Tourists stranded after tsunami

Vacationers trickling into the Sri Lanka's capital say local towns are struggling to cope with the devastation.

Four days after two tsunami waves pummeled this island nation, as many as 22,000 foreign tourists remain stranded and are increasingly fearful.

As the magnitude of the disaster in Sri Lanka becomes clearer, with the numbers of the dead here being revised upwards from 12,000 to 23,000 and displaced persons now estimated at 1.5 million, relief efforts are uncoordinated and the situation is deteriorating, according to vacationers who escaped destroyed beachfronts, Sri Lankan officials, and the Red Cross.

A catastrophe of Sunday's magnitude would tax even the most well-equipped country. But in this developing nation, surviving tourists trickling into the capital paint a picture of local townships and neighborhoods struggling to cope. Many of them, the tourists say, are overcome by surges of inertia and emotional devastation that often seem as powerful as the watery walls that hit up and down the country's east coast. Police are described as unaware of what steps to take, and authorities seem unable to coordinate cleanup efforts. The army has been seen on the street, but not involved in basic relief services.

And accurate information is at a premium: Foreign ministry officials have said the roads to the south were washed out, yet tourists arriving Wednesday say they were intact, though filled with debris. Travelers say they are having to fend for themselves.

"You feel completely isolated; you feel like you have to help only yourself and that no one will help you," says Stuart Welsh of Nottingham, England, who got out of the southern town of Galle on Tuesday night with his wife, Stella, on a tractor run by a five-horsepower motor. "It is a siege mentality. You don't know where to go. You can't turn on the TV, there's no electricity. There are a lot of tourists still down there, and there are still a lot of bodies lying around."

Southeast Asia is a winter refuge for holidaymakers, especially from Europe. Tourism on this tear-drop-shaped island boomed after a 2002 cease-fire between the separatist Tamil Tigers and the majority ethnic Sinhalese government. Tens of thousands of vacationers now flock to the southern beachfront each year, where boutique hotels mingle with colonial-era architecture, and the famed elephant park known as Yala.

Yet the tsunami, originating 1,000 miles to the east off the coast of Indonesia, slammed Sri Lanka's southern beaches hard. Refugee tourists say that in addition to a lack of electricity, there is very little diesel fuel, long lines of cars picking their way through debris, and little clean water and fresh food.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said Wednesday in Berlin that hundreds of Germans may have perished; some 1,000 are missing and 26 are confirmed dead. Meanwhile more than 2,000 Scandinavians are reportedly missing. In Thailand, of the 1,600 people who perished, 700 were tourists, according to the government. Israel says 100 of its travelers are missing, though some 1,500 have been found alive.

Evacuations are patchy and scattered, often via single helicopters. Tourists on group packages were fortunate, with teams back in Colombo sending in buses. Japanese tour organizers have worked the phones around the clock to get their groups away. Austrian airlines offered free trips back to Vienna for Austrian nationals. Yet Westerners traveling in smaller groups or who booked their hotels and travel on the Internet had no real backup.

"A lot of tourists like us are sitting down in Galle and Unawatuna like they would be in England or Canada, waiting for the police or the fire brigade to come, and nothing is coming," says Jo Fletcher-Lee of North Yorkshire, England, who, along with her husband Philip, took a seven-hour ride in a truck to get to Colombo, after hiking for hours.

Tales of how Sunday's events unfolded continue to emerge. Tourists say many of the fatalities occurred when curious locals and vacationers came back to the beach, unaware of a second wave on the way, hours after the first one struck. Many lost money, IDs, clothing, passports - along with loved ones.

"A lot of us didn't know what was coming next," says Andrew Burr of Britain. "The rumors were of a third wave at midnight, and, well, you start thinking what's really important, and it isn't anything material."

Sri Lanka is claiming about a third of the 76,000 Asian fatalities in 12 countries. Nor are all reports in. Each day brings new information. The southern coastal train here, usually about 16 packed cars, was mostly swept away as it chugged along on Sunday; few of about 1,000 passengers are accounted for, and only three cars are intact. More than 80 jeeps at the elephant park set off along the coast that morning; only half have been found. Several large remote hotels on the beachfront have not been heard from at all, and rescue teams reached on the phone Wednesday in the south and east report entire shanty communities wiped out.

The Red Cross has two small warehouses in Sri Lanka, and both have been emptied in the past four days.

"We've been helping deal with an armed struggle in Sri Lanka, which has been slowing down," says Marcal Izard, head of the Sri Lankan Red Cross. "We were not prepared for a natural disaster. A lot of rescue teams are still trying to reach some of these areas. Not every place has been visited."

In a solemn address to the nation, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumeratunga asked her often divided fellow citizens to use the tragedy as an opportunity to "take a fresh look at society and at ourselves," and overcome religious and ethnic differences, "as difficult as that may be to imagine." She proclaimed Dec. 31 as a national day of mourning.

Meanwhile, tourists say ordinary Sri Lankans have treated Westerners with great care. "The Sinhalese have been fantastic, I have to say that," Mr. Fletcher-Lee says. "They guided us, found shelter for us, and helped us. I have nothing but good things to say about them."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.