The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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What war couldn't, waves could

Nilaveli, Sri Lanka, Dec. 31 (Reuters): For over 30 years, the Nilaveli Beach Resort, built on a pristine stretch of sun-drenched beach on Sri Lanka's eastern shore, was the only luxury hotel in this sparsely populated fishing village.

The 83-room resort operated during the 'bad times', when the army launched sporadic attacks on nearby Tamil Tiger hideouts at the height of a two-decade-old guerrilla war. Miraculously, it never suffered damage in the crossfire.

While many hotels went bankrupt, it maintained an average occupancy rate of 72 per cent. On many days it gave rooms to the military to run an emergency field hospital that cared for soldiers injured in battle.

But what a war that claimed over 64,000 lives failed to destroy was swallowed up by the very surf that many visitors came here to enjoy. The giant tsunami which battered the Indian Ocean island on December 26 have killed more than 28,500 people.

Mahesh Gunatilake, a marketing manager from Colombo, had come here many times, but this year, he decided to spend Christmsas in Nilaveli with his wife and 10-year old son.

On Sunday morning, they took a boat ride to Pigeon Island, around 400 metres from shore. Just a few minutes later, the family watched in horror as a towering 10-metre-high wave crashed into their hotel.

'For a few minutes I was frozen with shock,' he said. 'My wife forgot that our kid was with us and fainted. I had to carry her in one arm and drag my son to higher ground as the entire island was flooded soon after,' he added.

Mahesh and his family waited on the Pigeon Island for more than four hours until an air force helicopter rescued them. 'I don't think I have ever prayed to God the way I did on that day,' he said. His wife remains in a coma in hospital.

More than 300 people were staying at the resort when the tsunami struck and 15 of them ' including eight unidentified foreign guests ' drowned. Around 100 are still missing.

'This was one of the last unspoilt stretches of beach in the country, ' said resort manager Neville Paul. 'Now it's like two giants had violent sex here. It will take us another year before we can open for guests again,' he said.

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