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Rebuilding Hambantota After the Tsunami


Sri Lanka is trying to rebuild after the December tsunami killed nearly 40,000 people and wiped out hundreds of towns and villages. But it won't be easy. Despite government pledges to assist people, many are wary of official plans to reconstruct towns, which they fear, may take them away from the lives they had and the memories that remain. VOA's Patricia Nunan visited the southern city of Hambantota and brings us a closer look.

Where once there was a bustling seaside community, little remains. Located on Sri Lanka's southern coast, Hambantota was a fishing village and home to roughly 12,000 people. Thirteen hundred of them died when the tsunami struck -- nearly 7,000 more were injured. Most of the survivors have nothing -- but the desire to return to the lives they once had.

Forty-year-old Nias Deen began work as a fisherman as a teenager. Despite losing nine members of his extended family to the waves, he wants to go back to sea. "That day, there were around 250 boats. Fifty boats are still here, but I don't think we can use them to work -- they're too damaged. The government said they would give us boats and fishing equipment. So far we haven't got anything. If they did it by tomorrow, we'd be ready to go to the sea and do our normal work." he said.

The return to normality may be elusive. But the government says the tsunami proves it's too dangerous to rebuild where Hambantota once stood. It's launched an ambitious plan to rebuild the city a few kilometers away - complete with a residential complex designed to get people out of temporary housing and refugee camps and into real homes.

Volunteer Mansur Hassan is among those who are skeptical about the government's plan. "They have lived all their lives like this. They do not know how to live in flats and look after boats in flats and bring their gear here. See, they're not rich people. If they were rich they could transport it in their own vehicles and take it back. But they're extremely poor and they live day by day. So they need to be able to have access to the shore," he said.

Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga attended the groundbreaking ceremony where the new town is to be built. Hambantota, a poor area -- home to some of Sri Lanka's Muslim minority -- is to be a showcase for her administration.

But for some, like schoolteacher M.W. Sahardeen, the emptiness holds memories. He points to rubble and says, "There were two rooms... my wife and three children... completely destroyed."

Still, Sahardeen says, he doesn't want to move away. "Even though I lost my whole family, I want to live here, in the same area. You never know, maybe a tsunami won't strike again, but there could be another disaster, like a cyclone, or an earthquake or something. People can't save their lives, it's up to God. So I want to live here in the same place."

The people in Hambantota may have next to nothing. But for many, it's too much to leave behind.

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