12/30/2004, 00.00
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Msgr Gomis, Archbishop of Colombo: "My journey into the tsunami inferno"

by Marta Allevato

Three days of reconnaissance in the country's worst-hit areas. Catholics, Buddhists and politicians will pray together for victims, in Colombo tomorrow.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - An "unspeakable" journey: only an eye-witness to the desperation of survivors and the devastation that surrounds them can fully fathom what our country is going through:  Monsignor Oswald Gomis, Archbishop of Colombo, returned yesterday to Sri Lanka's capital after having spent 3 days in some of the most ravaged parts of the country, in the wake of last Sunday's tsunami. In a telephone interview with AsiaNews, he tells of his "descent into hell": Paiyagala, Negombo, Tincomalee, Galle and Matara, the display of death and destruction "got worse and worse as we moved south".

As the sea surges were battering the coastlines of Sri Lanka and the rest of South East Asia, Msgr Gomis was celebrating Christmas services in Chilaw (north of Colombo), but "as soon as I heard the news, I set out immediately". First leg of his trip was Paiyagala, where 5 churches were destroyed. There, a Buddhist temple is sheltering survivors. "What I sensed during my journey and also here in Colombo," he said, "is a strong spirit of inter-religious cooperation. I saw various Buddhist friends and they are all absorbed in rescue and assistance operations. They were the first, along with Christian missionaries, to offer people a roof to sleep under and something to eat".

Msgr Gomis' next stop was Negombo, where damage is enormous and desperation "abounds". "People are terribly traumatized: they are overwhelmed for what they lost, but at the same time they need to look ahead". "To go forward," he stressed, "immediate assistance is needed". His appeal is to western countries and local authorities: "drinking water is the most urgently needed commodity, but there is also the immediate need for food, powdered milk for children and medicine. In Trincomalee, on the eastern coast, there was on-going devastation and "things have likely worsened". "The sea was surging right in that direction, and it seems that was the most densely populated area of all of South East Asia." The Archbishop speaks also of the "fear-stricken gazes" of Catholics in the area, for "pain is equal for everyone, for every religion". It seems that reciprocal solidarity is the only solace: "survivors themselves are doing whatever they can to help others and many people are also arriving from the country's interior."

On the west coast, toward the south, the city of Galle is "completely devastated; it will take a long time to rebuild everything". "Corpses and cars wherever you look, it's difficult to explain to someone who hasn't seen it with his own eyes." The Archbishop points out that the disaster happened during the Christmas holidays, when people go to the beach and tourists arrive. At Matara, the last leg of his journey, "I saw bodies on the lawns near the city's main monument". He says that on December 26th, a religious ceremony was being held under the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Matara, which is venerated not only by Catholics, but by everyone locally. "When the first wave hit, people began to flee; when the water receded, the priests and faithful turned back, but at that point the second wave hit and swept them away."

There will be an inter-religious prayer hour in Colombo tomorrow, which will bring together Catholics, Buddhists and the leaders of all political parties.

The tsunami killed more than 22,700 in Sri Lanka, and wounded at least 8,800.

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