Sunday, 10 April 2011


Dutchbar, a community of 1,000 on the east coast of Sri Lanka, was much more like a family than a village. On the morning of December 26, it was wiped off the map by a forty-foot wave. Today the survivors are faced with a choice: return to the place where their families were killed, or leave their village foreve

All of them. They are waiting. They want you to know. I lost my wife and child. My brother was killed. I found my sister at a bend in the road, half-clothed and still warm, barbed wire wound through her hair. I was saved by a monkey in a coconut tree who waved at me and told me to climb. Women bring pictures of their children. He's right there, dressed as the third wise man. That's the whole family in front of the famous waterfall; he's the youngest, a clever child. These photos, fished from the wreckage and dried in the sun, wrapped in paper and carried in pockets, they must all be looked at, each life must be imagined, every frightened child at a school assembly and each young woman going to her first day of work at the bank.

And still there are more, waiting. Old women and little boys, girls who lost sisters, and a Sunday-school teacher who watched her Bible class carried away. All the fathers whose children were ripped from their arms. One minute he was under my arm like a loaf of bread, and then he was gone. They are countless, among the multitudes, all singing their stories in a tuneless song. Can you hear them? All of them? And will each one be remembered? The one who was to be engaged that day? The one who watched her twin sister carried out to sea? There are thousands of them now, hundreds of thousands, millions, mewling, a lamentation in twenty languages all along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, in countries you can't remember if you know anything about, in cities that sound somehow familiar. Banda Aceh? Krabi? Galle? Wasn't that an ancient empire or a prehistoric skeleton? Don't they make tea there?

Move closer and you can see them. They're coming into focus. There is a ring of them clinging to the edges of a big green island southeast of India. And closer, a city undone by the waters and a tiny village within that city, built onto a sandbar, a thousand people waiting to talk. Why there? Why these and not the others? Why not. Why not these people. You start by listening to just one of them. Closer now.

* * *

IT'S TWO WEEKS LATER and fifteen former citizens of Dutchbar sit in a row of old wooden chairs at a municipal office. They've been summoned here to receive their money, $100 for each death. They're made to wait for a long time. They're neither patient nor impatient. They're blank, like their wires have been ripped out. Get a death certificate. Okay, how do I do that? Maybe later they will feel something profound about collecting a sum of money for their dead child, but today they sit and wait and see what happens. Events are no longer expected to make sense.

Sweat, smoke from burning garbage, someone eating a fragrant dal curry in the accounting division. Women in saris labor over monstrous ledger books used in place of computers, entering information in their elegant circular alphabet. Then the government agent arrives with the necessary documents, a Hindu woman in a green sari and a motorcycle helmet. She's been Dutchbar's government agent for years, and she knows everyone in the village, at least on paper.

They follow her into a room with a big wooden desk on a riser. Everyone presses toward it, trying to read the forms backward across the desk. She shoos them like children and back they go into the hallway. Then she calls them in, one at a time. Jerington Speck. He's only 15, but his father, Anton, is still in the hospital, so he's here to collect checks for his mother and sister, now dead. Edna Barthelot is next, and she stares at the ledger suspiciously before signing for her mother. Agnes Delima signs for her husband; Rienz Foulzer for his mother, sister, and grandmother; Terencia Speck, long-necked and beautiful in the way an actress who's playing someone with consumption in a period drama is beautiful, signs for her mother and father. The day of the tsunami was going to be Terencia's engagement party, and that turn of fortune makes her a special case even in Dutchbar, where 150 people out of 1,000 died. Her name is called twice as she sits in her chair, pinching the skin at her elbow, but no one says a word to her.

Britto Moses is next. Britto is 28 years old, and today he is clean and well groomed as usual, his hair carefully combed, his goatee trimmed so close it almost ceases to exist, a slight scent of baby lotion on him. Britto signs for the money. One hundred dollars for his mother. One hundred dollars for his father. One hundred dollars for his sister. And with this signature, he ends the official existence of his family. He is the only one left, one of the few from Dutchbar who is truly alone.

Dutchbar wasn't a town the way people think of towns. It was more like a tiny principality, settled forty years ago on a finger of sand that points out from the shore of the coastal city of Batticaloa. It was created by Burghers, the Catholic descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch colonists—or at least they once were, centuries ago. The people in Dutchbar still bear their European names, and some of the older ones still speak Portuguese, handed down orally for the past five centuries. They are mostly carpenters, with little money, so Dutchbar came into existence slowly. First there were palm-frond huts, then walls were built and separate kitchens; then wells were dug, electricity was strung out from the city. They lived only with other Burghers, married only other Burghers, bound themselves together and apart from everyone else.

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