Dateline NBC
updated 6/24/2005 7:58:37 PM ET 2005-06-24T23:58:37

It happened six months ago, as millions around the world were celebrating the holidays. A tsunami moving as fast as a jetliner, slammed into 11 countries in south Asia. At least 226,000 people were killed or lost and presumed dead. Whole towns disappeared. It was a tragedy beyond our comprehension. But it also inspired an unprecedented outpouring of aid -- at least $1.4 billion in private donations from Americans alone. What has happened there since? And where did all that money go? We returned to Sri Lanka to find out for ourselves.

It's a bittersweet day in Hambantota. The fishermen of this village on the southern coast of Sri Lanka are returning to the sea. They're launching brand new boats given to them by people a world away.

“To me it's amazing that they are going back, back to the sea,” says aid worker Jennifer Poidatz.

It's an act of faith and of necessity.

“They're going back to fishing," she says. “And that's what they want to be doing."

But their ambition is tempered by apprehension. They are heading back into an unfaithful ocean. What was once a source of life, is now a source of fear. There was no warning when the water slammed ashore last December. So powerful, it swept up boats, carried away trucks and buses, and plucked this coastal train off its tracks.

What happened in Sri Lanka was just a part of the devastation all around the Indian Ocean. The wave obliterated villages, leaving homes flattened to their foundations, wiping out entire families. The number of dead and missing is still hard to comprehend. Nearly 166,000 in Indonesia, nearly 25,000 in India and Thailand. And more than 35,000 in Sri Lanka...

On December 26, Father Renato Indika, a Catholic priest, was finishing Sunday mass here in Hambantota when a man burst into the church.

Father Renato Indika: A man came in shouting father, just run. Don't stay here.

Ann Curry: Run?

Indika: The sea is coming.

Curry: The sea is coming?

Indika: Then I saw it. I didn't recognize it's water, but-- black or maybe black wave like thing.

Curry: You said the water was black?

Indika: Yes. Black.

The priest ordered his parishioners to get to higher ground. Then, as quickly as it had violently arrived, he says, the black wave was gone. He rushed toward the shore.

Indika: People were shouting and crying. People were running with naked-- blood in their-- everywhere.

For hours, Indika ferried the injured to the hospital. His white cassock turned red, stained by the blood. By dusk the priest was helping to bury the dead in a field behind the village mosque.

Curry: How many did you bury?

Indika: That is thousand-- three hundred odd number. I can't be sure.

Curry: More than a thousand people?

Indika: More than a thousand, yes.

Curry: And that was not all the dead?

Indika: No. That is the only the bodies on the first day.

By the end, about 1500 people were buried in a mass grave dug on Mslim land. On that day says Father Indika, there were no Muslims, Buddhists, or Christians. Only God's souls.

Curry: And you, a Catholic priest--

Indika: Yes.

Curry: In a field behind a Muslim mosque. Did you say a prayer, too?

Indika: Of course, yes.

Curry: And what did you say to God at that moment?

Indika: I said, I leave all these people into your hands.

The tsunami killed more than 4,000 people in Hambantota. Most of the deadly water's victims were women and children. Many were swept away at the bustling Sunday market.

Indika: This is the area where we had our weekly fair. Thousands of people come here, especially ladies and girls.

The stalls were teeming that morning, busy with women shopping for their families. Chandrika was one of them. A 43-year-old widow, she still remembers every detail of that day six months ago when she left her two daughters at home with her mother.

Chandrika: I went to the market in the morning. As soon as I got there people started shouting, "run!" I kept stumbling and running. I was caught in the wave, calling out my children's names.

Frantic, she managed to find her way to the second floor of a bank, when the sea quieted she headed home, only to be knocked out by a second wave.

Chandrika: When I woke up I was on the ground. I started shouting and kept running.

Chandrika wandered home by herself. Chandrika found the body of her eldest daughter near the rubble of the house she'd left standing only hours before, her mother and younger child were never found.

Curry: What does the sea now mean to you:?     

Chandrika: I feel rage every time I see the sea. This is the thing that took away my entire family.

What haunts her most now is guilt. And there is no end to the tears.

Chandrika: If I was there with them, I would have saved them somehow. Or we all three would have died together.

Chandrika showed us where her home on the beach had been. It was the house where she was born, where she made a living by renting out rooms, where she raised her family. There are still small fragments of her shattered life here.

Chandrika: We had 24 of these curlers I use to put these on my hair and my daughters used to laugh at me.

And a tiny piece of blue porcelain from the teacup she drank from everyday -- a gift from her mother.

She's kept only a few things. All that remains of her family are some photographs made into a shrine, and school uniforms that belonged to her daughters.

Chandrika: They were torn and buried in sand. I took them out and washed them to keep them with me to remember them by.

Her daughters and her mother were just three of seven relatives she lost that day. Chandrika, the survivor, is one of the nearly 2 million people in South Asia displaced by the tsunami. She is homeless and alone. Where will she go? Where will they all find home?

Six months after the tsunami, they are signs of healing in Sri Lanka. The coastal train is running again. At least a dozen times a day it passes the ghost train. Those cars the tsunami derailed and twisted like pieces of tin have been set upright again, a monument to those who died here.

The wreckage that made this beautiful coast look like a war zone has been cleared. Tents now dot the beaches where houses and shops once stood. The market, where so many women and children died, has been moved to higher ground, away from the memory of an angry sea. 

Overgrown weeds now surround the mass grave at the mosque where Father Indika helped bury the dead.  Across the field is a sign of hope, a temporary camp for some of the families in Hambantota who lost their homes. It's also a sign of the biggest problem Sri Lanka now faces - homelessness.

The vast majority of the more than 400,000 people made homeless by the tsunami in Sri Lanka alone are still living under these kinds of temporary conditions. And inside each shelter is a story of overwhelming loss.

Stories like Chandrika's. She's lost her family, and her home. She lives here now, in tent #296. It's one of 100 tents in this camp supported by the Buddhist community of Taiwan, where 375 people share 35 toilets and showers, and each family has one light bulb. It is the fourth place Chandrika has lived in six months. Life will be like this for some time. 

Curry: Immediately after the tsunami it seems as though there was an emergency response phase. Things started to settle down. Six months in and where are we?

Jennifer Poidatz: We would say we're in a transitional phase or rehabilitation. 

Jennifer Poidatz works for Catholic Relief Services, one of hundreds of aid agencies on the ground in Sri Lanka.

Poidatz: Now it's the point where we start working with communities more and trying to really understand what is it going to take to get these people back on their feet? 

That means building. Aid agencies have taken the lead in providing survivors with temporary shelters.

Poidatz: They're transitional shelters. They're homes that they can stay in until we're ready to work with them on a permanent solution.

But finding permanent solutions hasn't been easy and some are wondering why people are still living in tents six months after the tsunami.

The Sri Lankan government isn't building homes. It only assigns land to the relief agencies committed to construction.

Poidatz: The government has started to find land, but it's not enough.

Curry: Because of the buffer zone?

Poidatz: Because of the buffer zone. Yeah.

The buffer zone rule, imposed by the government here, prohibits building homes within 100 meters of the shoreline. That's just a few yards longer than the length of a football field.

Mano Tittawela heads Sri Lanka's task force for reconstruction.

Mano Tittawela: The buffer zone policy is essentially driven out of a need for a government to take care of the safety of its citizens.

Although the likelihood of another tsunami anytime soon is a scientific uncertainty, Tittawella says the government is erring on the side of caution, and that is causing serious concern about whether there's enough interior land in Sri Lanka to go around.

Tittawela: People said, "Look, the buffer zone is a problem because we cannot build our houses, because we cannot find alternate land." Which is true. But a large number of people also said, "We're also scared to go there."

That group includes people like Chandrika who says she will never move back to the sea.

Chandrika: I don't like to build there again. After I lost my entire family there, I can't live there again.

She's been promised a house in the "new Hambantota" a few miles from the ocean, and a stone's throw from where the elephants live. Housing developments like these are part of the Sri Lankan government's plan to relocate people away from the coastline.  

But for all those who are afraid to live by the sea, there are others who want to rebuild on their land near the water in spite of the government's concerns.

In fact, some don't believe that safety is an issue, and think the government is using the buffer zone rule as a way to force people away from potentially valuable tourism property. In Hambantota, there are plans for building an international harbor. Will big resorts be next?

Curry: What do you say to those who think that the government is playing on the fears of the people? And this is essentially a land grab by the government on the backs of the tsunami victims?

Tittawela: It's not a land grab because they own the land. They can do anything with it. You own the land.

Curry: Except you've severely diminished the value of that land--

Tittawela: Now, that's a different--

Curry:--if I cannot build on this land.

Tittawela: So, again, for individual rights in this country, we are a democracy. We are a free country, you know? People can go to the courts.

But Father Indika says these people consider this land sacred ground and to begin healing, they need to begin rebuilding on their own land.  

Indika: To make these people normal once again, we have to let them allow the people to build their own house in the buffer zone.

Curry: Because?

Indika: Because of the-- most of their loved ones died on the spot. They want to live there.

And they are putting down stakes where their houses once stood, regardless of the government's rules. Members of one family we saw live in what remains of their house -- the second floor. It's within that 100 meter buffer zone and they want to stay here, but worry the government may knock down their house if they rebuild.

Curry: The government says that it wants everyone to move to another place. What do you think? 

Woman: So now they're building houses so far, no?

Four miles away -- from the market, the hospital and schools. Here there is no church, mosque or temple.    

Curry: You want to stay here by the sea because your family are fisherman?

Woman: Yes.

And all along the coast, impromptu aid groups have sprung up --unsanctioned volunteers who aren't concerned with permits and planning.

This Dutch tourist, frustrated by the delays he saw in reconstruction, decided to stay and build shelters himself.

Jeroen Jvdh: The people lost all their family members here, and so they want to come back.

He and a group of volunteers recently inaugurated this new community "tea room". It's the centerpiece of 55 shelters they built in spite of the 100 meter rule. 

Curry: So you did all basically this without permission? You just said that's it, I'm buying some wood, I'm building this place one at a time?

Jvdh: Yes. There was no choice because I went to some meetings, but it's-- or you're in a meting or you're here with a hammer and some nails.

Tittawela acknowledges there are delays, but says they aren't being caused by the government. In many cases, he says, relief groups have been given the land to build on and it's up to them begin construction.

Tittawela: Nobody writes a check and gives it to you. Even if the American public has written checks for $1.1 billion, I mean, they should ask the NGOs where the check money is. I guess most of the money is still in New York, no?

Where is the more than $1 billion American gave to tsunami relief?

It was an enormous outpouring. The young and the old, small-town charity drives and star-studded telethons, Americans opened their hearts to the tsunami victims on the other side of the world.

When the magnitude of the tsunami's devastation became apparent, President Bush named two familiar faces to rally Americans to give what they could -- his father, former President Bush and former President Bill Clinton.

So many did. Moved by the tragic stories and images, Americans donated an estimated $1.4 billion to private tsunami relief groups.

Last February, the self-proclaimed odd couple toured the ravaged region, meeting the homeless in Indonesia, the traumatized children of Sri Lanka. And seeing the sometimes cruel and unpredictable effects of nature's force.

Bill Clinton: It's humbling, because you realize just a matter of a few feet determined whether mothers and fathers and children lived or died.

Curry: You seemed to be at times, deeply moved, by what you saw.

Clinton: Just the scale of human suffering would touch anybody.

Now, as the United Nation's Special Tsunami Envoy, President Clinton recently returned from his second tour of the devastated region. When we sat down with him, we talked about what is standing in the way of rebuilding people's lives including, some say, the buffer zone in Sri Lanka.

Curry: Let's talk about the buffer zone. There is tremendous anger at this policy. The government says that it is a safety policy, a policy to protect its people. But there is a feeling, fairly pervasive feeling, that that this will be used as an opportunity--

Clinton: To develop the area—

Curry: --to build hotels and to build other kinds of infrastructure on the backs of the tsunami victims.

Clinton: In one or two places, they have actually said that's what they wanted to do. But only in one or two places. I think by and large, the concern was safety. 

Still, President Clinton is urging the Sri Lankan government to consider other ways to protect people along the coast.

Clinton: For example, in the areas where safety is a concern, it might be that replanting the mangrove trees would be just as good as moving people back 100 meters. In other areas, building up a little sea wall or building the land up might compensate for not having to move back so far. So, I think they're now looking at other options. That's what we have to do. That's what I think I have to see in Sri Lanka, some more flexibility, some creativity. But I have a high level of confidence in the man that's been put in charge of the reconstruction. 

He's talking about Mano Tittawela, the Sri Lankan official we talked to who is coordinating relief efforts in his country.

Tittawela: The focus now has to be put into how quickly does this money get spent? And how much and where exactly.

He says it will take $2 billion to rebuild Sri Lanka, and pledges have come in from across the world to more than cover that amount. Some of that money comes from the $50 and $100 donations that so many Americans scraped together.

Curry: Americans want to know, is this money going where it should go?  Is it helping the people?

Clinton: I think the answer to that is the money that has by and large been spent well. The non-governmental organizations that have all this money, as well as the donor governments know they have to spend it or they'll lose credibility with the donors. But they know if they spend it too fast and it's not accounted for and it's not spent effectively, that they'll also lose credibility with the donors.

Poidatz: What people want to do is get back to their normal lives.

On the ground in Sri lanka, Catholic Relief Service's Jennifer Poidatz is well aware of the expectations that come with spending the $150 million Americans donated to Catholic Relief services alone. And $23 million of that is earmarked for Sri Lanka.

Curry: how much pressure do you think aid agencies are feeling to make sure it is clear to the American public that they have managed these funds appropriately?

Poidatz: It's a tremendous responsibility and we take it very seriously. You're accountable for, you know my aunt who, you know decided she was going to give $100. You're accountable for every donation to make sure that that's being put to good use.

So far, she says her charity has spent nearly $3 million on building more than 3700 transitional shelters and close to $300,000 on boats and fishing gear. 

For the fishermen in Hambantota, giving them boats and canoes means giving them back their livelihoods.

Curry: How much does one of these boats cost?

Poidatz: The little canoes, they cost around $200 and then the big boats are almost $1000.

Curry: So if you donated $200 to your organization, you might have bought a boat?

Poidatz: Yes.

Curry: That's kind of cool.

Poidatz: And they should be happy about that. Yeah.

No American relief organization received more donations than the American Red Cross -- a remarkable $535 million. And with all that money, Red Cross officials know they're under a microscope and say they are keeping close tabs on it.

In the six months since the disaster, they say they have spent about $105 million for emergency aid. And about another $430 million is earmarked for future programs -- everything from clean water and vaccination projects to building shelters and health clinics -- but it has yet to be spent.

Tens of millions of dollars donated to the Red Cross were also passed on to United Nation's world food program. In all, the U.N. says it has received nearly $3 billion for tsunami relief from across the world, and it's hired a top accounting firm to keep track of where this money is going.

Clinton: They're all there watching. They're all there looking. And they're all there reporting. And they know, for example, America's going to build the road back in Thailand. They know how much it costs to lay a mile of pavement. And they'll be accounting for it as they go along.

President Clinton says it is critical that those entrusted with the money spend it right. It's not only a matter of building homes and roads, he says, but of laying a foundation for the prosperity of future generations.

Clinton: If we can do this right, we may be able to use this to get funding for a whole broad assault on poverty in a lot of other countries.

Curry: So, it's an opportunity?

Clinton: It's a terrific opportunity. I mean, it's going to take some time, but we're working on it.

Time is beginning to heal the people of Hambantota. They are now thinking to of the future, looking to the sea, which they once a considered a blessing.

Podiatz: We need a lot more days like this.

And so with every new prayer, with every new foundation, and with every new boat. Sri Lankans are hoping to make the sea a blessing once again.

In an effort to make sure all the aid money goes to the people who need it, Mr. Clinton is calling for a common reporting system, hoping to keep the nations involved accountable for the millions they are receiving.

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