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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. 

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A family rebuilds after tsunami heartbreak

USA Today: 25/12/2005" By Tim Sullivan, Associated Press Writer

PERALIYA, Sri Lanka — There is no happy ending to this story. How could there be with a son dead and a home destroyed? Yet a year after the tsunami tore into this village and through this family, there are signs of lives slowly rebuilding. The dead son's mother still wakes up crying, but less frequently. One daughter is enrolled in nursing school, another teaches sewing to homeless women. The father has emerged from a long silence. And the family's new house is under construction.

Always, though, there is the shadow of what has happened.

"Sometimes, if we're smiling about something and we smile a little too much, I stop — because my son is dead," said Sriyawathi Malani Gunathilaka, who lost her 19-year-old son, Pradeep.

"I know now that the pain will never go away," she said, sitting beside the tiny grocery shop she has set up in front of the one-room temporary wooden shelter, built by an aid agency, where she and her husband live.

"We're still suffering," said Sujeewa, the youngest daughter, who is clearly both relieved and distressed by her first time living away from home, attending a nursing school three hours' drive away. Her younger brother had been the center of the family, the late-in-life only son revered by his parents and sisters. "I miss my parents," she said. "I call them every day, but it's not enough."

The agony is still felt wherever the waves of Dec. 26 struck along the shores of this West Virginia-sized island. In Peraliya, a village of fishermen and small traders, and in adjoining Telwatta, 450 people died. It also was here that a train was swept off its tracks, killing about 800 passengers and becoming a symbol of Sri Lanka's 31,000 tsunami dead.

One of Peraliya's dead was Sriyawathi's son.

In front of her shelter, three men were cutting tree branches on a recent afternoon to be used as scaffolding for the family's permanent house. While many of their neighbors have already settled into new homes built by aid groups, Sriyawathi has moved slowly. At 55, she knows that the chance of another tsunami in her lifetime is tiny, but she still wants the house built higher, and with reinforced concrete columns, just in case.

The choice has meant slower construction, higher costs and dramatically less help from aid agencies, many of which insist on building houses to their own specifications.

While the family plans on moving ahead slowly, taking years if they have to as they get grants of cash from various government and private programs, the meticulous project has stirred false gossip that they must have a wealthy benefactor, and access to unlimited funds.

Jealousy is now a significant part of life in Peraliya, fueled by fights for aid among the survivors. While much of the help is tightly regulated, this part of the Sri Lankan coast, long a magnet for European tourists, also saw many well-intentioned people simply stopping their cars or trucks to hand out everything from cash to sewing machines.

Seeing all this, Sriyawathi, a proud woman who never liked asking for help and had few close friends even before the tsunami, has simply closed herself off from many neighbors.

"I'm not even part of this village anymore. We keep to ourselves," she said. "I lost the biggest thing that I had, so I don't have many expectations."

While Sriyawathi remains in pain, she has slowly emerged from what appears to have been a serious bout of depression, when her nighttime wailing worried the neighbors and terrified her children.

Her husband, Punyasiri, a quiet man who descended into silence after his son's death, has begun to tell stories of travels through Sri Lanka's interior in his younger days. Their elder daughter Kumudu has a job with a small aid agency, teaching handicraft-making to unemployed women at a camp for displaced tsunami victims.

Increasingly, the emotional trauma has given way to daily difficulties. While Pradeep was only 19, he did much to care for his parents — particularly by ferrying them around on his scooter — and they had been counting on his financial support when they got old.

"Now we physically feel his absence every day," she said.

For a time, Sujeewa stepped into her brother's former role. When her mother's depression was at its peak, she moved back into the shack from the nearby home of her married older sister, where she had moved after the tsunami.

But word came a couple months back that she had been accepted into a three-year nurse training program at a government hospital outside Colombo, the capital. Going away would be difficult, but everyone knew the opportunity could not be wasted.

Today Sujeewa shares a tiny room with two other nursing students, spending her days at the nearby hospital.

It has been a tough transition; until the tsunami she had only spent one night away from her parents' house, and she has already had one run-in with a roommate. But she's clearly happy.

Even when talking about Pradeep she smiles. He knew how much she wanted to be a nurse, and both encouraged her hopes and tried to steel her in case she was rejected.

She comes close to tears only once, when she mentions that he died before finding out she had been accepted.

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