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Fitful recovery in Sri Lankan fishing village

As Sri Lanka prepared to honor tsunami victims Monday with prayers, speeches and a nationwide moment of silence, any sense of crisis surrounding the disaster has long since passed, but recovery is proceeding fitfully at best.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A prosperous fisherman, T. Maheswaran counted himself a lucky man. He had a big brick house, a devoted wife and four strapping sons, the eldest of whom wanted to be an engineer.

Now, like so many who lived in this seaside village, they are gone, swept away in last year's tsunami. And it does not seem adequate just to grieve.

That is why Maheswaran, 50, has spent all of his savings and then some -- about $2,500 at last count -- on a private family memorial, an octagonal brick structure that will be lined with green ceramic tile and filled with photographs of his wife and children.

Slated for completion in time for the anniversary of the tsunami on Monday, the shrine is next to the palm-frond shack where Maheswaran said he spends much of his time drinking arrack, a potent local firewater, or sleeping off its effects on a straw mat.

"All the time I think about my family," Maheswaran, a frail, rheumy-eyed man in a plaid sarong, explained. "My children, my wife, everything went in the tsunami. For whom do I have to earn money?"

Wounds that don’t heal
A tangible expression of one man's anguish, the small memorial also serves as a reminder of the psychic wounds that still fester in Sri Lanka a year after the ocean surged ashore in an unprecedented national catastrophe that killed more than 31,000 people.

Once a thriving village of about 1,900, more than a third of whom died in the tsunami, Navalady exists today as little more than a memory, with most survivors choosing to live in a grim, shadeless refugee camp several miles inland, still fearful of the sea that once sustained them.

Adding to the sense of frustration and inertia, construction has yet to begin on permanent housing for Navalady survivors, and more than half its remaining fishermen have not returned to work, living instead off odd jobs and government handouts, as boats and nets donated by private groups sit idle.

"It's a mess," said V. Kamaladhas, who coordinates economic recovery programs in the area for the government agency responsible for tsunami reconstruction. "They haven't gone back to work. They're hanging out."

Few signs of recovery
As Sri Lanka prepared to honor tsunami victims Monday with prayers, speeches and a nationwide moment of silence, any sense of crisis surrounding the disaster has long since passed: Thanks to a flood of international aid, a large majority of tsunami survivors are housed in so-called transitional shelters, most displaced children are back in school and supplies of food and medicine are more than adequate. Fishermen in many parts of the country have been back at sea for months.

But recovery -- emotional as well as economic -- is proceeding fitfully at best. The needs are especially glaring here on the underdeveloped east coast, where government institutions have been weakened by two decades of civil war between ethnic Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan government forces, which signed a cease-fire in 2002.

Following the tsunami, hopes that the two sides would collaborate on reconstruction proved fleeting, and a series of recent clashes have raised fears that the country could be sliding toward renewed civil war.

Paradise lost
Navalady was uniquely vulnerable to the tsunami, situated on a sandy peninsula barely half a mile wide, with ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other. It was a lovely and relatively well-appointed village, with a school, medical clinic, library and fishery-training center, as well as several brightly painted Hindu temples. The tsunami virtually erased it from the map, surging over the peninsula at a depth of roughly 20 feet, residents said, and scouring most buildings to the foundations.

Alerted to the advancing sea by screams and warning shots fired by soldiers at a nearby army post, some residents escaped in boats tethered to the lagoon side of the peninsula. Among them were all 28 children at the Samaritan Children's Home whose director, Dayalan Sanders, a naturalized U.S. citizen who once lived in Gaithersburg, herded them onto a small launch and saved them just as the tsunami swamped the orphanage. Sanders has housed the children in rented facilities since then and is building a new orphanage on a new site several miles inland.

Others managed to swim to safety on the other side of the lagoon or were fished out of its waters by rescuers, but 683 people died, including 125 children, according to government data.

Few plan to return home
After living for months with relatives or on the grounds of a school, most Navalady survivors moved to a refugee camp at Thiraimadu, a barren sandy plain covered with long rows of 12-by-16-foot shacks made from concrete blocks and tin. The camp has sanitary facilities and electricity, and some residents have added small gardens or extra rooms made from woven palm fronds. A few dwellings have televisions.

Most villagers say they have no wish to return to Navalady, after everything that has happened, and plan to stay in the camp until the government makes good on promises to provide them with permanent housing nearby, according to surveys by aid workers. But the land identified for the housing, like the camp itself, is situated on a flood plain and government officials say it isn't clear when or how the problem will be resolved.

"We are unhappy," said Sasi Kumar, the president of the village civic association, who complains that the temporary shelters resemble ovens by day. "We are living here because we are afraid to live there."

With boats and fishing gear now flowing in from such private aid groups as Save the Children, some fishermen in the community have gone back to work. But the fishermen say their inland location puts them at a disadvantage because of the distance they must travel and also because they are no longer attuned to the subtle shifts in wind and current that once guided their decisions on when to fish.

Some seem content with staying home.

Fear of the sea runs deep
In early December, for example, a charitable group provided T. Aanadhan and his uncle with nets and a 21-foot fiberglass outrigger to replace the gear they lost in the tsunami. But they have yet to launch the red-and-black boat, which sits next to Aanandhan's temporary shelter in the refugee camp.

"The sea is not quiet, and because of the tsunami we are terribly nervous," said Aanadhan, 33, a wiry, bare-chested man who lost his wife and three young children in the tsunami and depends on government handouts to survive.

Asked what he does with his free time, Aanadhan replied matter-of-factly, "If I have the money I will drink at anytime."

Others are finding their way, however slowly.

Meena Yogeswaran, 31, has as much reason to grieve as anyone. Until the tsunami, she lived with her husband and three young children in a spacious house surrounded by coconut palms. They owned a motorized rickshaw and a fishing boat, and earned enough money to employ servants.

"We were doing well in life," said Yogeswaran, a strong-looking woman with prominent cheekbones and a loose ponytail.

But material success was no protection against the ocean, which swept away her three children and carried Yogeswaran, dazed and bleeding, into the lagoon, where she clung to a log until she was picked up by a rescue boat. Her husband had left the peninsula earlier on an errand and also survived.

Joining the dead
For him, though, the agony of the loss proved too much to bear. One morning last July, while the couple was living with Meena's parents in a nearby town, T. Yogeswaran told his wife that he had been visited by their 8-year-old daughter, Puvija, in a dream. The girl was running through the streets of Navalady in tears, her clothes rent, her hair unkempt, a look of madness in her eyes, Meena recalled her husband saying.

That evening, the distraught father returned to Navalady, where he ate two poisonous seeds from a wild fruit that is abundant in the area, then telephoned his wife to tell her what he had done. She promptly followed suit, downing 40 sleeping tablets.

Meena's mother found her semi-conscious and rushed her to the hospital, where she was given medicine to make her vomit. But her husband refused the same treatment and died the next afternoon. Meena spent the next two months in a psychiatric ward.

Since then, she said, she has achieved a kind of peace. She attributes part of her recovery to the teachings of Christianity, to which she converted not long after the disaster, and also to medication, which helps calm her fears and enables her to sleep.

Not long ago, she enrolled in a computer class. Her husband, as he requested, was buried in a cemetery next to his children.