Feature Article

'Hotel Tsunami' welcomes no more in Arugambay

[TamilNet, Thursday, 27 January 2005, 15:08 GMT]
"The government’s treasury is brimming with Tsunami aid money. Here only our eyes brim with tears. The government has not given us anything in aid. We are living mostly on handouts by NGOs and others who come to see the plight of this place", M.L.M Haniffa, a farmer in Ullai, considered one of the ten best surfing spots in the world, told TamilNet Wednesday. The forty eight year old Muslim farmer who lost his wife, daughter and two sons, lives alone in an open tent near the ruins of what once a popular beach front guesthouse in Ullai – Hotel Tsunami.

Tsunami Hotel
One of the most visible name boards to greet visitors to this surfing resort before the sea flattened it has been put away discreetly by the owner who survived the giant waves.

Ullai is on the scenic curve of Arugambay in the remote southern extreme of Sri Lanka’s Northeastern Province – about 113 kilometres south of Batticaloa.

Stardust Hotel
Stardust Restaurant, which was largely responsible for putting Ullai on the world surfer’s map, is a heap of rubble. Mr. Per Goodman and Ms. Merete Scheller from Denmark opened the famous restaurant on the picturesque edge of the Ullai Bay, where the surf was best, when the village was a sleepy settlement of impoverished fishermen and farmers. The two Danes, who came to Arugambay in 1979, settled here captivated by curve of the beach and blue surf.

Neighbours said that Mr. Goodman was killed by the waves. Ms. Merete survived. Government officials in Pottuvil estimate at least 34 foreigners may have been killed by the sea waves. This could not be confirmed independently.

The Arugambay Bridge

The large region between the Pottuvil Lagoon’s estuary and the Kumukkan River is a remote and little known backwater of the east coast. Dense forests of the Yala Wildlife Reserve lie to its west and south as an almost impenetrable barrier.

The only motorable road that links the region with the rest of the island was severed by the Tsunami when it completely ripped off the approach road and southern ramp of the Arugambay Bridge.

Canadian soldiers ferrying civilians across the Pottuvil lagoon
The Canadian army has set up an emergency boat service across the Pottuvil Lagoon. Canadian soldiers ferry people in their military dinghies. Passengers are required to wear life vests (an unusual practice in these parts) while crossing the often choppy waters of the Arugambay estuary.

“The boat service is OK for now. But there will be a big problem when the harvest season starts in a couple of months. How can we farmers transport the harvested rice to Pottuvil if the bridge is not repaired? The detour through the jungle to Lahugala is too muddy and very unreliable. The government in Colombo seems to be only keen in hoarding the Tsunami aid. There are two ministers and a deputy from this district. But they have not done anything to alleviate our suffering”, said Mr. M.A.M Shafeeq, a young farmer in Naaval Aaru, about five kilometres south of Ullai.

Mr. M.L.M Haniffa in his tent
There are several large tracts of paddy from Ullai to Panamai, the old village on the edge of the Yala Wild Life Reserve. Many of these fertile fields, thousands of hectares in extent in places like Naavalaaru were hewn from virgin forests by Tamil entrepreneurs from Naavatkudah and Aariyampathi near Batticaloa in the late nineteenth century.

The lands are now mostly owned by Muslims from Pottuvil and Akkaraipattu.

Mr. Shafeeq’s sentiments are echoed by many residents of this region like Mr. Haniffa, particularly in Ullai where the Tsunami destroyed every structure in this tiny but bustling seaside surfing resort.

The approach road to the bridge
“Our ministers came. They saw. Took photos and went away. They gave us nothing”, lamented an articulate school teacher in Ullai who did not wish to be named on account of his government job.

Those who lost family members in Ullai were given fifteen thousand rupees (about 152 USD) per dead person by the Sri Lankan government last week.

But many residents who spoke to TamilNet complained that Colombo has not yet given them anything tangible to help them rebuild their homes or restart their livelihoods.

Curiously, Muslims who were not associated with the tourism trade in Ullai tend to blame the Tsunami on what they refer to as “the amoral things that were happening in the village”.

“This is God’s punishment for the profanations which tourism brought to this village. Some people were prepared to do anything for the sake of foreign money”, declared the school teacher in Ullai. Local Tsunami victims who were listening to him nodded in agreement.

Ullai Bay

Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has been plagued by charges that it is lenient on the large number of pedophiles from Europe, Australia and North America who visit operate with impunity in remote sea side resorts amidst genuine tourists.

Few in Pottuvil and Ullai seem to know the fate of the little settlement around the Murukan Temple in Ukandai, a lone pilgrimage centre by the sea about 26 kilometres south Pottuvil.

The ancient shrine for the Tamil warrior god Murukan stood on a rock overlooking the beautiful, virgin Ukandai Bay.

Rescue workers who had reached the place two days after the Tsunami said that the gravel and mud road from Panamai through dense dry zone forests was ripped and mauled in places where it passed close to the sea.

Getting to the shrine is virtually impossible now as no four wheel vehicles capable of traversing the ruined jungle road to Ukandai can be ferried across the Pottuvil lagoon.

Meanwhile, the Special Task Force is busy fortifying its Tsunami hit camp on the Pottuvil side of the Arugambay estuary with bulldozers.

“Can we expect the Sri Lankan government to show the same urgency in repairing the Arugambay Bridge. This is the central problem we survivors here face today”, said the Ullai school teacher.


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