Sriyawathi Malani Gunathilaka has been strong her entire life, struggling on a tiny income to drag her family onto the lowest rungs of Sri Lanka's middle class, keeping her children in school, taking on more responsibility after her husband was weakened by a stroke two years ago.
But some things are too much. On the morning of Dec. 26, the Asian tsunami slammed into Sri Lanka, triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. About 450 people from Peraliya and the adjoining village died, along with some 800 railway passengers, killed when the waves crashed into their passing train. Among the villagers killed was Sriyawathi's only son, Pradeep.
By Tim Sullivan
The Associated Press
REBUILDING AFTER TRAGEDY
PERALIYA, Sri Lanka - Far from the road, where the rustle of palm trees nearly drowns out the rumbling midday traffic, a woman sits in the wreckage of what used to be her neighbor's house, trying to summon the right words to describe what nature has done to her.
Each time she tries to speak her voice chokes up. Over and over, she shakes her head.
"If I was the only person left, I'd kill myself," she says finally. "But I have to be strong for my husband and my daughters. I have to be here for them, to be strong for them."
Strength is something Sriyawathi Malani Gunathilaka understands. She's been strong her entire life, struggling on a tiny income to drag her family onto the lowest rungs of Sri Lanka's middle class, keeping her children in school, taking on more responsibility after her husband was weakened by a stroke two years ago.
But some things are too much. On the morning of Dec. 26, the Asian tsunami slammed into Sri Lanka, triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. About 450 people from Peraliya and the adjoining village died, along with some 800 railway passengers, killed when the waves crashed into their passing train.
Among the villagers killed was Sriyawathi's only son, Pradeep.
"I keep telling myself it was the lucky ones who died. It's the sinful ones, like me, who survived," she said. "That's why I have to always be running around now, looking for a little food, finding some clothes, looking for a chair so there's somewhere to sit."
What does it mean to rebuild your life? And how do you do it when your son - the embodiment of everything you've ever worked for - is dead, your home destroyed and your village shattered? How can you move forward when much of what you saw every day has become a barely recognizable expanse of devastation?
Across the region where the tsunami hit - in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand and other countries - hundreds of thousands of people are now asking the most basic question of all: What now?
Snapshots of life after the tragedy
Some glimpses of life in post-tsunami Peraliya:
A boy's bathing suit, caked with sand, has been thrown over a tree branch by the force of the waves. It looks to be about the size for a 3-year-old. "Thomas The Tank Engine," it says, with a smiling train beaming out brightly. At least one-third of those killed by the tsunami worldwide were children, and more than a quarter of the 40,000-plus people who died in Sri Lanka were kids.
A woman scans the oceanfront road. Eventually she stops. "This was my house," she says. She's pointing at a strip of nothing but dirt.
A young boy runs through knee-high debris - the broken trees, the shattered bricks, the clothing, the pots and pans and forks and spoons, the twisted TV antennas, the everything else people collect - with an 8-by-10 photograph in his hand. Seeing someone watching, he stops. It's a formal wedding picture of a bride, groom and their attendants, just slightly water-damaged. He smiles and keeps on running.
A family's quiet pain
Sriyawathi always played by the rules. She married a kind young man, worked hard, saved ferociously and sent all her children through high school. She asked no one for handouts.
Long the center of her family, she worked desperately to control its little world. When the children were young, she'd make lunch for them and then lock them in the house when she went to sell vegetables with her husband at the market. When they were older, they were seldom allowed out on their own, not even to the beach just a few hundred yards away.
"We're good people, good citizens," she said, as if - just maybe - that should have kept the family safe.
But mostly, she focused her dreams on her son, a young man who, she'll tell you, died at 19 years, six months and three days.
Plenty of people lost more than she did in the tsunami. Some parents lost all their children, and some children lost both parents. Some families no longer exist at all.
Although her house now has no roof and most of the back wall is gone, the basic structure still stands, from the red-brick facade to the white dust ruffle hanging above the front door, stained brownish gray when the waters rose almost to the ceiling.
But tragedy can't be compared, at least not to those involved. Even in a village like this, where grief is commonplace, people still stop Sriyawathi to tell her what a good boy her son was - polite, hardworking, caring - and how sorry they are for her.
"I've seen how most sons are, drinking, staying out, and my son wasn't like that," she said, a touch of bitterness in her voice.
Sometimes, she looks for solace in Buddhism, and her hope that he will be reborn into a better life.
But mostly she simply suffers. She does it in silence, fearing the power of her grief and what it could do to her family as her husband and two daughters also suffer quietly, all of them waiting for time to blunt the pain.
Future seemed bright for son
Sriyawathi is 54. Pradeep was her third child after Dewa, 36 and married, and Sujeewa, 23. As commonly happens in this part of the world, where the late arrival of a first son often is cause for celebration, all three women worshipped him.
He was a serious boy - photos show him staring grim-faced at the camera, seated on a rocking horse - and even more serious as a young man. When he did poorly on his university entrance exams, he began preparing to take them again. He also became an insurance salesman, canvassing relentlessly on a company-supplied scooter.
His mother, who has no insurance, planned to buy some from him Jan. 1 to mark the New Year.
"After he started working, he had no time left for games, for cricket. He was always on the scooter looking for business," she said. Sriyawathi and her daughters can all recite his work achievements and how he tripled his monthly sales goal. He vowed he would own a car within two years and teased his sisters good naturedly about how they hadn't found work.
Things were going well, it seemed. Pradeep would grow up, marry, become successful and, as sons here are expected to do, care for his parents as they grew old.
Lives forever changed
The tsunami changed several lifetimes of plans.
When the waves began washing in, it was Pradeep who ran to alert his older sister, at home with her baby. He shouted warnings as he raced through town.
Then he went to help an elderly woman who lived near the beach. Witnesses say the biggest wave caught him there, wrenching him from a tree he had grabbed. His body was found a few hours later. The elderly woman's body was never found.
He was buried soon after in a mass grave.
Weeks later, Sriyawathi's pain remains obvious, barely hidden behind her often-frozen smile and her relentless focus on the mundane: cleaning muddy kitchenware, making lunch, sweeping the yard.
Little is said openly. She's afraid of burdening her family with her pain, afraid of upsetting her husband, a quiet, sinewy man with dangerously high blood pressure.
"If he sees my tears, he will worry, and I'm afraid I'll lose him too," she said, well out of earshot. "I can't talk to anyone in my family. I can't talk to anyone."
Instead, she worries about the others: her husband's health; the way her once-happy older daughter has grown withdrawn; how her younger daughter, a quiet woman so afraid of the dark she still shared a room with Pradeep, has become short-tempered.
The others worry quietly about her.
Sriyawathi, her husband and younger daughter are staying with friends but plan to move soon into Dewa's home, which was spared major damage, until their own house is repaired.
"While she's with us, she'll be all right, but when she goes back home, when she's living there again, she'll be more vulnerable," said Dewa, twisting a handkerchief in her hands.
Each finds blame in their own decisions: Sriyawathi says she should have ordered Pradeep to run for safety instead of letting him warn other people; Dewa worries that if she'd spoken more to him when he came to warn her, instead of getting her baby ready, the delay could have saved him.
Much work ahead
Some grief is buried in work.
A few days ago, they were clearing the sand and debris from the living room, stacking up usable wooden beams, burning the trees that litter the back yard.
It can be heartbreaking work. They find waterlogged photos of earlier days and take stock of what was stolen by looters: a set of chairs, a carved wooden window screen.
In the back yard, they've cleared a small shady area where they take their breaks. There are empty Coke bottles used for carrying water there, and a battered school desk to use as a table.
Aid is being distributed in the village by various groups, Sri Lankan and international, as well as individuals, including clothing, medicine, and bags of potatoes and onions.
Sriyawathi says she takes as little as she can.
"Let the people who really need it get it," she says, speaking Sinhalese through an interpreter.
When things are quiet, her husband and his friends, who are helping with the cleanup, stand around smoking. The women make tea on an open fire.
Under their feet is the dark, rich soil of southern Sri Lanka, now stained red by thousands of pulverized bricks.