Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Sri Lanka, Tsunami Anniversary Inspires Mixed Reactions

By Amantha Perera - They were the iconic images of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami from Sri Lanka — the twisted hulks of eight carriages and a locomotive swept aside and tossed around like matchboxes by the killer waves. The train was packed with passengers and others who had sought refuge in them when the first wave hit Sri Lanka's southern shore. When the larger and deadlier swell struck them on the tracks, villagers estimate that as many as 1500 died inside.

The drowned train in Peraliya, about 60 miles (95 km) south of Colombo, soon became the most sought after camera opportunity for visiting media that followed the catastrophic tsunami five years ago this week. Hundreds came each day to look at the empty carriages, three of which were left standing on the side of the track for months while parts of the train were salvaged.

Today, the village of Peraliya is serene. The carriages are gone, and the few visitors who stop by come to see a large Buddha statue, or the memorial for those who died, located close to the wreckage site. The carriages themselves, once tagged to be the showcase of a national tsunami memorial, are now rusting at a yard in Colombo, and will likely be sold for scrap metal unless they decay before that. The dents where the waves hit are more pronounced now, and rusting has left gaping holes caving in the roofs and walls. The carriages' guts are a mess of ripped seats, metal poles, dirt and clothing, diaries and shoes. No one at the yard is sure who they belong to. Some could be from curious visitors who got into the carriages; others could of those doomed inside them. "After the initial rush to see them, they were soon forgotten," says Lalith Gamhewa, the station master at Hikkaduwa, where the three carriages remained from December 2005 until mid-2008 before they were moved to Colombo."Like the tsunami."

The approaching five year anniversary of tsunami in Sri Lanka inspired mixed reactions among the survivors along the southern coast. The waves left over 35,000 dead here, displaced over a million people, destroyed 100,0000 houses and left 150,000 without jobs. The reconstruction bill was $3.5 billion. But for many who faced the waves directly, it seems the country has moved on and all but forgotten the details. "I am not sure whether many know of the five year commemorations. It seems like it is something from the past and gone," says Ajantha Smarawickrema, a television cameraman who shot images of four women being dragged by the waves in Galle, a town three miles (5 km) from the train wreck.

But the waves still dictate the daily life of 22-year-old Aniseya Sulthan, a young Muslim woman living in a temporary shelter for the tsunami displaced on the east coast. Over 1300 families in the town of Kalmunai continue to wait for houses five years after their homes were swept away. Now, with no house to put up as a dowry, Aniseya's parents are having difficulty finding a suitable groom for her. "I built a nice house near the coast for her. Nothing was left of it after the tsunami," Nafrath Sulthan, her father, tells TIME. He sits in front of one of dozens of dimly lit, tin-sheet roofed shelters, with clothes, suitcases, extra furniture, garbage and even domestic chickens littered out front. Thick electrical wires coil near the top of the doors of some of the structures; their occupants fear that power outages could end up engulfing their homes. It's happened before.

Aniseya hides behind the front door, peeping out occasionally as her father speaks, her face covered with a head scarf. "Our tradition is that girls have to get married when they are 21, 22. Time is running out for her," the nervous father said.

Lack of housing is a problem for young Muslim women like Anesiya still living in the shelters, admits Ismail Thawfiek, the top government official in the area. He says the delay in construction has been forced by the 213-foot (65m) no-build buffer zone implemented along the coast in Kalmunai after the tsunami. Authorities have been forced to reclaim land formerly used for paddy cultivation to build the new homes to replace those that fell in the buffer zone. "Land is a big issue here, but we have located them. We think we can give all these people the houses by early next year," says Thawfiek.

In Hambantota, another town on the south coast, the houses have been built too fast, some say. In Siribopura, a massive tsunami rehousing scheme spanning over nearly 600 acres (240 hectares). Over 1500 houses have sprung up in an area where elephants used to walk. Businessmen complain that the development's new market and business complex is too far out from the former city center, and some residents working in the fishing industry who found it too difficult to commute between between the new housing in Siribopura and the beach have already sublet their new units to move closer to the shore. Another lot of houses rapidly constructed through public donations from Hungary started losing rafters, beams and windows even before the first tenants arrived. "Some of the houses were so bad, that no one could live in them," says Charles Rathnayake, a resident who moved in after extensive repairs. Around him many of the houses at Hungama, or 'Hungarian Village,' were being overtaken by shrub.

Not everyone, however, is complaining. The very first class of students from Siribopura's new school will take the main government exam in December. "We are very happy. We have a new school, new friends, and the sea is far away," says one beaming student, Thilini Sara. (The school still runs a special counseling program for its students to get over the trauma caused by the waves.) Ajith Priyantha, a fishing boat operator tending his nets on the Hambantota fishing harbor, is also grateful for the help. "We got boats and nets. It was easy for us to get back to fishing," he says.

But for all who fell victim to the deadly waves, the memories of December 26, 2004 are not as easy to shrug off. There are still houses and buildings left untouched after the waves receded, standing like skeletal ghosts with long shadows amidst the newly constructed buildings. Small blue signs dot the coast, indicating where to run in case of a tsunami warning. Sri Lankan authorities recently tested a multi-million dollar early warning system along the beaches. In Sainathimaruthu, where villagers say at least 3500 died, a large red tower stands on the beach equipped with a public address system — a constant reminder that, despite the rhythms of life having returned to some kind of normalcy, it could happen again.


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