Amid devastation, signs of life return

GALLE, SRI LANKA — GALLE, Sri Lanka -- It was another hot, sunny morning yesterday at the surviving Commercial Bank branch in town, a good time for leaving checks and deposit slips out to dry and to be sorted.

About $10,000 in salty, wet Sri Lankan currency also had to be washed and dried. Inside, on the second floor, there was more housework under way: ironing mortgages.


"We have our own way of doing the processing," said Moninna Goonewardea, a junior executive officer who used to work at another branch of the bank, the busiest of the bank's offices in southern Sri Lanka, now too badly damaged to open.

All the waterlogged papers were moved from there to this more nearly intact branch, where everything salvageable, including money from the flooded vault, is being washed and left out to dry or be ironed.


"This is what we have been doing for the past two weeks -- washing the notes," Goonewardea said. "Can you imagine? Washing currency notes?"

It's much the same scene at government offices all along the coastline, where last month's tsunami has ground society to a halt in a subtly corrosive way: soaking through its records, many of which are still kept only on paper.

As the cleanup and rebuilding of coastal Sri Lanka continues with the help of government road crews and Sri Lankan army cranes, government and office workers are trying to preserve and reconstruct important parts of people's lives documented mainly in writing: assets and debts, formal complaints and lawsuits, even their crimes.

The Galle town police station can't yet figure out who needs to be arrested for one or another offense because the crime reports have been lost and the investigation books damaged. That problem is worsened by the destruction of warrant records at the criminal court, and by the fact that most police officers are far too busy providing security for relief and cleanup workers to begin recreating lost files.

"We can't execute warrants because the police are engaged in all this other business," said Pradeep Jayathilake, a magistrate presiding over criminal cases here.

Court paperwork

At the district court, hundreds of land disputes, divorce cases and other lawsuits will have to be reconstituted from memory by the parties involved because the paperwork for pending cases happened to be stored on the lower shelves, submerged by the tsunami; records of older cases remained dry on the higher shelves.

"These files are all wet with salt water. Do you have any methods to dry these things?" District Judge K. B. K. Hirimburegama said, looking at water-damaged papers stacked on his desk. "To my knowledge, you have to wash it with pure water and dry it" -- but the court lacks the resources to do so.


The elections office lost all the voter lists dating back to 1978, though officials said that with time, they will be able to recreate them thanks to copies in the archives in Colombo. But officials will also be required to make a cool, bureaucratic culling of the living from the dead.

At the rent board, the records of landlord-tenant disputes were totally destroyed, and workers there are unsure of what to do about it. Plus, many of the houses being fought over have been reduced to rubble.

Back at the courts, at least some plaintiffs, defendants and some of the accused but yet-to-be-tried -- if their names and deeds and misdeeds can be determined -- might have died in the same tsunami that damaged their records.

"We don't know how many people died because of this thing, how many litigants died because of this thing," said Jayathilake, the magistrate.

Among the thousands of paychecks and deposit slips and new account openings and mortgages and lease obligations being dried and sorted and ironed at the Commercial Bank branch -- just one of several banks here -- some might well belong to any of the nearly 4,800 dead or missing in the district.

Vault flooded


The checks and deposit slips, left over from the last day of business before the Christmas weekend, were locked in the vault waiting to be keyed into computers the week after Christmas. The vault was flooded and the time lock had to be forced open by the company that made it, bank officials said, but the records and money inside were salvageable.

Yesterday some of the checks and slips were laid out on a blue tarp to bake in the sun in the back yard of the other Galle branch, protected from the tsunami because it was surrounded by the high walls of a 400-year-old colonial fort.

Here, 21-year-old Hasanka Jhalindra, who normally is responsible for online check processing, was trying to match up the drying checks with the correct drying slips. Black smoke occasionally wafted over him from a fire burning a few yards away, where papers that could not be saved -- but which can be reconstructed from computer files -- were being destroyed.

In a spacious second-floor office, piles of water-damaged home mortgages and other loan documents were waiting to be ironed by bank employees Chaminda Gunawardena and Deemantha Punchihewa. They wore safety goggles and masks to protect themselves from the fumes.

It will take weeks to get through all of it, bank officials said. And the grim accounting of which records belong to the dead, and of what to do with them, is yet to come.