The Nation Sunday Print Edition - page 8-9

The Nation Sunday, November 9, 2014 Pages 8-9
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Sandun Jayawardana in Koslanda
S
itting near a window in the
corner of the hall, Mylvaganam
Kokilan (33) stares vacantly into
space. However, when asked for his story,
he speaks quietly but clearly, almost in
a matter-of-fact tone. He lost his mother,
aunt and uncle in the Meeriyabedda
landslide. Mylvaganam stays in Kosgama
as he works there. “My mother phones
me every morning before I go to work.
On October 29, she phoned at around
7.35am. Not long afterwards, I heard a
loud rumble. I asked my mother what it
was, but before she could answer the line
went dead,” he explained. That was the
last time he spoke with his mother. The
call had lasted 52 seconds. Not being able
to get through to her again and fearing
the worst, Mylvaganam had got on the
bus to make his way home.
“It was while on the bus that a friend
called and told me there had been a
landslide. By then, I was halfway home”.
By the time he had got to Meeriyabedda,
the landslide had already buried his
village, along with members of his family
and neighbors.
Survivor Guilt
“My father was saved by my uncle’s
daughter, but my mother, uncle and aunt
did not survive,” he said. Overcome with
grief, Mylvaganam’s father had then tried
to kill himself. He is currently receiving
psychiatric treatment in hospital.
Fifteen-year-old Yuvan Kanth had lost
his 13-year-old younger brother Dinesh.
They had left home that morning to go
to school. “We heard a loud noise and
started running when we saw what
was happening. I was holding onto my
brother’s hand but it slipped from my
grasp. When I looked back, I saw him
being swept away,” he said.
Mylvaganam and Yuvan’s personal
tragedies are just two among many that
onehearswalking through the classrooms
of Poonagala Tamil Maha Vidyalaya,
which houses the majority of those who
have lost their homes in the disaster.
Hundreds of others relocated from areas
where there is a high risk of landslide are
also housed at relief camps set up at the
Poonagala Primary School, Poonagala
Secondary School, Poonagala Sinhala
Vidyalaya, Poonagala Subramanium
Kovil and Koslanda Sri Ganesha
Vidyalaya. Around 1800 people from some
700 families were being accommodated
at these camps by the end of last week.
The Nation visited the two largest of
these relief camps; one at Poonagala
Tamil Maha Vidyalaya and the other at
Koslanda Sri Ganesha Vidyalaya.
S.T. Ramyawathi (57) and her husband
survived the landslide. She had been
inside the house when the mountain gave
way that day. “I heard what sounded like
the roar of a plane. I thought a plane
was crashing and I ran outside to see. It
was then that I saw a telecommunication
tower come crashing towards our house
along with the landslide. I ran as fast
as I could”. Her husband, who had been
out tending cattle, had also escaped to
safety. However, many of Ramyawathi’s
neighbors were not so lucky.
Poosari Alive
Therewasmuchconfusionsurrounding
who had actually been killed and went
missing in the landslide. The Mahamuni
Kovil, situated halfway up the mountain
had been completely destroyed in the
landslide. Pieces of the kovil’s The
chariot can still be seen at the landslide
location. The kovil’s Trident and
Donation Box were recovered from the
site while we were there. Certain media
reports had earlier claimed that the
kovil’s ‘Poosari’ was among the dead and
his body was one of the earliest to be
recovered. However, we found the Poosari,
named Muththusami, very much alive at
the Poonagala Tamil Maha Vidyalaya.
Muththusami (50) was leaving the
kovil that morning when he heard what
sounded like a bomb explosion. He had
seen the landslide heading towards him
and managed to flee in time, but saw
others being swallowed up by the earth.
Having been in the camp for almost a
week, Muththusami had no idea that
most people believed him to be dead.
The key to the kovil’s door was the only
possession he still had with him.
Lieutenant
Colonel
Epsitha
Dissanayake is in charge of all four camps
in the Poonagala area. Speaking to The
Nation outside hisMainOperations Room
at Poonagala Tamil Maha Vidyalaya, he
said 228 persons from 65 families who
have lost their homes are housed at the
camp. These include 112 males and 116
females. In addition 706 persons from 214
families who have been relocated from
areas identified as ‘High Risk’ are housed
at this camp, he added.
Tragic Wrist Bands
Lt. Col. Dissanayake said they were
operating a ‘wrist band system’ for
identifying the people at the camp.
Accordingly, green colored wrist bands
have been given to persons who have been
directly affected by the landslide and have
lost their homes. Those relocated from
high risk areas have been issued with
orange colored wrist bands. Children less
than 5 years of age are not issued wrist
bands. “Instead, we issue additional
wrist bands to their parents. For
example, if the family has two girls
under 5, we issue two additional
wrist bands for the mother to
wear. If the children are boys,
we issue them to the father,”
he explained.
Three
children,
including
two
In the
shadow of the
deadly mountain
from the same family, had been rendered
orphans by the tragedy. While we were there,
we saw officials from the National Child
Protection Authority (NCPA) taking them to
be produced in court so that they could be
handed over to relatives. An NCPA official
said they had no plans to place the children in
foster care, but would monitor the children to
ensure that they were being properly looked
after by the relations.
At the Koslanda Sri Ganesha Vidyalaya,
we met Ramyawathi’s next-door-neighbors;
T. George and his wife, D.D. Ariyawathi.
George had worked as a driver at the estate
for 24 years. On that fateful day, he said he
heard what sounded like a loud explosion
sometime around 7.30-7.45am. “When I came
out of the house, it seemed as if the mountain
was rushing towards me. There is a large
smokestack in a building situated further up
the mountain. I saw it collapse completely
and I ran,” he said, reliving the terror he felt
during the time.
Warning Given
Standing inside her office, H.M. Chalani,
the Grama Niladhari of Kotabakma insists
prior warning was given to residents of
Meeriyabedda about the impending danger.
There were 330 persons from 57 families
directly affected by the disaster, according
to her figures. Chalani had only taken over
duties four months ago and as such, wasn’t
acutely aware of warnings issued in previous
years that a disaster loomed in the area.
However, after the National Building Research
Organization (NBRO) issued its landslide
alert, Chalani said she had personally visited
the area on the evening of October 28 and
warned them to evacuate. “Some residents did
agree to go. From the information I received,
they had even packed their belongings.
However, they too were caught in the
landslide that happened the next morning,”
she told
The Nation.
She further said many
Meeriyabedda residents did not attend a
landslide awareness program conducted by
the Disaster Management Center (DMC) in
January this year. “I don’t think they believed
this could ever happen,” she opined.
She claimed the assistant superintendent
of the estate had visited the area and warned
residents to evacuate.
Warning not given
However, Assistant Superintendent of
Ampitikanda Group, Kasun Lasantha, denied
doing any such thing, as estate officials
did not receive any prior warning from
authorities. “There is a system in place.
You have to convey such a thing officially in
writing. We never received such a warning,”
he said. Superintendent of Ampitikanda
Group, Dinusha Kapukotuwa concurs.
The Meeriyabedda estate area falls under
the Ampitikanda Estate Group, owned by
Maskeliya Plantations PLC. Speaking at the
disused tea factory being renovated by the
army to house the Meeriyabedda displaced,
Kapukotuwa, who had been superintendent
for just over a year, insisted no prior warning
had been conveyed to estate officials during
the time he had been in charge. “There is
a protocol that needs to be followed when
conveying such a warning. You have to
inform the estate officials. This was not
done,” he said. He however, said land had
been identified where the displaced can be
resettled. The NBRO will now assess these
lands to see whether there is any risk in
settling the people there, he added.
Previous relocations unsafe
About 30 houses have been built on the lower
slope on the other side of the Meeriyabedda
mountain. These houses had been built on land
that had been allocated to the residents, who
had been relocated following Meeriyabedda
earlier landslide warnings. There, we met
R. Raju, who had been the overseer of the
Meeriyabedda watta estate. He and his wife
Vijaya Kumari showed us a photograph of
their 22-year-old eldest daughter, who had
perished in a landslide 5 years ago. There
were no shops in the area to obtain supplies,
and Raju said he had to walk some 7-8km to
town to buy food.
Pointing to several houses in the vicinity,
Raju and his wife said the inmates were
currently staying at the relief camps claiming
to be displaced due to the landslide. “They did
live in the line houses years ago before being
relocated. But they were all living here when
the landslide hit. Now, they have gone to the
camps for the aid. We don’t want to deceive
people like that,” Raju added.
Revealing that authorities had advised them
to leave these houses as well due to landslide
threats following the disaster, Raju insisted
his family would stay out despite the danger.
“We were relocated earlier as well. After
that, we built this house using the money
earned by my wife who worked abroad for
several years. We are poor people and are
tired of being shifted here and there. Who
will look after this house now if we left? We
have nowhere else to go” he said.
Koslanda aftermath
However, after the National Building Research
Organization (NBRO) issued its landslide
alert, Chalani said she had personally
visited the area on the evening of October
28 and warned them to evacuate. “Some
residents did agree to go. From the
information I received, they had
even packed their belongings.
However, they too were caught in
the landslide that happened the next
morning,” she told The Nation. She
further said many Meeriyabedda
residents did not attend a
landslide awareness program
conducted by the Disaster
Management Center (DMC)
in January this year. “I don’t
think they believed this
could ever happen,”
she opined
Ramyawathi
T. George
Lt.Col. Dissanayake
Dinusha
Muththusami
Mylvaganam
Pics by Chandana Wijesinghe
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