Wed, Jan 12, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Hope rises in Sri Lanka, but fear of the sea remains

Although Sri Lankans are working to make a new start, the sea that they thought they knew intimately has become a symbol of death and destruction

DPA , Galle, Sri Lanka

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Mahendra Sudentha Wijesena used to spend every day in the water, but his attitude towards the sea has now changed for good.

"We are surfers and used to be always on the lookout for good waves," says the 28-year-old hotel manager. "But now when we see waves we run a mile."

Wijesena's small hotel in Unawatuna lies directly on the coast. The restaurant was a well-loved meeting place for tourists from the region, as the beach was regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world, until disaster struck. Now the rooms are wrecked and there is nothing left of the restaurant.

Reconstruction has begun. Sri Lankans have not lost courage and they are working on making a new start.

In relation to its population of just 20 million, Sri Lanka was worst hit among the South Asian countries affected by the tsunami.

Estimates put the number of dead as high as 40,000, but the exact number will never be known.

Experts say reconstruction will take years. Along some stretches of the coast the waves swept up to 2km inland, destroying everything in their path -- people, homes, buses and ships.

Among the most devastating consequences was the destruction of a fully laden passenger train.

In the southwest of this holiday paradise, earthmovers are shifting the rubble, while trucks are delivering gravel and concrete.

The survivors are already starting to rebuild the walls of their homes and businesses.

This region that lived off tourist dollars is now a disaster area. The holidaymakers travelling along the roads have been replaced by aid convoys. The locals are grateful for the large assistance effort mounted by foreign organizations. But when the homes, hotels and diving schools have been rebuilt, the people here will need work and an income -- something the tourist market has provided in the past.

Sumith Shelton intends to complete the reconstruction of his diving school in Unawatuna within a month, but he has no idea how things will pan out after that.

"We can already write this season off," he says.

But he hopes that the first holidaymakers will be back in November, although no one as yet knows whether tourists will want to return to the beaches that bore the brunt of the disaster.

Alongside Shelton's diving school there are flood refugees living in temporary tents made of plastic sheeting.

In front of the tents a woman is cooking lunch for her family as Shelton's diving instructors clear away the rubble. For the moment they have work, but soon they will be unemployed.

"We are trying to help them," Shelton says, but he has few illusions that it will be easy.

"We will not be able to pay their wages for the whole year. We have to cut back ourselves," he says.

Muharam Perera also intends to have her small hotel back in running order within the month. The ground floor is a wreck, but the walls are still standing.

Perera has been lucky amid all the bad luck. None of her guests or staff lost their lives when the waves struck, taking them by surprise at breakfast.

"Perhaps the first guests will be foreigners from the various relief organizations," she says in hope, but she is also banking on the return of the tourists.

Perera does not even want to think of the future should the tourists fail to return.

"They'll be back, definitely," she says with a determined tone in her voice, but it sounds almost as though she is saying that to boost her own courage.

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