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2 years after tsunami, normalcy remains elusive

Two years after the tsunami rewrote life across Southeast Asia, villagers are struggling to fashion normalcy, despite an influx of aid dollars.
Tsunami survivor Premawathi Appuhami stands in her new house at a still-unnamed village close to her old seaside village of Peraliya, Sri Lanka, on Nov. 7.
Tsunami survivor Premawathi Appuhami stands in her new house at a still-unnamed village close to her old seaside village of Peraliya, Sri Lanka, on Nov. 7.Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

At nightfall, quiet descends quickly on the narrow street that runs through the center of this seaside village. On unpaved side roads, many windows remain dark. In house after newly built house scattered across Peraliya, no one is around to turn on the lights.

That is when it becomes clear just how much this village has lost: Not just from the tsunami that killed 249 villagers two years ago, but in the slow drain of villagers since then.

“It’s so quiet here now,” said Sriyawathi Malani Gunathilaka, whose 19-year-old son was among the nearly 230,000 people who died in a dozen countries when the tsunami roared in from the ocean on Dec. 26, 2004. Officials say almost half of the 410 Peraliya families who survived have since gone elsewhere.

To the core of villagers who remain, it seems most everyone has moved away.

“Sometimes, it seems worse now than right after the tsunami,” said Gunathilaka, 56, the matriarch of a small family trying to hold itself together since the death of its only son, Pradeep, and the destruction of its small home. But she plans to stay: “This village is my home.”

Filling empty homes, lives
Two years after the tsunami rewrote life in Peraliya, she and the other remaining villagers are fashioning a sort of normalcy, helped by hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations.

They do their best to ignore the empty homes, and the memories of a once-tightly knit community.

So they are planting backyard gardens, weaving rope from coconut husks to sell, and taking sewing classes run by small charities. They’re fishing in donated boats and sending their children to donor-built schools. Always, they’re looking for more aid money.

Every couple of weeks, Sriyawathi, 56, takes a bus to the nearest city, Galle, where volunteers teach her about plant care and basic accounting so she can open a small flower nursery.

The work is her solace.

“Everyone around here, all they talk about is the tsunami, and that makes me think about my son. I can’t do anything when I’m thinking about him. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep,” she said. “It’s painful to forget my son, but I don’t want to think about him so much.”

Fear pervades rebuilding
She was sitting by the new home she and her husband have been slowly building, a two-bedroom concrete cottage sitting on top of 13-foot reinforced pillars. Her previous home, paid for by selling vegetables in a nearby market, was destroyed by the waves.

The odds of another tsunami here are minuscule, but she’ll live in nothing less.

“This house has to be strong,” said Gunathilaka, the force in her voice an echo of the determined woman her neighbors once knew.

She suffered terribly after Pradeep’s death, and for months her nighttime wails woke her neighbors and terrified her two daughters.

“She’s better now,” said her older daughter, Kumudu, 27, who lives nearby with her own small family. The younger daughter, Sujeewa, is at nursing school in the capital, Colombo.

But Sriyawathi’s pain is still there: “We’re lonely,” she said flatly, as her husband sat quietly beside her. He suffered a stroke some years before the tsunami and is largely unable to work.

Peraliya is not an easy place in which to live. Competition for aid began dividing villagers soon after the tsunami, despite an outpouring of international donations that meant everyone here got help.

A surplus of new homes
Two years later, there’s a bitter undertone to most conversations.

“When friends get together, they spend their time saying ’So-and-so got one house, so-and-so got two,’ said Dalawatumulla Gamage Annula, who lives a couple streets over from Sriyawathi. “But we still talk to the people who got so much from the aid groups ... It has to get back to normal.”

While basic post-tsunami payments were set by the government — 100,000 rupees (about $1,000) per dead family member, and 250,000 rupees ($2,500) for a destroyed home — the abundance of aid often led to chaos.

The trouble was magnified in Peraliya, a working-class fishing village where the waves mangled a passing train and killed hundreds of passengers. The wreckage, which became a vivid international image of the tsunami’s toll, attracted gawkers, beggars and people looking to help.

While most aid groups tried to dole out resources carefully, Peraliya got everything from truckloads of free sewing machines to tourists distributing cash.

There was also the chance of building extra homes.

“There are very few people from the village who don’t have a house now, and there are some families who have two,” said Anura Abewardena, until recently the top local official. So many extra houses, he said, explain all the empty ones.

Resentment among the well-to-do
The biggest changes happened along the village’s coast road, where dozens of extended fishing families had lived in now-destroyed shanties. Post-tsunami regulations restricted rebuilding within 110 yards of the shoreline, forcing the construction of new inland communities for coastal residents.

But the shifting of so many lives created opportunities for manipulation. According to Abewardena, many extended families who had shared one home were able to get multiple houses, while others accepted homes inland, then persuaded aid groups to build second houses elsewhere.

Today, nearly everyone in Peraliya — from the poorest villagers to the comparatively well-off — believes he was shortchanged.

“People who didn’t have much before the tsunami are now happy,” said Annula. Her husband, who died recently after a prolonged illness, had once been a successful fishermen, and they had raised their four sons in a comfortable house with a large yard. “People like me who were doing better, we only got the minimum like everyone else.”

Few people, though, admit to being happy.

Sriyawathi is an observant Buddhist and believes her son, who was swept away as he tried to help an elderly village woman, has been reborn into a new life since the tsunami.

Every night, she meditates and prays.

“I pray that he will never again have another death like that one,” she said. Then she looked at her visitors and asked: “Will he?”