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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Tsunami Upended Ordinary People's Lives

The Lanka Acedemic: 21/12/2005"

Nine hours after the tidal wave struck the coast of Sri Lanka - , rescue workers found a 10-week-old boy caked in mud and took him to Kalmunai Base Hospital. There he was registered as ``Baby 81,'' the 81st person admitted on that chaotic day.
The tsunami that left at least 216,000 people dead or missing in 12 countries took more than 31,000 Sri Lankans, 40 percent of them children. So it was hardly surprising that nine couples whose infants had been torn from their arms turned up to claim Baby 81.

Eight of them soon dropped their claims, but it wasn't until Feb. 16 that a court-ordered DNA test delivered Murugupillai and Jenita Jeyarajah's son back to them.

His name is Abilass Jeyarajah.

ABC News whisked him and his parents to New York. There, they stayed in a hotel that costs more for one night than Murugupillai Jeyarajah earns in months. They appeared on ``Good Morning America.''

Abilass received some gifts a few toys including a teddy bear but his parents say they were not paid for their story.

In their village of Kalmunai, few believe them. The family returned home to open resentment from those who lost everything and received so little.

Even the free public hospital where Abilass spent seven weeks after the tsunami has turned the Jeyarajahs away, saying they can afford private care.

``Life has become very difficult for us,'' Murugupillai Jeyarajah said in a recent interview.

One night, he said, he was confronted by a group of men who accused him of becoming wealthy from donations. ``I told them no one has given me money. They got angry and started beating me up,'' he said. He reported the attack but claims the police did nothing.

When Murugupillai, 31, and Jenita, 26, ventured out, people pointed at ``Baby 81's father'' and taunted ``the rich tsunami family,'' he said. Soon, his wife stopped going out at all.

In August, the family moved to a hamlet a few miles away. There Murugupillai Jeyarajah, a barber, opened a salon with his brother. They earn about $4 a day.

But the perception of wealth followed them.

``People here initially welcomed us,'' Murugupillai Jeyarajah said, ``but slowly they are changing.''

Little Abilass is changing too. He's walking now, barely. He loves munching biscuits and deboned fish. At a recent temple visit with his father, he laughed as he played with other children.

But at night, his sleep is fitful. Even footsteps are enough to wake him.

``He often sobs and moans in his sleep,'' his father says. ``He was not like this before.''

Disturbed sleep signals painful emotions below the surface, ``a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder,'' says Dr. Sanchita Bhattacharya of the Apollo Hospital in Colombo. Since the tsunami, she says, ``babies have nightmares, bad dreams and hallucinations.''

Back in their rented house, Murugupillai Jeyarajah brings out newspaper clippings of their visit to the U.S. Then he displays the family's application for the U.S. immigration lottery.

In America, he says, the family could begin anew. There, his son would be known only by his name, derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ``aspiration'' or ``desire.''

``The name of my boy is 'Abilass','' he says. ``Not 'Baby 81.''

By Dilip Ganguly in Cheddipalayam, Sri Lanka -


THE CASTAWAY

The young man named Rizal Shahputra has a recurring nightmare: From the top of a hill, he watches the sea rise up and swallow his native town.

The destruction of Calang, in Indonesia's Aceh province, was real enough. Eight thousand of its 10,000 people, including Shahputra's father, mother and sister, perished that day. But he was not on a hill when it happened; he was not that lucky.

The raging waters dragged him down, hurled him against broken trees and other debris, then sucked him out into depths of the Indian Ocean.

``I prayed 'Allahu akbar' seven times. 'God please save me,''' he recalled in a recent interview. He felt himself rise through the sea, imagining he was being pushed toward the surface by a young man in white robes, ``handsome beyond words.''

``I am not sure who he was,'' he said. ``I just think my God sent the angel to save me.''

Somehow he managed to build a raft out of branches and planks that the receding sea carried out with him. For three days, he survived on floating coconuts, then had only water from bottles salvaged from the debris.

Sharks circled, but he did not give up hope.

On the ninth day, Shahputra was rescued by a passing cargo ship, one of whose crew members snapped a photograph of him waving from his raft.

These days, the nightmare comes after midnight, or just before dawn.

``I know I should see a doctor but I cannot,'' he said. He doesn't have the money. ``I used to cry, but if you cry for the deceased, their souls will not get peace. So now I have learned to laugh at my nightmares.''

Today, he shares a room in a hostel far from home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he studies English at University College Sedaya International. He lives mostly on charity, including waived tuition and hostel fees.

He has decided to become an English teacher.

That would be no mean feat for a 21-year-old who, a year ago, was a high school-educated masonry worker with little interest in an outside world that seemed beyond his reach.

``Hundred percent I am happy,'' he said as he lounged at his classroom desk. ``English is not difficult. I read and read and read. Maybe next time I can speak better.''

But occasionally, even when he is awake, the nightmare returns. ``Sometimes I feel claustrophobic when I am in the classroom. I run out, making the excuse of going to the washroom,'' he said, switching to his native Indonesian language, his brown eyes clouding.

One of his teachers, Carrie Baber of Pedricktown, N.J., says she ``wasn't sure how he was going to make it after losing his family. But he is very resilient. ... He is not angry with God for what happened. And that's amazing.''

Shahputra sees a new future for himself now, but he will never forget where he has been. On the wall of his hostel he displays the photograph, the one taken from the deck of the cargo ship, showing a wreck of a man waving from a makeshift raft. Above it, he has scrawled a single word:

``Me.''

By Vijay Joshi in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


THE FISHERMAN

Each night, as the sun sets over a ramshackle camp of tents and thatch-roofed huts in Nagapattinam, India, a one-time fisherman gathers 30 children around him. He tells them tales from Hindu mythology, stories of competing gods and wise animals.

It is a comforting ritual for children of families struggling to rebuild lives overturned by the tsunami.

``I thank God every day for choosing to save these little ones from that monster,'' G.M. Veerappan said recently as the children waited at his feet for another story.

But there is one story Veerappan does not tell them his own.

The sea rushed into his small house. He threw his 6-year-old daughter, Vijayeeshwari, on his back, wrapped sons Vigneshwaran, 4, and Vijayaraghavan, 2, in his arms, and clung to a post.

He held on as long as he could, but the muddy water pulled at him and debris battered him, sapping his strength. Finally, he could hold on no longer.

His boys slipped from his grasp.

The current swept them away.

``I cried and cried, thinking I had killed my children,'' he told The Associated Press a few days later.

But rescuers found the boys, unconscious and barely breathing. Soon after, Veerappan and Vijayeeshwari were reunited with the boys, and with his wife and two other children, who had been safe on high ground.

For weeks, the family bumped from one temporary shelter to another, finally settling in a 100-square-foot tent in this camp in Nagapattinam. They were destitute. With his fishing boat destroyed in the disaster, Veerappan had no way to make a living.

But officials of the Nehru Youth Center, which helps run the camp, saw how children were drawn to Veerappan, how they loved his stories.

``They asked me if I could do this regularly,'' he said. ``I agreed because I also like kids and I needed some job.''

He is paid 1,500 rupees (about $33) a month to play with and read to the children in the camp of about 500 people.

The government has given him about $5,000 for his lost boat, but he says he needs more than $27,000 to replace it.

He puts a little away each month, and it will take time to save enough, but that's OK, he says, because it will take time before he can face the open ocean again.

``One day,'' he says, ``I will regain the confidence to go to the sea.''

For his children, he has other dreams.

``Maybe,'' he says, ``they survived the tsunami because they are destined to do something big in life.''

By S. Srinivasan in Nagapattinam, India.


THE TOURIST

Every night for months after the disaster, Carl Michael Bergman stood vigil at his two sons' bedsides to soothe their terrors.

``They had nightmares from January to June. They were waking up seven times each hour, he says. ``They were so worried. 'Where's mama? Where are you? Where were you when it happened?'''

A year ago, Bergman, a Swedish entrepreneur, was vacationing in the lush Thailand resort of Khao Lak with his wife, Cecilia, and their sons, Nils, now 4, and Hannes, now 2.

When the tsunami hit, Carl Bergman was on a dive trip in the Andaman Sea. Nils was on an elephant ride. Cecilia and Hannes were lounging by the swimming pool outside their bungalow.

Carl Bergman rode out the wave and made it to shore safely. Nils was safe on high ground. But the surge swept Cecilia and Hannes away.

Hannes was discovered unconscious in the debris. A Thai princess named Ubolratana, who lost her own son in the disaster, took the boy by helicopter to a hospital in Phuket.

A day later, his father found him there. United with his boys, Bergman began a frantic search for news of his wife, in the rubble of their ruined hotel, at rescue centers and hospitals.

Months later, Cecilia Bergman's body was identified among the dead, who included more than 500 Swedish tourists.

Hannes started talking this year. He still does not fully understand what happened to his mother.

Nils, the older brother, is angry, Carl Bergman said by telephone from Stockholm. ``He wants to go back and hit the waves.''

He may get the chance. Soon, the Bergmans will return to Thailand to try to put their ghosts to rest.

Carl wants his sons to understand that Thailand, a country he has ``always loved,'' is not to blame for their mother's death. And it will be a chance, he says, to thank everyone who helped him.

Nils is anxious about the trip.

``I don't want to die,'' he told his father. ``Who will take care of me and Hannes if you die?''

Son, the father replied, ``you don't have to worry, and I will be with you for all time, part of your bodies and souls.''

But Carl Bergman himself remains troubled, consumed with ``deep sorrow over my dear wife,'' he says. ``It's like a cancer that grows and hurts more and more in my bones. But I believe in life and love. There is so much beauty around us, and I hope I will be able to let it in again, when I am ready.''

Sometimes, Nils wonders aloud when he will get a new mother. He has made a list of the qualities she should have.

``If you see a mother like that,'' the boy tells his father, ``whisper that in my ear.''

By Alisa Tang in Bangkok, Thailand. Associated Press, Wed December 21,2005


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