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Sri Lanka Rebuilding Homes, Lives One Year After Indian Ocean Tsunami


Nearly a year after the Indian Ocean tsunami swept across the shores of 12 countries, many communities still struggle to recover. In Sri Lanka, VOA's Patricia Nunan has revisited the town of Hambantota - one of the areas worst hit. She tracked down people she met in January, to see how they are faring, as the one-year anniversary of the disaster approached.

The tsunami left little standing in the crescent-shaped stretch of land that forms Hambantota's natural harbor - except a greenish-blue mosque. The mosque became headquarters for emergency aid workers and for survivors in this predominantly Muslim town.

When I arrived after the tsunami, survivors and volunteers were at work cleaning debris out of a nearby well, amid stacks of damaged boats.

The southern district of Hambantota lost about five thousand of the 30-thousand Sri Lankans who died in the terrifying waves. Thousands of houses and boats - a vital commodity in this fishing community - were destroyed.

In the early weeks, many survivors I spoke to were concerned the government wasn't going to let them rebuild near the sea - to create a buffer against another tragic tsunami. They did not trust the government to understand their need to be near the sea for their boats or because they wanted to carry on living in the place their families died.

M.W. Sahardeen is a schoolteacher, who lost his wife, two daughters and an infant son to the tsunami. Just he and his eight-year-old daughter survived.

Mr. Sahardeen showed me around the remains of his house -just a foundation in the ground, pointing out where the kitchen and bedrooms had been. He was one of the people who wanted to stay.

"Even though I lost my whole family, I want to live here, in the same area," he said. "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 determine the end of their lives - it's up to God. So I want to live here in the same place."

Most of the people I met were fishermen, and most were eager to get back to sea - despite losing so many family members to the ocean's wrath.

It was a time of uncertainty. Most just hoped the government would provide them with a new boat, or repair an old one - so they could get back to making a living again.

The international response to the crisis was fast, and funds for recovery programs eventually exceeded two billion dollars for Sri Lanka alone. With that money, the Sri Lanka government launched initiatives to provide new boats, new livelihoods, and new homes to tsunami survivors.

Mohammed Darooq, a fish wholesaler, was among those I met after the tsunami. He told me he was sometimes afraid to even look at the ocean. But the international response made him optimistic.

"I think it will recover in a positive way - with all these foreign countries giving money to the government. Because of that money, I'm hopeful," he said.

As the first anniversary of the tsunami approached, I was back in Hambantota again - where the fishermen have returned to sea and where the greenish-blue mosque remains standing - now amid small wooden homes built by people who still don't want to move.

I caught up with Mr. Darooq at the local market, where he was working a stall, chopping and descaling fish he sold to local residents.

He had received some of that international assistance he was optimistic about, when an non-governmental organization built a new market stall for him. But it was not as he had hoped. He has not been able to re-establish his fish wholesale business, because he could not afford to take out a loan.

"Working here, I earn just enough to cover my cost of living," he explained. " I'd use up my daily earnings to pay back a loan."

At the Zaira National School, Mr. Sahardeen's eyes lit up when he realized I had tracked him down almost a year later. He invited me to watch him teach a math class for his 11 and 12-year-old students.

Later he told me after spending months living in a temporary shelter, he gave up his hope to rebuild. He says he decided to take the government's offer of a new house on the outskirts of town - in part to move on from the tragedy.

But memories of what happened, Mr. Sahardeen says, are never far from his mind.

"When you look from the outside, it appears as if we've just lost our houses and possessions - things you can see. But it's much more than that," he noted. "I lost my family to the tsunami. They're dead. So when they come to mind, it's very hard to escape feelings of grief. We're just people."

Mostly Mr. Sahardeen says, for the sake of his only surviving daughter, he has no other choice but to just keep going.