The bus from Akkaraipattu followed the coast north for 50kms to the Tamil town of Batticaloa. To the west the flood plains were completely covered, merging eventually with the Batticaloa lagoon to give the impression our raised road was one giant causeway.
The town was a bustling centre with the air of a remote frontier. Herds of sleepy goats slumbered in groups next to the main street, lining which were small shops and a large covered market selling all manner of locally produced fruit, vegetables and dried fish.
The majority of locals travelled on rusty bicycles, and every now and then a large 4×4 sporting international aid slogans like UN, UNICEF, and Care International bumped along the tracks, avoiding the cows and dogs that often impeded their route. Just after the tsunami and during the conflict there were many more NGOs operating here, but, as in most areas of Sri Lanka, international aid organisations are ending operations and leaving the country, particularly since the nation achieved middle income status – a fact that belies the abject poverty still faced by many.
We borrowed a colleague’s scooter and followed the lagoon out of town, to the point where it joined the beach and then onwards along the coast. Very quickly the houses marking the edge of Batticaloa stopped, making way for vast flat sandy plains that spread out from the sea. The road – barely a single lane – followed the beach about 50 metres from the water, the golden sands of which stretched far into the distance.
The colourful canoe sized vessels of local fisherman sat on the shore, often next to their small huts made from palm fronds. Solitary fisherman could be seen with net in hand at the point where the waves broke on the beach. Sea eagles, hoping for a discarded fish or two, circled silently overhead.
The idyllic scene was broken as a group of perhaps two dozen huts, once a small fishing village but now just empty shells without windows or roofs, appeared as a monument to the tsunami. It ripped through this area nearly seven years ago devastating local industry and communities alike. It is said that once fish could be heard singing here, but since the waves struck they have made no sound. Whether that is true or not, various people have attributed the changing climatic patterns, particularly the unpredictability of the monsoon rains both in the east and the south, on the 2004 tsunami. The broken buildings up the coast from Batticaloa and those near Galle, over 400kms away on the south coast, are a visible testament to the scale of the disaster.
It never ceases to amaze me just how much communities that have suffered remain, on the face of things at least, so positive and good natured. It takes the deserted buildings, international aid logos on big cars, and the (albeit less frequent) groups of armed soldiers that still patrol the streets and man the checkpoints, to reveal the hardship that people have endured.
Despite all the events of the recent past and the levels of poverty that some still face, the overriding image of places like Batticaloa is one of happiness and friendship. And this makes it near impossible for any foreigner like me to wander into town without being greeted by men, women, and especially children, as they go about their business or continue on their way.