Thursday, December 30, 2004

Pariahs are welcome as undertakers go to work

Sri Lankans of all castes and creeds pulled together to dig mass graves for reeking corpses strewn on the beaches as the death toll from the tsunami approached 22,000.

An estimated 1.5 million people in the south were left homeless, many sheltering in Buddhist temples and schools.

Buddhist and Hindu, Muslim and Christian were working together to bury the dead, treat the injured and rebuild in towns and villages at tourist beaches.

In the north and east, the Tamil Tiger rebels appealed for aid after their coastal strongholds were ravaged, leaving nearly 10,000 people dead in areas they control and 10,000 missing. Aid workers said residents were now threatened by thousands of plastic landmines unearthed by floodwaters.

There was little sign of the organised relief effort the Government is trying to mobilise; instead, people from inland were pouring to the coast to help.

Undertakers and coffin makers - pariahs in caste-conscious Sri Lanka - became heroes, braving the overwhelming stench of the bloated, fly-blown bodies they pulled from the debris.

"All of this lumber was meant for building furniture," said Eroll de Silva outside his Mugalle timber mill, a short distance from the beach at Unawatuna. "Now it will make coffins."

Buddhists hang white pennants outside their homes when relatives die, and these were hanging at about half the houses that escaped the direct onrush of Sunday's walls of water. The Christians flew black flags, the Muslims green. Hardly any family on the coast was unaffected.

Sri Lanka has endured two decades of strife between separatist Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist majority. There have also been tensions between Christians and Buddhists in the past year.

The disaster came a month after Tamil Tiger rebels threatened to break a three-year truce with the Government and resume the struggle for self-rule.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, December 30, 2004

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