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‘Now no one calls me mum’: Camber Sands families full of grief and questions

On a day when the mercury tipped 28 degrees and there was barely a cloud in the sky, beachgoers flocked to Camber Sands, near Rye in East Sussex. Making their way past the stalls selling beach balls, buckets and spades and inflatable flying fish in every possible hue, few glanced at a sign in the Camber Sands central car park warning: “Beware of sand bars, beware of fast moving tides.”

Many day-trippers who arrived at the quintessentially English beach, which attracts around a million visitors a year, had no idea that this apparently calm and shallow stretch of seaside was the scene of seven tragic drowning deaths last summer. On Monday, an inquest into all seven deaths opens in Hastings.

Brazilian teenager Gustavo Cruz and Mohit Dupar, a man of Asian heritage from London, died first on 24 July. Dupar lost his life trying to save Cruz.

A few weeks later on 24 August, Gurushanth Srithavarajah, 27, brothers Kenugen, 18, and Kobikanthan Saththiyanathan, 22, Nitharsan Ravi, 22, and Inthushan Sriskantharasa, 23, all of Tamil origin, also drowned.

All seven were described by their families as capable swimmers. Rother district council is responsible for safety at the beach, which is three miles long and up to 700 metres wide at low tide. Relatives were shocked after the council – in an incident log filed by an official on 24 July after the first two men drowned – said the fact the beach attracts “predominantly non-British visitors” had become “an increasing issue”.

The log states: “We are again faced with incidents of non-swimming persons of a certain culture that enter the water in great numbers with deadly results. The combination of a beach as shallow as Camber attracting predominantly non-British visitors has been an increasing issue over the last 10 years and the risks that these people create upon their lack of ability in being ‘tempted in’ to such a shallow bay are becoming unsustainable and unfair for us to deal with or carry the burden of responding to.”

Of the five young Tamil men, all of whom had been resident in the UK for several years, three were at university, a fourth was in full-time education and a fifth had secured a university place. They all lived in London.

Their parents accused the council of inaccurate and negative stereotyping, which they said had compounded their grief.

One family member, Githushana Gengeswaran, said the comments had caused huge upset to the families. “All the boys were good swimmers,” she said. “The comments suggest that Asians in general can’t swim. These accusations are wrong. Everyone’s life matters whether they are black or white.”

The seven deaths were not the first at Camber Sands. According to inquest records Tanzeela Ajmal, 31, a nurse from Norbury in south London, drowned on 28 July 2012. Three friends she was with also got into difficulty but were resuscitated. In July 2015, Thatchayiny Segar, 30, an accountant from Dagenham, drowned.

When each of the drownings occurred there were no lifeguards on the beach, something the bereaved relatives have repeatedly condemned.

The perilous nature of Camber Sands’ waters is a longstanding issue. The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) has been talking to Rother district council since 2003 about safety issues. In 2013, the RNLI recommended that a lifeguard service be introduced at the beach, but that was not taken up by the council. But following the deaths last summer, the council came under enormous pressure to change this policy and agreed to allocate £51,000 in its 2017-18 budget to bring in seasonal lifeguard cover at Camber Sands.

According to the RNLI, four lifeguards are now stationed at the beach until the end of the summer holidays. The lifeguards are there from 10am until 6pm, with patrols focused on areas marked by red and yellow flags – the safest areas for swimming. Lifeguards will also respond to emergencies in other parts of the beach if necessary.

At a pre-inquest review, Patrick Roche, representing the Tamil families, said that as well as the deaths there had been seven “near-deaths” at Camber and that this week’s inquest, which is scheduled to last five days, should look at whether Rother district council could or should have done more to protect the lives of bathers at Camber Sands. The inquest will look at the conditions on the beach – such as sand bars where those unfamiliar with the terrain can get stranded when the tide, one of the fastest-moving in the UK, comes in.

Toni Cressy, 33, a regular beachgoer, welcomed the introduction of lifeguards this summer but said that it was not enough. “We go to Southend beach quite a bit and there are far more lifeguards and safety measures there.”

Rother district council have said they will not comment ahead of the inquest but will issue a statement when it concludes. In a statement the RNLI said it had seasonal lifeguards on 250 beaches across the UK, adding that they helped 20,538 people and saved 127 lives in 2016.

“The RNLI’s advice for anyone planning a trip to the beach is to respect the water, check weather and tide times before you go and, if planning to go into the water, swim at a lifeguarded beach, between the red and yellow flags,” said a spokesman.

The families of the Tamil men said that 10 months on from the tragedy they had not even started coming to terms with the losses. In an interview with the Guardian, three of the mothers sat weeping, with their heads in their hands.

Jegaleela Saththiyanathan, 52, who lost both her sons, said: “I believe that if the lifeguards had been on the beach last summer my sons could have been saved. I feel so lost and empty without them. Now I have no one to call me ‘mum’. We fled Sri Lanka because we were persecuted there and our lives were at risk. We never thought that after surviving what happened to us there that we would lose our children in a safe country like England.”