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Sri Lankan President Opens Reconstruction Phase of Tsunami Relief Efforts

Patricia Nunan

Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has officially launched the rebuilding phase following December's deadly tsunami. The ceremony took place in the southern town of Hambantota, which was almost entirely destroyed by the deadly waves. But, many in Hambantota are skeptical of the government's reconstruction plan.

President Kumaratunga says she was proud to start national reconstruction projects in Hambantota - one of the poorest towns in the country and one of the worst affected by the deadly tsunami.

Speaking Wednesday, the focus, she said, is first to rebuild homes.

"Today we have begun the construction of 6,000 houses - that is the number that has been destroyed in this district, completely destroyed by the tidal waves," the president said.

Last week, President Kumaratunga met with lawmakers to create an "action plan" for rebuilding Sri Lanka following the December 26 tsunami. Local media report the plan envisages the reconstruction of 60 coastal towns, plus roads, railways and electricity lines. It is expected to cost at least $3.5 billion.

Families affected by the tsunami disaster are also to receive the equivalent of $50 to help

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Hambantota, Sri Lanka VOA photo - P. Nunan
them get on their feet again. But they will be expected to comply with a new regulation forbidding building within 100 meters of the sea.

For many, like the fishermen who lived along the coast in Hambantota, the prospect of a move is not welcome.

They have already begun cleaning the local well, using ropes to haul out buckets full of debris that had collected there. Except for parts of the mosque in this Muslim minority area, few of the scores of houses that once lined the seafront remain standing.

The government has promised to house the community in apartment blocks to be built a few kilometers away. But Mansur Hassen, who came to help the people of Hambantota rebuild, says that idea simply will not work for fishermen, because of the cost of transporting fishing equipment.

"They do not know how to live in flats and look after boats in flats and bring their gear here," he said. "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."

More than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka were killed by the deadly tsunami - a figure that officials say could eventually exceed 40,000.

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