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Waves of Despair after Waves of destruction

For heart broken Sri Lankans return to coast is Hard

Fourteen-year-old Keri from Kalmunai wakes up in the night from nightmares of the tsunami. ''I see the waves coming at me, I see the people screaming," explained Keri, who saw people Ė including his mother -- being swept away. Fear has infected adults and children alike. Weeks after the killer waves struck, few remain in the disaster sites after dark. People talk of hearing screaming voices among the rubble.

© IPS


Amantha Perera

KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka, Jan 7 (IPS) - Some two weeks after the devastating tsunami that hit countries around the Indian Ocean, the Kalmunai beach in eastern Sri Lanka looks like it has been at the centre of a nuclear explosion. Almost all the structures on the beach are destroyed, in some places as far as 400 metres island from the coast.

Two silhouetted figures appear among the rubble, in shorts, wearing surgical masks with an extra-large disinfectant bottle in hand.

Thirty-year-old Al Niyaz and his cousin, M K Nisham, are at work. Since Dec. 28, two days after the tsunami devastated their ancestral village Sainthamaruthu here in Kalmunai, the two have been daubing themselves with disinfectant and going out to retrieve bodies.

''I have taken out more than a hundred," said Niham, a chemical engineering student at a university in the capital Colombo.

Niyaz was in Saudi Arabia when he heard the news of the tsunami. He returned immediately to look for his mother and sister. Both are still missing. ''I came here, no home, no mother, no sister, they are missing. So I start looking for them. And I donít find them. But I find lots and lots of bodies. So I bury them. That is what I have been doing," he told IPS.

As the days passed, they also found themselves more and more alone. These days, no one helps the two dispose of the badly decomposing bodies. ''The bodies are so bad, no one is helping us, we are all alone in this now," Nisham said.

They have just discovered two bodies of small children, twisted and mangled among the rubble. A few minutes before that, Nisham carried the body of another child wrapped in a sleeping mat and buried it in a grave right on the beach. ''I donít know whose child this is, but I canít leave this like this," Niyaz said.

All around them, shocked survivors have begun to return to what was left of their homes. ''Give me a boat and Iíll go back to sea," Umma Lebbe Sahabdeen, a fisherman from Kalmunai said, standing on top of the rubble of what was once his home. His boat has been missing since the disaster.

Just behind where his house stood just a week ago, his neighbourís car is perched nose to nose with someone elseís boat. ''I donít whose boat that is," Sahabdeen said.

A boat complete with an outboard motor and nets will cost a minimum of 3,500 dollars.

At least in Hambatota, rescue crews have cleared the rubble and M A M Nalif was sure that his two-and-a-half year-old son Faslan would not come across decomposing bodies amid the rubble.

He lost his small scrap-iron business, a small shop and his house to the tsunami. ''Maybe it was all worth 2 million rupees (20,000 U.S. dollars)," he said. He has found temporary shelter at a school, but prefers to be at his property for fear of looting. ''They come as relatives and take away stuff."

He is happy with the dry rations and clothes provided at the school. ''Now I want to start my life, but how?" he said, looking at the rubble.

Despite initial criticism of a knee-jerk reaction right after the tsunami that has so far killed more than 30,000 and left a million destitute, Sri Lankan authorities have been managing to carry out relief operations, thanks largely to a massive international relief effort.

The island-wide damage assessment has been increased to 1.5 billion dollars, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga has set up a steering committee that is expected to formally present its reconstruction blueprint to parliament later in January.

There were initial indications that donors might tie reconstruction aid to the recommencement of talks between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels, which have been stalled since April 2003. A substantial percentage of 4.5 billion dollars pledged at a June 2003 Tokyo meeting of donors have been withheld due to lack of progress at the negotiations.

However, time is running out for desperate refugees in the wake of the tsunamiís devastation.

Likewise, the new school year is to start on Jan. 10 and those made homeless by the disaster, currently housed at schools, wonder what will happen to them. ''Where will we go?" asked R Prakash, a refugee at the Bandaranaike College in Ampara, 25 kilometres from Kalmunai.

The government has been encouraging refugees to return to their homes and, according to Prakash, provides them with three daysí worth of rations and transport. ''The government has said that there will (no longer) be no houses on the beach. Thatís okay, but we canít go miles away. Our childrenís schools are there, everything is there," he said.

No one has visited the 1,500 refugees staying at the school to talk of resettlement. Only the Sri Lankan army has come by to register details. Food is provided by the local government authorities and members of the Peopleís Liberation Front, a political party that is a partner in Kumaratungaís coalition, with help from outside donations.

Even aid workers are nervous about what will happen next. ''If the government says leave (the school) now, then we canít do this, this is government property. So as long as the supplies come in, I will do this. There is no question on that," said K Kadiravelu, the caretaker of a refugee centre at Valathapti just outside Ampara.

Even if resettlement plans were available, many who witnessed the brutal force of the tsunami now harbour second thoughts about living next to the sea.

Fourteen-year-old Keri from Kalmunai wakes up in the night from nightmares of the tsunami. ''I see the waves coming at me, I see the people screaming," explained Keri, who saw people Ė including his mother -- being swept away.

Fear has infected adults and children alike. Weeks after the killer waves struck, few remain in the disaster sites after dark. People talk of hearing screaming voices among the rubble.

M Yogeswari has not returned to her house, 25 metres from the beach, since she ran away on the morning of Dec. 26. She is not sure whether she will ever return, because ''I am scared".

But even more so is her husband, who was swept by the waves while trying to save a child and suffered severe lacerations. Refusing to go back to their home on the Kalmunai beach, ''he says that he cannot look at the sea now," Yogeswar said. (END)
 

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