Saturday, December 26, 2009

Five Years After Tsunami, Many Still Without Shelter.

"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 kilometres 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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