The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lanka town does not exist anymore
- 'We will never know how many perished... I think everyone'

Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Dec 29 (Reuters): This story is datelined Hambantota, today, but in reality most of the town doesn't exist anymore.

Situated on a narrow strip of land on Sri Lanka's south coast, it fronted the Indian Ocean, while to the rear lay a big lagoon ' partly mangrove and partly reclaimed for salt farming. Hambantota was the southern gateway to Sri Lanka's famed Yala National Park, its beachfront dotted with bungalows catering for tourists who wanted a seaside holiday combined with a wildlife adventure.

Once a week, on Sundays, farmers from kilometres around would gather at the central market to sell their wares. So the town was at its very busiest when the deadly tsunami triggered by an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean swept away everything in its path on Sunday morning. Virtually nothing of the town remains.

The telecoms tower, slightly crooked at its base has, astonishingly, already been repaired. A small green mosque miraculously seemed to have escaped much damage, although the force and height of the water was such that the blades of its ceiling fans now hang down like a gnarled claw.

About five or six other buildings along the beach are still recognisable as having once been a shop or home, but the rest have been smashed into billions of pieces of broken bricks, twisted metal, shattered glass and splintered wood.

Asked how many people died in Hambantota, an army officer supervising the salvage operation shook his head, saying 'many, many'. Asked how many foreigners, he repeated the action, 'many'.

Today, Sri Lankan army soldiers were still pulling hundreds of bloated bodies out of the mangrove behind the town. 'The people were washed away and trapped in the roots,' said an officer.

Each new tide loosens hundreds more corpses to add to the over 2,500 that have already been buried just outside what remains of the town. The rubble of the town is packed with upcountry relatives of those who died picking through the remains of the shattered homes and buildings. Few of the inhabitants survived. 'We will never know how many perished,' said one police officer. 'I think everyone'.

The mangrove was also responsible for scores of deaths at the nearby Yala National Park. Bodybags lined the road leading to the Yala Safari Lodge and Brown's beach resort today.

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