Postcards from Peraliya: Life at Asia's Ground Zero

<preform>This is south Asia's Ground Zero, where the world's media pointed its cameras after the tsunami hit. Stephen Khan </b></i>reports on a project that has put Sri Lankan children on the other side of the lens</preform>
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The Independent Online

Just three carriages are left now. The other five have gone, along with the engine, towed away by Sri Lankan Railways. But still, the people come. They come to see three battered, brown rusty cars left in Peraliya.

Just three carriages are left now. The other five have gone, along with the engine, towed away by Sri Lankan Railways. But still, the people come. They come to see three battered, brown rusty cars left in Peraliya.

For this is south Asia's Ground Zero. A place where those who have lost can come to contemplate. While the devastation has spread far and wide, this village between Colombo and Galle on the island's west coast has become its focal point. On 26 December, as the waters surged ashore, it was here that the Queen of the Sea train was engulfed. At least 1,500 passengers died.

And now, in the shadow of the ghostly carriages, the children of Peraliya are learning to smile again, with the help of pictures. A project to give youngsters cameras has produced fresh perspectives of the legacy of the world's worst rail crash.

Before the wave, many Sri Lankan children had hardly seen a camera. So, when the world's media arrived, many were frightened when cameras were pointed at them. Now, they find themselves on the other side of the lens.

Juliet Coombe, a travel photographer and magazine editor who has been working as a volunteer in Peraliya since the first week of January, was drawn to the island after finding out that some of her friends had died in the tsunami. Immediately, she felt an urge to help.

After weeks of delivering aid, recovering bodies and listening to the children's stories, Ms Coombe hit upon a plan. Give them all cameras. "It struck me that their perspective of this devastated village and its iconic train would be interesting; but more importantly, I thought photography could serve as a form of therapy, by helping the children to confront their fears," said Ms Coombe, who has also helped set up a website where the village's recovery is being recorded.

"We're trying to empower them to tell their own stories through photographs," she added. "To deal with what they've seen and to overcome it."

And one image dominates the children's portfolios - the train. "The train has become part of the village. It is etched on their lives," explained Ms Coombe.

"It was the first thing that the kids wanted to shoot. When we gave them the cameras they made straight for the carriages."

In a small area that lost more than 1,000 people, the train is now much more than just a haunting hunk of wreckage for this community. When authorities tried to remove it as the line was being rebuilt there was uproar. Local people sped to where it had been shifted and demanded its return. A compromise was reached with three of the carriages being left behind, as a form of national memorial. The villagers are still fighting for the engine to be brought back.

Meanwhile, the children snap away at what remains. One young photographer, nine-year-old Danuka, gave an insight into the significance of the train. "The broken carriages look like my friend's tsunami scars. The train is bleeding. So many people died. I feel the carriages are like open wounds."

Dinushika, aged 11, admitted she was "still worried about the ghosts that live in the train" as she took pictures of friends clambering aboard it.

The dominant thoughts remain: of loss, death and fear. Little wonder, given that 1,500 from the village died - as well as those killed in the train. More than 450 families were left homeless. Still, they try to pick up the pieces. Shattered homes are now topped with tents, provided by international aid agencies and individuals.

But as the daily visitors, including some tourists, shuffle past, the village is in the midst of a recovery battle. But the scars on young minds remain. "So many people are still missing from my village, that I wonder if some are still hiding out on the train," Dinushika said.

The children of Peraliya witnessed unimaginable scenes. And the horrors continue. Last week, bodies - or more specifically, the rotting remains of people who drew their last breath in December - were still being pulled from swamp areas behind the route of the infamous train line, which has already been rebuilt.

Carnage has become commonplace. And the attention drawn to their village has brought strange sights and sounds to Peraliya.

Westerners, for a start. Dozens of them. Aid workers, tourists helping the recovery process, and television camera crews. And not all have been welcome. Photographers who waded through devastated homes to get their images have left some sad children still saying: "Didn't they realise these were our homes? Why didn't they ask if they could come in? They just walked in."

But now dozens of such children are using photography to tackle inner demons. "As well as the train, the children are going back to the sea," said Ms Coombe. "We think this is progress, as in the first few weeks they would not go near it."

Seven-year-old Panani echoed the fears of many as he showed off a picture taken from the beach. "The sea eats people. I don't want to swim in it in case it eats me."

But amid the continuing fear is hope. "It has been great to see smiles on the faces of little people who have lost so much," said Juliet Coombe. "Each step on the road to recovery brightens their lives."

A few weeks ago most of the children were too frightened to enter the carriages where so many lives ended. Now though it is a permanent fixture on a landscape forever changed - a backdrop for the games of growing up.

As the cameras clicked, Hasitu, aged 10, clambered through the train doors in search of his friends. "I want to photograph them, but the train is full of places to hide," he said.

Playing on the carriages, returning to school, replacing the village sign, getting back to the beach - all are major events for a community left in ruins two months ago. And all are moments being captured on film by the children of the train.

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