By Mass L. Usuf –
Firstly, a gracious tribute acknowledging the Sri Lankan army, the other forces, the Police, the health authorities and several of those who were and still are engaged at the Meethotamulla graveyard. Though I lost nothing, I felt that I was one with those who lost their loved ones or their possessions.
The stories recounted were wide and varied. Sithy Fahima a resident and a survivor whom I met recently said, “I felt the earth shaking and I ran up to the gate. I saw the front house lady standing outside her home and screaming ‘gewal kadan wetenawa’ (houses are falling apart). I told her ‘Akke’ (elder sister) come to our house. She shouted, ‘duwanna, duwanna’ (run, run) and I ran for my life. While running, I heard others behind me also screaming and running but not for long. After a few seconds the screams were silenced by the garbage.”
Fahima in tears told me that Akka had been inquiring after her and her children everywhere including the Grama Sevaka. When she saw Fahima both hugged and cried out of joy. Fahima said, “during the recent floods Akka and her family were in our house for a day or two. Her house was in a lower elevation”. Later, even Fahima’s house was flooded. This neighbourly affection made Fahima to invite Akka to her home when the ground was shaking. It was sheer gratefulness that made Akka, a Sinhalese lady, desperate to find out if Fahima had survived. What a display of pure humanity by both? As white as snow.
A friend of mine lost his mother and two nephews aged 14 and 18. My friend told me later that when he saw the house buried deep, he lost hope of finding them alive. He had told the Army to leave it and go further down probably they may find survivors there. I was thinking of his humane gesture even at a time when hit by tragedy. I was there at the Kolonnawa Mosque to participate in the prayers for the dead. I heard that the bodies had been recovered the next day.
After the funeral prayer, the mosque authorities announced that the recovered remains of the Sinhalese victims have been kept in the Kolonnawa temple and near the CTB depot. They urged the Muslims to go and pay their last respects.
Absolutely dejected and overwhelmed by intense sadness, along with others I visited the place near the CTB Depot and then went to the Kolonnawa temple. Remains of the victims were kept in a row of sealed caskets. The young and old and, the not so old. A framed photograph of the victim on top of it. I can see in the face of the grief-stricken family members an expression of incredulity. Their minds refusing to believe that they are standing looking at the dead body of their loved ones. My mind told me that to console them at a time of disbelief is not sensible.
Touching and Humane
I saw a video clip in the social media which showed several people around a Back Hoe. The clip shows a heap of garbage collected in the bucket and a human body precariously hanging from it. There was a spontaneous commotion as they had recovered another body. In the excitement, everyone was giving the back-hoe operator instructions – “slow down”, “lower it”, “do it gradually” “a little more to this side”. I heard someone saying, “gehenu lamayek neda” (a girl isn’t?). It was really painful to see that sight. It ripped my heart apart.
The bucket was lowered and they delicately extracted the body from the dirt. I think, I saw the words ‘commando’ printed in the back of their dresses. They placed her in a stretcher and the clip shows one of them covering the private part of this girl with whatever cloth that was remaining on her body. It was so touching, humane and extremely compassionate.
A white cloth was spread over the body and when it was about to be carried away someone shouted, “hold on, the leg has been found”. This statement immediately took my thoughts back to 39 years before.
Wonder how many remember the Icelandic Airlines Douglas DC-8 plane crash off the Katunayake airport, in 1978. The flight was enroute to Surabaya, Indonesia, with a scheduled stopover in Sri Lanka to refuel. One hundred and seventy-five passengers and 8 crew members died in the crash.
The afternoon news over the radio carried it. I rushed from Colombo. At that time, it was out of sheer curiosity. I did not know the approach road to the crash site and I still remember inquiring from a middle-aged person on a bicycle. He kindly offered me a ride to near that spot as he was passing that place. He told that he was in the army returning home after duty.
The scene of the crash was indescribable. My curiosity turned into humaneness. I saw some volunteers. I spoke to them and volunteered. In contrast to the stink in Meethotamulla, here it was the stench of decomposing human flesh, half burnt bodies and fully charred bodies. I can still remember the putrid smell that enveloped the area. The recovered bodies were placed on stretchers and transported to the Negombo hospital morgue. The charred bodies were taken to an aerodrome where a mortician was in attendance. We were working throughout the night. I also remember sleeping, dead tired, on the tarmac, under the shade of the Indonesian military transport plane, the next day. This had come to Sri Lanka to transport the bodies to Indonesia.
The Meethotamulla clip was a flashback for me. I remembered carrying the bodies of the crash victims with my bare hands. None of us had face masks. The scene where an Indonesian female, covered in white sheet, being taken away in a stretcher, is etched in my memory. While they were going, her arm came out of the covered sheet. I quickly ran to place her arm under the sheet. I held it and to my utter surprise and shock her arm was in my hand and the others were moving on with the stretcher. It had been dismembered by the impact of the crash and the volunteers had just placed it by her side on the stretcher.
In the Meethotamulla video clip one of the rescuers shouted, “hold on, the leg has been found” when they were carrying away that girls remains.
Those who died have departed. It is the survivors who have to endure the agony of having lost their loved ones, for many years to come.
For all of us living, there is a lesson to be learnt about the great value of humanity. Without waiting for another tragedy to remind us, let us pay heed now.