast

On the edge of water there are several smouldering funeral pyres - corpses are quickly burned and it was only for the first two days that any identification could take place.

These fighters turned undertakers are given daily injections of antibiotics to protect them from infection.

The Tigers have sealed off all affected areas - refusing to let the public in before they have removed the decaying corpses from water.

They hope this will prevent the much-feared epidemic of cholera or dysentery.

"During the war we dealt with so many military operations," says Johnson, a Tamil Tiger medic, "but this disaster is vastly different."

What has upset these battle-hardened guerrillas is seeing so many dead women and children.

Dr Johnson says the survivors were deeply traumatised because they witnessed the death of their loved ones with their own eyes.

"Many mothers holding their children were unable to save them and the child was crying for help," he says, adding that this is far worse than anything they experienced during the fighting with the government forces.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Survivors have been cut off by monsoon flooding



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