Tragedy on the mountainside

Friday, 20 May 2016 00:38 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Dharisha Bastians in Aranayake

The wails of Prema Adikari, 58, mingle with the howls of a small brown dog as they both stare at the muddy remains of a collapsed house on the hill through sheets of rain falling in the area again Thursday morning. A red collar made of twisted string is still fastened to the dog’s neck, a sign that he once belonged to someone in the landslide hit area. Villagers in Pallebage, say the dog has been howling for two days, when parts of the mountain crumbled and fell, crushing small settlements that lay upon its slopes. 

Prema Adikari says her brother and his family of three lived in the house on the hill. “The neighbours had shouted for them to leave but I don’t think they heard over the gushing waters of the canal nearby during the rain,” she explains sobbing. 

Behind her, a team of elite army commandos rushed up the slippery mountain to dig through the rubble in an effort to recover three bodies residents claimed were buried in the landslide debris. Adikari was convinced they were the remains of her family that was crushed by the mudslide on Tuesday evening. 

Minutes later the commandos scurry down again as the rain gets heavier, causing large tree trunks, mud and debris to cascade forcefully down the slopes. The commandos urge villagers and journalists who have travelled up the slippery mountain, wading knee-deep in mud over inundated paddy fields in a bid to inspect the damage, to make for higher ground. For two days now, like aftershocks associated with a major earthquake, Aranayake has experienced mini landslides as torrential rains beat down on the exposed mountain slopes.  

Adikari, who has journeyed here from her home in Matale, tells a policeman wearing raingear nearby that she hopes the army will recover the bodies of her family. “At least we can have a funeral,” she says as he assures her that when the rains finally cease the army should be able to dig through the rubble quicker. 

Aptly named ‘Saamasaara Kanda’, the mountainside is home to both wealthy estate owners and impoverished plantation workers and day labourers. Trees full of ruby red jambu and pungent durian fruits grow wild and tall tamarind trees provide shade and carry soft breezes across the entire settlement at the foot of the mountain. A settlement, residents say, that looks nothing like it did two days ago. 

Silt and mud from the slopes of the collapsing mountain washed into the vast fields of paddy in the valley, inundating the rice fields and concealing village wells and canals in the surrounding area. The mud has made the long trek up the mountain fraught with danger for military personnel almost exclusively leading the search and rescue efforts at the Aranayake landslide site. Special Task Force personnel used large poles and sticks to feel their way across the mud-flooded fields, up to the foot of the mountain. 

“It takes three hours for the troops to get to the top of the slope, to the first site of the devastation,” Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe, who is commanding the rescue mission in Kegalle said. His team of some 300 men, including elite commandos, medics and sniffer dogs had dug 16 bodies out of the landslide in Aranayake by last light yesterday. Another 14 bodies had been recovered in Bulathkohupitiya, the second landslide site, bringing the total fatalities from the landslides to 30 by the end of day yesterday. The military said 60 soldiers were working in Bulathkohupitiya, initially to locate 16 people unaccounted for after the disaster. 

Major General Ranasinghe, who coordinates his rescue mission from a make-shift command centre at the Hathgampala Maha Vidyalaya said he was increasingly doubtful of finding survivors under the mountain rubble. “The sad thing is I believe the 134 people still missing could be dead,” he said, explaining that 66 houses in the path of the landslide had been completely demolished. “If we count three to a family in those homes, it corresponds with the figures of those still missing in this area,” Ranasinghe explained. 

Major General Ranasinghe said rescue operations were severely hampered by the continuing rains in the area. “Already once today we had to call the troops off when the rain came down too hard,” he said last morning. “Soldiers are knee deep in mud, we can’t take any machines in yet, so this is still very slow going.” 

Streams of people visiting to see the damage from neighbouring towns and villages were also hampering search operations, Ranasinghe explained. “These small mountain paths that are already dangerous because of the rain are getting so crowded, that even if we have injured people or personnel to transfer it will be so difficult,” he said. 

Inside the Hathgampola Maha Vidyalaya district and divisional secretariat officials are registering displaced families and the missing. An information centre has also been set up in the school for affected families to provide or receive information about missing loved ones and neighbours. Local officials are also coordinating relief efforts in four displacement camps now housing more than 1000 people in Aranayake. 

The Hathgampola Temple which is providing shelter for 374 people reeks of disinfectant as district nurses tend to the sick and children play quietly in a corner. The shelters are being flooded with relief supplies, with dry ration and food stores overflowing. Officials are asking people to try and find other ways to help victims of the landslides. 

Some of those being sheltered at the temple have lost homes in Tuesday’s mudslide. Others have been evacuated by the army and government officials who fear further collapses on the mountainside that could crush remaining homes. 

“We are not afraid to go back home, but the officials won’t let us. They say our homes are now in a risky area,” said Amali Nimanthika, a brick-maker’s daughter from the Pallebage village. 

Nimal Ariyaratne fell beside a canal while he was escaping and took shelter close by until the worst was over on Tuesday night. At the Hathgampola Temple for two days now, he is still searching for word of his daughter, her husband and two small children who have been missing since the landslide hit. 

Residents blame the scale of the disaster on heavy quarrying on the mountain to build a road nearby and illegal deforestation to create vast tea estates in the area. 

The Sri Lanka Red Cross said some residents were complaining that they had not been warned of a landslide risk ahead of time by local officials in charge of disaster management. But Red Cross officials also said the Government did not have the man power to go door to door and relied mostly on word of mouth and megaphone announcements. 

But Major General Ranasinghe said some parts of the villages had been warned ahead of time of landslide risks due to heavy rain in the area. The Saamasaara Kanda was so fertile he said, people were reluctant to leave. Military personnel working in Aranayake yesterday said that even after the tragedy, people were still hesitant to leave the fertile valley. When military personnel went door to door to warn people to evacuate their homes, they had replied: “We will never leave this mountain and go.”