Murali leads from the front
January 5, 2005
Charlie Austin travelled to the east coast of Sri Lanka to distribute food aid from the World Food Programme and see first-hand the devastation caused by the tsunami that struck on Boxing Day:
When we arrived in Trincomalee, an east-coast town that boasts one of the finest natural harbours in Asia, we were already drained. Our nerves had been frazzled by the driver, Muttiah Muralitharan, a well-known offspinner but little-known kamikaze behind the wheel. In between the near-misses and skidding corners, Murali kept going a continuous stream of commentary, chattering away excitedly, wanting to know more Tsunasmi stories and telling us about the day ahead. Murali's life has been taken over by the disaster and, inspired by his almost evangelical desire to help those that are suffering, we'd happily agreed to join him on a three-day relief mission.
Murali signed up as a World Food Programme ambassador earlier in the year. The agency would have hoped for a couple of photo shoots and the odd public appearance. But they got a crusader, not an ambassador. In the past five days Murali has spearheaded the distribution of approximately 210 tonnes of flour, rice, sugar and lentils to the north east and now the east. Next week, almost as soon as he's reeled off his ten overs for the Asian XI in Melbourne, he will be back in front of a convoy, this time shepherding food down the south coast, an area that has been receiving aid but is severely hit, especially around Galle.
It all started, on Boxing Day, with a lucky escape. Murali was due to meet his manager Kushil Gunasekera in Seenigama, a small village close to the soon-to-be wiped out beach resort Hikkaduwa, for an annual children's charity event at 11am. But, although normally a stickler for time-keeping, he rolled out of his Colombo home a few minutes late. Driving south with his brother, mother and fiancée, Madhi, an Indian lady from Chennai, he reach Kalutara and was surprised to see the lagoon's waters so agitated. He pressed on. A few minutes later they noticed cars speeding north and a commotion along the coastline. They stopped and asked what was happening and were told to head inland immediately, away from the sea which was behaving strangely.
Murali turned his car around but ignored the advice to avoid the coastline road. Miraculously, he stayed just ahead of the devastation that was working its way up the coastline. When he arrived home and flicked on the television he saw how fortunate they'd been: a violent, surging sea, called a tsunami, had flattened homes and hotels all along Sri Lanka's famous shoreline. Tragically, 50 children being bussed to the charity function, all excited about their meeting with Murali, were all washed away into the sea and are presumed dead. The 30 children who had arrived earlier fled the waves in a panic-stricken sprint, finding safety, like so many in the island, in the local Buddhist temple.
During the early days of the disaster it was unclear what to do. Aid was now trickling out of Colombo, most of it heading south to Galle. Murali was receiving treatment on his injured shoulder from his personal masseur Coddy, a close friend who rarely leaves his side, when he decided to take action. He turned to Coddy and asked: "Do you want to come to Jaffna?" Preparations were started immediately. Somehow, in a city where transport was now in desperately short supply, he managed to conjure up five trucks capable to carrying 120 tonnes of food. Although supported by his employers, Janashakthi Insurance, and friends, especially the owner of East-West Marketing, Mr Madhivanan, who helped with the trucks Murali dipped deeply into his own pocket. Less than 24 hours later, at 4am on Thursday morning, the convoy rolled out of Colombo for the 11-hour journey to Jaffna.
Having returned to Colombo a day later, he started preparations for the next mission – the one we are on. Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, together with their partners Christina and Yehali, signed up straightaway, along with former Sri Lanka cricketers Ruchira Perera and Mario Villavarayen. Dr. David Young, Sri Lanka Cricket's Melbourne-based surgeon, who had packed his bag with medical supplies and rushed to Sri Lanka to assess what medical help was required, also joined. Ramesh and Prakash Shaffter, two directors of Janashkthi, packed their bags too. On Monday morning we all rolled into Trincomalee, a town that had been largely protected by the rising sea but is surrounded by devastation to the south and north.
A fish curry the previous evening left Murali's bowels loose and when he arrived and he was in no mood for petty bureaucracy. The police superintendent, waiting for the convoy's arrival, tried to redirect some of the 90 tonnes of food into the government's own stores. While local WFP officials looked on nervously, unsure whether to agree to the request, Murali took the lead and dismissed the policeman brusquely, insisting that they had the necessary permits and that the food, worth approximately $10,000 per lorry, was going to the people and nowhere near a government warehouse. The policeman, rather red-faced, backed down and Murali marched back to his jeep, ordering the others to follow.
Back behind the wheel, Murali was even more agitated than when he'd arrived. Imodium had steadied his bowels but the policeman had stirred him up inside. Like many, he had heard rumours that some aid was being siphoned off into local markets, and he was fearful about corruption: "A major concern at the moment is possible corruption. Distrust between different ethnic and religious communities appears to be hampering the distribution of the aid, which is now in the government stores." But there are also logistical problems, according to Murali: "Clearly, some of the Government Administrators also need to have more smaller vehicles to help the smooth and swift distribution of aid."
Murali was calming down steadily when we neared Kinniya, a small village 20km south of Trincomalee that was badly hit by the flooding. The journey included a short hop across a lagoon on a rickety two-car ferry. When AHM Fozie, a cabinet minister, turned up self-importantly and arrogantly gate-crashed the ferry queue, delaying the aid convoy by another 15 minutes, Murali fumed angrily, openly venting his frustration at a group of Italian disaster journalists still puzzled over who this local celebrity was. But Fozie's appearance was poorly timed. When Murali and the cricketers walked into the refugee camp, now home to approximately 800 families and a total of 8240 people, his entourage was largely ignored. While people thronged around Murali, bombarding him with questions and autograph requests, the politicians sloped off sulkily.
While the food was unloaded from the trucks, the cricketers talked to the survivors, asking about their miraculous escape from the terrifying giant waves, and also trying to find out their needs and concerns as they tried to look to rebuild their lives. "The aid does seem to be getting through now. All the camps were now receiving food and water, but people complained about not having the utensils to cook with or eat from," said Jayawardene. "Others, in Kinniya, were also concerned that some people who have not been affected were coming into the camp and registering as displaced. But the picture is not clear."
After a harrowing and emotional week coming to terms with the loss of their homes, livelihoods and loved ones, the arrival of the cricketers, especially Murali, the only Tamil in the national team, brightened the mood of survivors, especially the children. Similar scenes followed in Kuchachchaveli and Nilaveli Govalapurum, two smaller better-managed camps to the north of Trincomalee largely controlled by the Tamil Tigers – who are earning praise for the disciplined and professional manner in which their camps are being managed. For a brief but valuable moment they forgot their suffering and smiled. The light-hearted atmosphere was remarkable considering the trauma of the previous week.
Most of the camps were situated in safe areas well away from the sea, but just before nightfall and the return to their hotel in Polonnaruwa, the 12th century capital of Sri Lanka, the cricketers visited Nilaveli Beach Resort, which had been until Boxing Day the leading hotel on the east coast. For the first time they saw just how devastating powerful the waves had been. The vast majority of the hotel had been reduced to rubble. The front office manager, still looking dazed, told of the panic as the sea surged towards the guests in the breakfast room without warning, eventually killing six of them as well as three members of staff.
We returned home late, all visibly shocked, not just by Murali's alarming driving on pot-holed roads past dangerous wandering elephants, but by the enormity of the devastation: "We'd seen the pictures on television but when you see it first-hand you realise just how serious a disaster this was," said Murali. "The waves were devastating. The death toll is still rising too with thousands still not accounted for. The army officers I've spoken to believe that as many as 50,000 to 75,000 may have died in Sri Lanka."
Early the next morning, the convoy set off again, this time to Batticaloa, an area full of army camps and derelict houses after two decades of civil war between the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil Tigers. The coastline was famous for its pristine white-sanded beaches. But today the beaches, which have receded by up to 20 metres in some parts, eaten up by the angry sea, look like rubbish dumps, strewn with clothes and saris, smashed up furniture and broken fishing boats. Even the vegetation, normally green and bright, has died, killed by the saltwater, which has also destroyed millions of hectares of farmland around the island.
One small village built on a spit of sand, Kalkudah, was caught in a pincer by waves from three sides. The settlement, which also included an army camp, was flattened by 40-foot waves that swallowed up whole houses. The few that survived did so by clinging to the top of trees. The only building standing was the town's church, astonishingly in good condition. The area, strewn with £25,000's worth of live ammunition and mines, is now being bulldozed flat by the army. So far 800 bodies have been counted but the lingering stench of rotten corpses, a smell now familiar to many, suggests more are still to be found.
Throughout the day, the cricketers handed out more relief, bringing more smiles. Even normally stone-faced soldiers at army checkpoints grinned happily and waved as the cricketers drove by. When Murali was asked to hand out platefuls of rice and curry in one orphanage, a previously orderly queue of children surged forward, desperate for their lunch to be served up by their hero. But the cricketers could not assuage all their pain and fears. A young boy called Jeeventh asked whether another wave was coming, terrified after reading an interview with a professor in a local newspaper that warned of another imminent earthquake and tsunami.
The final trip of the day to a camp deep in the bush had to be abandoned when the trucks could not continue further. Tractors would ferry the food to the victims, who would now have food security for several weeks. The cricketers turned back but vowed to continue their involvement in the relief operation. Murali is already making arrangements for his third food convoy next week, while the other cricketers, from the senior squad down to the Under-19 team, have promised to help the cricket board, who are planning to run their own emergency camps in Dambulla, Badulla and Matara. Cricketers from overseas, including Brian Lara, who called this morning, have pledged their support. Their efforts may only scratch the surface, but they are providing much-needed inspiration in the crisis, lighting up the lives of depressed victims and providing hope for the future.
What an amazing human being?! God bless him.
Edited on, January 5, 2005, 7:55 PM GMT, by pompous.