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Last Updated: Monday, 26 December 2005, 20:33 GMT
Divided island remembers tsunami
By Samanthi Dissanayake
BBC News, Peraliya

At precisely 0930 local time, a hush descended upon Sri Lanka's southern coastline.

At Peraliya, the site of the world's worst train disaster, Wanigaratna Karunatilleke closed his eyes to observe two minutes of silence at the national memorial service for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Tsunami memorial sculpture
The official message is one of triumph over the waves
He was the guard on board the doomed Queen of the Sea train when it was swept away by the force of the waves - one of the few who survived.

One year on, he accompanied me on the same journey down south for the memorial service.

As dawn broke, the coastline echoed with the haunting chants of monks conducting ceremonies for the dead.

Mr Karunatilleke is still the official guard for the coastal express.

"Every time I make this journey, I feel a sorrowful agony," he said.

But every detail of the carefully choreographed ceremony at Peraliya was designed to reinforce a message of triumph over the waves, the rebirth of a devastated nation.

Army, navy and air force officials were out in full regalia. A loudspeaker blasted out jaunty patriotic tunes.

The central tsunami monument was an impressionistic sculpture of two figures rising above a wave, arms held aloft.

Such imagery resonated with Mr Karunatilleke.

"For six months, this coastline has been a graveyard, a place of death. But recently I have seen it being reborn."

Sri Lankan Shirly Karalage lost his father and brother, but not his love of the sea

After multi-faith religious ceremonies, newly-elected President Mahinda Rajapakse emphasised the themes of strength and unity.

"Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and foreigners were a part of the 40,000 who lost their lives," he said.

"Man-made barriers fell apart in the camps as people of different cultures, races and creeds lived together.

"If we stand together, there is no barrier we cannot cross."

Crowds of people had gathered at Peraliya to witness the proceedings, but they were kept at a considerable distance from the officials and invited guests.

They waited in the baking heat, sitting by the beach, lining the railway track and peering through heavily-guarded fences.

The security only served as a reminder of recent outbreaks of violence which have marred a precarious ceasefire with Tamil Tiger rebels, who want a separate homeland in the north and east of the country.

Alternative memorials

The memorial was transmitted from loudspeakers in the town of Galle, further down the coastline, which came to a standstill when the silence was observed.

Fisherman W Somadasa, who lost 13 members of his family and his home a year ago, feared another tsunami was on the way.

Fisherman W Somadasa
W Somadasa felt there was too much focus on Peraliya
He had removed all his belongings from the shack where he now lives.

"I didn't go out to sea because I believe this is an unlucky day," he said.

He felt that the focus on Peraliya was wrong. But he also added: "The president can only be in one place. I am happy something is happening."

Delusha Goonawardene, the widow of the train driver, rejects the memorial entirely. She feels only bitterness towards the authorities.

"Nobody helped us. I had to find his body myself. I went inside the engine driver's compartment. His brother carried the body with his bare hands and we brought it to Colombo in our vehicle."

Like many of the bereaved, she is holding a private almsgiving event at her home to mark the anniversary of his death.

And rebel-controlled Mullathivu, where thousands died, held its own period of silence - an hour after the Peraliya silence.

Ring of light

But many in the crowds gathered outside the Peraliya memorial said that holding the national ceremony here was particularly apt.

"So many people died in this one location. It was a microcosm of the disaster," said Mr Karunatilleke.

Those who perished and those who survived in the Queen of the Sea carriages reflect the diversity of the island.

Ten-year-old Najad Saleem from Colombo was heading to his ancestral village, one of the Muslim communities on the coast, with his mother, grandmother and two sisters.

"I can't remember how I got out but I climbed onto a banana tree and I waited there until the water went. I was just crying and crying, saying 'Where is Ammi? [Mummy] Where is Thathi? [Daddy]'"

A man prays for the wife he lost to the tsunami at Peraliya, Sri Lanka
While some see hope, sorrow is still the overriding emotion for many

Only one of his sisters survived with him, and the pair of them barely spoke a word for six months.

One year on, the family are holding an almsgiving event for local imams.

Shenth Ravindra, a British-Sri Lankan holidaymaker, was on the train a year ago, travelling to Hikkaduwa for a full-moon beach party.

"There was a split second where I thought I might drown. We were pushed up onto a house and I could see a carriage tossed about like a toy train."

Mr Karunatilleke remembers the harrowing journey through the train after the first wave.

"All the passengers were begging me: 'Please save us! We are going to die!'

"At that time, I forgot my government duty and only acted as a human being. I tried to help people. Some call me a hero, but I feel such an unfortunate person to have faced such a thing. I feel unlucky."

After the ceremony at Peraliya, the crowds dispersed. But as night falls, people will return to the beaches.

Sarvodaya, a local non-governmental organisation, has distributed lanterns to tsunami-affected people throughout Sri Lanka - from rebel-controlled Mullathivu in the north to Dondra Head, the southern tip of the island.

The lanterns will be lit in an attempt to create a ring of light around the island, an illuminated teardrop in the Indian Ocean.


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