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SRI LANKA: Five Years after Tsunami, Many Still without Shelter

Amantha Perera

KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka, Dec 23 2009 (IPS) - “We have been here for almost five years. So many promises have been made, but very few have been kept,” complains Mohideen Nafia, 22, one of the survivors of the 2004 Asian tsunami still living in a temporary facility in the coastal town of Kalmunai, located 300 kilometres east of the capital, Colombo.

Newly married Nafia would have preferred a house of her own with her husband. But at the moment she has to make do with what amounts to a shelter, a one-room unit in a government-provided disaster camp, which the couple shares with Nafia’s family of five and is located about a one kilometre from the beach.

Nafia hails from the Sainathimaruthu village in Kalmunai, a major domestic fishing hub that bore the brunt of what has been touted as one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Three of its villages facing the sea – Maradamunai, Sainathimaruthu and Karathivu – suffered the heaviest damage at the time of the tsunami.

When the Asian tsunami, triggered by a 9.3-magnitude earthquake, hit the coasts of countries bordering the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, hundreds of thousands of people across Asia were washed away at sea.

According to the International Federation of Red Cross some 226,000 people in 13 countries were killed in the aftermath of the tsunami. One of the hardest hit was Sri Lanka, along with India, Indonesia, and Thailand.

In the South Asian island state more than 35,000 people died, over one million were displaced, and some 100,000 houses were either damaged or destroyed by the tsunami.

At least one-third of the deaths, or some 10,000, were reported from the Ampara district that comprises Kalmunai, according to official government data. In the same district, approximately 27,000 houses were destroyed by the tsunami, the bulk of which was in Kalmunai. Villagers estimate that some 8,500 lives were lost in the densely packed beach at the height of the disaster.

Overall, the unprecedented disaster left a reconstruction bill of 330 billion rupees (3.2 billion U.S. dollars). The reconstruction effort was spearheaded by a government agency set up soon after the tsunami and which received the support of dozens of United Nations and other international agencies.

Sri Lanka’s Reconstruction and Development Agency has since wound down as has the massive reconstruction effort. Still many are without homes they could call their own.

“Getting land for the new houses has been a big problem; we have to first locate the land. If it is privately owned, (we) buy it,” says Ismail Thawfiek, the additional government agent for Sainathimaruthu village in Kalmunai, where Nafia hails from.

Most of the available lands are paddy or rice fields, which he says puts more pressure on otherwise limited public funds, as they need to be filled. “The biggest delay (in rebuilding the affected houses) has been in finding land and preparing it so that we can build the houses,” Thawfiek says.

The lack of land has been exacerbated by the government’s imposition of the no-build buffer zone along the Kalmunai coast. The then Sri Lankan government initially imposed a limit of 200 metres from the sea soon after the tragedy. Owing to pressure from the homeless survivors, it was later reduced to 65 m at Kalmunai and 100 m elsewhere in the tsunami-affected parts of the country, according to government officials

With just three days away from the fifth anniversary of the 2004 Asian tsunami, some 1,300 families, including Nafia’s, are still waiting for their houses to be built, since the government imposed a no-construction buffer zone along the beach soon after the tsunami.

“Even after five years since the tsunami, there are still problems, there are still issues,” admits Thawfiek.

Nafia’s grief is understandable. The sense of despair gripping her is matched only by her deplorable living conditions. Tin roofs are rusting, dirty water stagnates near the front door step and large pools of rainwater and garbage rot behind the tents. Chickens raised by families roam the compound, where small children play marbles.

“Look at this,” Nafia says, as she points to her squalid surroundings. It is “like living in hell. When it rains, it is all water, if it does not, it is all flies,” she says while waving her hands to chase away the flies.

She adds that none of the international relief agencies that poured aid into the tsunami-hit areas like Kalmunai helped her build her house while others are still waiting for government promises to be fulfilled, notably the reconstruction of their tsunami-destroyed homes. “The life we knew before the tsunami is like a dream. I don’t know why this happened to us.”

“We will give them houses very soon next year,” Thawfiek assures, arguing that the construction of new houses is moving according to plan once land has been located. At least 5,000 houses damaged by the tsunami in Kalmunai have either been reconstructed or repaired.

To date, there are at least 13 disaster camps – with at least 1,000 shelters out of an original 18,000 in the Ampara district – still spread through the coastal town while hundreds more that were displaced by the tsunami are still living with relatives.

Quite apart from Nafia’s complaint, the Kalmunai beach appears to have returned to what it was before the deadly tsunami waves left a path of destruction. It is now is a hive of activity – fishermen tend to their nets on the beach while others attend to the large multi-day trawlers anchored just offshore.

“We have returned to what (our lives were) before the waves struck, maybe even better,” says Mohideen Ajimal, one of the first fish wholesalers to return to the beach after the tsunami. Ajimal lost an infant son and a daughter to the disaster.

Pointing to the large boat repair yard that has been erected near his business premises, he says that it would never have been built if there was reconstruction effort after the tsunami. “We lost so much, but life has to go on, and it is better if life goes on better than before,” he tells IPS.

Next to the new fishermen’s society building is a tall red tower with loud-hailers pointing in all directions to warn the residents of any tsunami threat. “That helps too,” says Ajimal as his eyes darted toward the tower.

Among the houses that have been rebuilt since the 2004 tsunami disaster are swanky new structures, painted in bright colours that stand out amid the dull sun-baked cement facades of others. They have been rebuilt by owners who could afford to finance them. New schools have also been constructed, replacing the damaged ones.

Yet, there are still remnants of the huge Asian tsunami waves’ deadly foray inland in this predominantly Muslim town. In place of wall-to-wall houses that used to stand next to the beach before the tsunami struck are large, empty sandy patches. Wooden poles sticking out of mounds mark off the spots where thousands were buried.

On the side of the road that runs alongside the beach are the occasional houses or fishing huts that have been deserted by owners after the tsunami. They are bereft of roofs and window frames, having been washed away, decayed or carted away by thieves. Here goats seek shelter when the sun is too hot.

“We had a good house near the sea, but I lost two children and I don’t want to go back,” says Abdul Mannas, who has since moved to a new housing site about two km from the sea.

But at least the 35-year-old father of three is happy. He now lives in a new housing complex just outside Kalmunai town. “This house is smaller (than I had expected), but we are happier,” he says. “We can build two-story houses or extensions if we want to.” The houses at the French Friendship Village, where he lives, were built with the support of the French government.

Mannas says the he and others gladly vacated the protective zone. “It is death zone on the coast,” he says. “I don’t want to live there.”

But for those living in small tin-roofed sheds like Nafia, where three or so families share the dimly lit units in the camp near the Jumma Mosque, the nightmare never ends, not since the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean. “We have waited long enough; five years is a long time,” she rues.

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