In about 6 weeks or so, I will be returning to Sri Lanka with family & friends to celebrate (if that’s the correct verb) my 60th birthday. It will be my second visit to the island, having travelled there about 7 and a half years ago in company with my Dad.
That trip was ‘sponsored’ by the National Lottery as part of the celebrations around the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War II. Veterans like my Dad were given the opportunity to travel back (with an accomplice, namely myself) to places where they had fought or been stationed. In his case, he could have gone to any number of locations; anywhere from Nova Scotia to Australia and most places inbetween.
He chose Sri Lanka because it was somewhere he had long dreamed of returning to and could never persuade my Mother to join him; she would never have coped with the heat and humidity. Anyway, whilst sailors tend to spend most of their time on board ship if not actually at sea, Sri Lanka was a place where Dad got to spend a good deal of time ashore in 1944-5.
HMS Victorious getting up steam in 1944
This was because his ship, HMS Victorious, was sent in to the dockyards at Colombo for a refit in 1944. Such a procedure necessitated getting all the crew off the ship to allow the work to be carried out. The crew were dispersed to all areas of the island on a variety of ‘shore duties’ – many of them spurious. Dad spent his first three nights in Ceylon (as he knew it) sleeping rough in the grandstand at Colombo Racecourse before being sent off to an RAF base at Kolutara. He said that he spent a good deal of his time ashore playing cricket and also driving trucks up to Kandy, in the mountains.
Subsequently, he ended up standing guard on a newly-created air base in the centre of the island at Minneriya where the main runway had to be cleared of elephants before aircraft could take off or land. With this in mind, a guard post – a flimsy construction of woven banana leaves on a wooden frame – was erected at the end of the main runway and manned 24/7.
On night patrol with 3 other ‘ratings’, my Dad (as a Petty Officer) was issued with a Navy pistol and sent down to this guard post towards sunset. Once it got dark, the jungle – largely somnolent during the daytime heat – seemed to come noisily to life, with all manner of shrieks, squawks and howls reducing the tough Navy patrol to a set of gibbering wrecks. For them, the worst moment arrived as a huge (but probably harmless) black snake slithered through the banana leaf ‘wall’ and into the hut. In an atmosphere of considerable hysteria, Dad took aim at the snake and fired, at which point the mortally injured animal thrashed wildly backwards and forwards for about 10 minutes – increasing hysteria levels – before it finally expired. The English abroad, eh?
Fleet Air Arm crew ‘on guard’ at Minneriya in 1944
Dad and I called in at the former RAF Minneriya, which is now a Sri Lankan Air Force base (SLAF Hingurakgoda), but despite considerable efforts, we were unable to persuade the Sri Lankan military hotshots to let us in for a look around. We obviously looked like Tamil Tiger desperadoes….
It was interesting to observe the change in the terrain around the base. British servicemen had literally hacked the site out of dense jungle in 1944, but by 2005, the whole area was an open landscape, much of it agricultural. Dad told me that during his time there, British fighter-bombers with extra fuel tanks were flying out of Minneriya to bomb Japanese fortifications in Burma. One such group had a much-decorated South African squadron leader whose plane clipped the treetops upon take-off. His plane came down in the jungle several hundred yards away and it took so long for a rescue party to hack their way through to the wreckage, ants had consumed more than half of his mortal remains by the time the rescuers arrived. Looking around what now seems to be a fairly benign landscape, this is hard to believe.
RAF Minneriya in 1952 – by now most of the jungle was gone
Eventually, Dad rejoined the Victorious in Colombo, circumnavigating the southern tip of the island before docking at Trincomalee, once described by Horatio Nelson as the finest natural harbour in the world. After some time based at what is now the SLAF base at China Bay (one of Trinco’s many ‘creeks’ and inlets), Dad was off again, firstly to Sumatra, then the Philippines and some uncomfortably close encounters with Japanese ‘kamikaze‘ planes and finally to Australia. On VJ Day, as most of his celebrating shipmates were heading ashore to Sydney’s Circular Quay, Dad was banged up in the Victorious‘ sick-bay with chronic malaria and never did make it ashore in Sydney; he was transferred to a UK-bound ship and that was his War over with.
Allied warships in Trincomalee harbour in 1944
In 2005, he and I spent about a month travelling around Sri Lanka, but things were rendered somewhat more difficult than normal by two ‘extraneous’ factors. Firstly, the appalling Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 had happened only a few months before our visit and some areas we wanted to visit were still struggling to get back on their feet. Secondly, the ongoing struggle between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebels was still in full flow, so some parts of the country were ‘no-go areas’.
From Colombo, we headed north-eastwards to Dambulla and the ruined cities of Central Sri Lanka. We also visited the airbase at Minneriya before heading for the east coast at Trincomalee. There were plenty of police and military checkpoints along the road, but when they saw our white faces they simply waved us through. We stayed at the excellent Welcombe Hotel on Orr’s Hill, well away from the centre of the town and gated as well. I think that Dad & I were the only bona fide tourists in residence, because most of the other guests at the hotel were doctors, engineers, aid workers and so on, representing a host of charitable concerns – Oxfam, Aid Australia, Médecins Sans Frontières and suchlike.
The east coast of Sri Lanka took the full brunt of the 2004 tsunami. The Welcombe’s manager, Mr Da Silva, told me of how the headlands at the mouth of Trincomalee harbour had protected the town from the worst of the waves, whilst 10 miles north at Nilaveli, the devastation was colossal as waves swept inland for up to 2 miles, carrying massive amounts of debris with them. South of Trinco towards Batticaloa and Arugam Bay it was a similar story. Dad & I travelled north out of Trinco along the Nilaveli Road. We made our first stop at the Trincomalee War Cemetery where Dad’s closest shipmate, Bill Allen is buried.
In the midst of a global conflict, Bill Allen met the most stupid and unnecessary of deaths. Whilst stationed at Trincomalee and awaiting further orders, HMS Victorious kept its crew occupied with various ‘busywork’ – such as my Dad’s regular cricket matches. Being an aircraft carrier, the Victorious also used this ‘downtime’ to train its pilots and crew on the Barracuda dive-bombers which had replaced the old-style biplanes like the Alabacore and the Swordfish. Bill was part of the crew of a Barracuda from the Victorious which collided with another plane in exercises off Trincomalee. Dad returned to the ship after his cricket match to discover that Bill was missing, presumed dead and later the same day, the Victorious left to carry out bombing raids on Japanese-held refineries in Sumatra.As a consequence, for the next 50-odd years, Dad assumed that Bill’s body had never been found, but it was and he was buried – along with the Barracuda’s pilot – in the Trinco War Cemetery. We visited the grave and left flowers – I would imagine we were Bill’s first ever visitors. I tried to establish contact with his family in Leicester, but to no effect.
Further along the road towards Nilaveli, the littoral zone was strewn with tsunami debris and ugly clumps of wood and metal huts that had sprung up as emergency housing for those affected by the tsunami. Many of these had corrugated metal roofs and with the midday sun beating down, they must have been extremely uncomfortable inside. However, we were told by some of the Aid Workers at the Welcombe Hotel that not everyone was interested in rebuilding communities. Some people, provided with cash to build or buy new homes, apparently invested the cash in huge 4-wheel drive vehicles instead; it was noticeable how many of these huge 4×4’s could be seen on the roads around Trinco.
At Nilaveli itself, the formerly deluxe Beach Hotel had just been completely flattened by the waves, but work was already under way to rebuild it. The beach itself was tranquillity personified – an empty, 30-metre wide stretch of clean white sand stretching in either direction for as far as the eye could see. Only a tsunami -uprooted clump of mangrove root, lurking in the surf like a sea monster, broke the calm.
Later, I bought a conch shell from a stall outside Koneswaram, on cliffs near Trincomalee and one of the major Hindu temples of eastern Sri Lanka. For a thing of such perfect, radiant beauty, it seemed ludicrously cheap – about £1.50. Koneswaram – as is so often the case in sub-continental temples, palaces and fortresses – was overrun by predatory monkeys who were fed on dried fruit and pieces of mango by dutiful pilgrims. But not by snotty Brits….
We headed southwestwards again and found our way via Kandy and Nuwara Eliya to Unawatuna, south of Galle on another tsunami-battered piece of coastline. Strictly speaking, Galle faces west, but the tsunami wrapped itself around the coastline and crashed into the city, with 15 feet of water in the streets of the New Town and the cricket ground famously inundated. Our hotel at Unawatuna was similarly swamped, with the 70 years -plus manager, Mrs Pereira, swept from her breakfast table and out into the street. She probably survived because she clung on to a shard of wood that turned out to be a splinter from the hotel’s front door.
Undeterred, she worked like a demon to refurbish the place and had pretty much done that by the time that Dad and I arrived to spend an idyllic week there. Next door, however, was a small handicraft shop and this had been wrecked by the waves with all the shop’s stock washed out to sea and the building trashed. The owner’s wife had a small infant clinging to her and this was known locally as the Tsunami Baby because the Mother was heavily pregnant when the waves came, was likewise washed out into the street, but somehow survived to give birth just 2 days later. Almost out of pity, Dad bought a tsunami-damaged conch from the shopkeeper and now they both sit in my living room; I don’t know which one I prefer.
In a few weeks I’ll be returning to Unawatuna, though not to the same hotel. Mrs Pereira only outlived the tsunami by a couple of years and like my Dad she has gone, now. Her family continues to run the hotel, but it’s a lot more expensive than it was back in 2005; there again, most of them are. Had Mrs P. still been around, I suspect I would have felt obliged to stay there, but that’s no longer an issue, so we will be staying at the north end of the beach where it will be a little noisier and funkier in the evenings and where the surf culture that now dominates Unawatuna is a bit more obvious. Not great for my 80-something Dad, but a bit more like it given the crew I’m travelling with.
Unawatuna Beach, looking south.
Unawatuna itself took a pounding from the tsunami and when I was last there, there were clear signs of this. On the road into Galle, there was one bungalow in particular, built facing the sea, which looked as though it had giant holes punched through the middle of it – which indeed was effectively the case. There were still piles of wreckage lying around and great gaps in the lines of palm trees facing the beach. In Galle itself, the cricket ground – just across the road from the beach – was still being rebuilt. This time, hopefully, we’ll be able to catch a game.
Tsunami damage at Unawatuna,2005
All of which lengthy preamble brings me to ‘The Impossible‘ (2012) – Beware spoilers if you haven’t seen it yet……, which is a new movie about the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, made by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona and based on the true story of the Belon family, who were caught up in the tsunami at a Thai resort and separated from each other before being reunited.
Sadly, the producers of the movie were unable to make the sums add up when it came to a Spanish-language version of the story, so the Belons became the Bennetts, who, though based in Japan, are quite clearly English. Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor play the well-to-do parents of three young sons who are escaping the cold of Tokyo for a Christmas break at a Thai resort which is all infinity pools and unctuous staff.
They have barely jumped into the pool before the tsunami strikes – some seriously impressive effects here – and the whole resort complex is annihilated before you can say ‘Tiger Beer, please.’
Watts and her teenage son, Lucas, are swept inland by the waves, bouncing off cars, trees and pieces of furniture along the way. Watts suffers a really gory injury to her leg and is clearly struggling. Lucas (brilliantly played by Tom Holland) soon realises that he will need to rise to the occasion if they are to survive.
There is absolutely no doubt that this movie is a genuine tear-jerker. Quite early in proceedings, Lucas has to help his ailing Mother climb a tree to an imagined point of safety and for both this is a visceral moment. She needs to be strong for her son, but she is weak, bleeding and in pain. He is unused to dealing with life in the raw and it suddenly dawns on him that he will need to find reserves of strength that he has never used before and take charge of a situation where he would normally defer to a parent if they are to survive. He even finds the strength to rescue a far younger boy of about 6 and alert some local villagers who are searching for survivors, then ensure that his Mother is taken to the local hospital.
Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in ‘The Impossible’
Back at the coast, Ewen McGregor has rescued the 2 younger boys but has no idea of the whereabouts of Holland & Watts. He decides that he must send the boys to safety in the hills on their own whilst he searches for his wife and eldest son. The middle son, Thomas, played by Samuel Joslin carefully (and comically) explains to his Dad that he cannot abandon him to look after his younger brother because he’s never had to look after anyone before.
Meanwhile at the hospital, Lucas is anxious about his Mother’s worsening condition but can do little except wait. Eventually, at her urging, he goes off to help other anxious Westerners to locate their families, but returns to find that his Mother has herself disappeared – and no-one knows where. Eventually, the family are reunited but not before we experience some genuine apprehension about the likelihood of Watts’ survival.
There is no great secret to the appeal of ‘The Impossible’. It’s a story about the resourcefulness of human beings and their capacity for compassion. It’s a story about the strength of the human spirit and the powerlessness we feel when we are cast adrift in desperate circumstances. Not that the happy ending experienced by the Belon/Bennett clan is necessarily typical. At the hospital where much of the action takes place, the corridors and grounds are filled with anxious parents, lovers and siblings who are desperately searching for loved ones who may be gone forever. Even as the Bennetts are reunited, we see the grief and shock of many others playing out in the background.
And that is to say nothing of the local people who – unlike the Bennetts – cannot hop on to a jet and fly away to air-conditioned safety in Singapore. Around the Indian Ocean, 283,000 people lost their lives and whole communities were decimated by this event. Even so, I think it is futile to criticise Bayona for choosing to tell the story of a western family – it is for Thai and Sri Lankan film-makers and novelists and painters to interpret the events of 26/12/04 for their own audiences. Even so, they will surely be able to identify with the depiction of events in ‘The Impossible’, if only because the story it tells is one that speaks in a language everyone can understand.
As for me, I return to Sri Lanka in the sure and certain knowledge that I will be meeting more local people who will want to tell me what happened to them on that fateful day – and those are the most vivid and evocative stories of all.