Washington Post

In Sri Lanka, a Frustrating Limbo
Rules Leave Tsunami Survivors Unable to Rebuild Lives

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page A01

ARUGAM BAY, Sri Lanka — More than two months after the tsunami that killed his wife and two young children, A.L.M. Thaseem rarely leaves his chair. But it is not despair that traps him in his heavily damaged home, listlessly scanning newspapers in the heat. It is simply that he has nothing else to do.

He canA?a??E?t repair his house because of uncertainty surrounding new government rules meant to discourage people from living near the sea. The same goes for the small guesthouse he owned with his two brothers. And the government has yet to fulfill its promises to fix the pair of outrigger canoes that once allowed him to earn a good living as a fisherman — depriving him of income and, perhaps more important, distraction.

A.L.M. Thaseem, who lost his family and boats in the Dec. 26 tsunami, stands in the rubble of his guesthouse. (John Lancaster — The Washington Post)

“Before the tsunami, I was very busy,” said Thaseem, 40, an easygoing man in a plaid sarong and flip-flops. “Now IA?a??E?m very lazy.”

ThaseemA?a??E?s malaise is emblematic of a wider challenge confronting Sri Lanka. While the country is awash in international aid money and supplies, bureaucratic inefficiency and confusion — especially surrounding the new land-use rules — are hindering efforts to rebuild homes and livelihoods that were shattered by the Dec. 26 tsunami, trapping survivors in a limbo of frustration and inactivity.

Aid officials say that until the government clarifies the new rules, which have stirred controversy by favoring hotel owners over traditional coastal residents, they cannot begin rebuilding or reconstructing permanent homes as an essential first step in helping victims put the catastrophe behind them. The tsunami killed about 31,000 people in Sri Lanka, an island nation of about 20 million off the southern tip of India.

The complexities of the reconstruction effort are plainly evident in Arugam Bay, a once-thriving beach community of nearly 4,000 people — most from Sri LankaA?a??E?s Muslim minority — about 135 miles east of Colombo.

Before the tsunami, most people here earned their living from fishing or tourism, which had boomed in the three years since the government signed a cease-fire with rebels from the countryA?a??E?s ethnic Tamil minority. Small hotels and guesthouses sprouted amid palm trees next to the azure waters of Arugam Bay, a playground for bottlenose dolphins and surfers from around the world.

Those days are a memory now. The tsunami killed about 250 people in the area, including 11 foreign visitors. It reduced most tourist businesses to rubble and destroyed or damaged nearly all of the communityA?a??E?s several hundred fishing boats. Aid officials estimate that as many as one-third of Arugam BayA?a??E?s residents are living in refugee camps; many others are staying in tents or temporary shacks erected on the foundations of their former homes.

A Once-Idyllic Lifestyle

Thaseem, the fisherman and guesthouse owner, is in many ways typical of those who lost everything and are trying to restart their lives.

He is a high school graduate and native of Arugam Bay who followed his father into the fishing trade and married a local woman, Camila, with whom he had a daughter and son. He speaks passable English that he learned from the tourists who began visiting the town in the late 1970s, before the civil war.

Thaseem earned a good living as the owner and operator of two 26-foot-long outrigger canoes, called mahadals, which are paddled by eight men and used to catch tuna and other fish with long nylon nets. He also had benefited from the tourist boom. After the cease-fire was signed in early 2002, Thaseem joined his brothers — schoolteachers from the nearby town of Pottuvil — in building the Paradise Sand Beach Hotel, a lavender-painted 10-room guesthouse on family property overlooking the bay. He lived a few hundred yards down the beach in a comfortable brick-and-concrete house equipped with a television set, videocassette player and a new refrigerator.

Thaseem said he doted on his wife and two children. Fatima, 7, was a top student who loved to read books in her native Tamil and amused herself by drawing pictures of mangoes and coconut palms with colored pencils. Mohammed, 4, was rarely without his toy cricket bat and dreamed of becoming a doctor.

On the night before the tsunami, Thaseem joined his family for a jovial meal of fish curry and rice, then bade them a casual goodnight. It was his turn to cook dinner at the hotel, which was filled with Italian guests, and he planned to spend the night at his sisterA?a??E?s house, which was next door.

It was the last time he saw his wife and children alive.

Searching in Vain

Thaseem was at the hotel when the tsunami struck the next morning. Along with his guests, he was able to outrun the waves and find refuge on higher ground. He assumed his wife and children had done the same. They had not.

As Thaseem later pieced together the story from witnesses, Camila had scooped up their small son and fled their home at the first shouted warnings, but the ocean overtook them. Fatima, who had been in Koran class at the local mosque, might have saved herself had she run in the right direction. But instinctively she ran toward home and was swept away by the current. She did not know how to swim.

As soon as the waters receded, Thaseem set off in search of his family. Weeping and crying “Allah, Allah,” he found his wifeA?a??E?s body late that afternoon. She was still clad in her green nightdress. The childrenA?a??E?s bodies were found a few days later.

The tsunami partially collapsed the floor of his house, cracked several walls and swept away most of ThaseemA?a??E?s possessions. It also deprived him of his livelihood, hurling his fishing boats into the jungle and wrecking the guesthouse.

Thaseem was never in danger of succumbing to starvation or disease. Thanks to a flood of international aid, he gets regular deliveries of rice, lentils and flour. Drinking water is available from a nearby tank that is replenished daily. Electricity has been more or less restored. Indian army troops are busy repairing the steel bridge that spans the lagoon separating the town from Pottuvil, with its banks and government offices.

As for his mental state, Thaseem shows no obvious signs of trauma. A cheerful person by nature, he punctuates his conversation with laughter and frequent smiles, and he still seems to take pleasure in the company of friends and members of his extended family, many of whom live nearby.

But sometimes, Thaseem said, his mind fills with images of his lost wife and children, and he cannot stop the tears. As a practicing if not especially strict Muslim, he used to pray at the mosque three or four times a day, he said. Now he can barely muster the energy to go once a week, for midday prayers on Friday.

“Now IA?a??E?m not so good feeling,” he explained. “Maybe when IA?a??E?m getting better I go.”

Web of Red Tape

One obvious impediment to ThaseemA?a??E?s recovery is uncertainty over what the future holds. A big part of that uncertainty stems from the governmentA?a??E?s new land-use rules, which officials say are aimed at preventing deaths in the event of another tsunami. The rules ban most construction within 200 meters, or about 218 yards, of the high-tide line on the east coast — where Thaseem lives — and 100 meters on the west coast.

The regulations make an exception for partially damaged homes as well as for some tourist businesses, which are deemed critical to the economy. But until the policy is clarified, and the government finishes a plan for shifting thousands of coastal residents to higher ground, local officials wonA?a??E?t let Thaseem and his neighbors start rebuilding their homes and businesses. Aid groups are similarly constrained, despite a surfeit of building materials and money that could finance rebuilding right away.

“ItA?a??E?s slowing it down significantly,” said Ian Schneider, the director in Sri Lanka for Oregon-based Mercy Corps. A lot of aid groups, he added, are “running around looking for something to do and having a hard time finding it right now.”

The new rules have also sparked charges that the government is favoring wealthy businessmen over fishermen and other traditional coastal dwellers, many of whom are reluctant to abandon familiar homes and lands, even after living through the terror of the tsunami. Just steps from the rubble of ThaseemA?a??E?s guesthouse, for example, construction workers were racing last month to finish an 18-room beachfront hotel that had been started before the tsunami. One of the main partners in the project is a politically well-connected doctor from Colombo.

“HeA?a??E?s a rich man,” Thaseem said. “Maybe he has another law.”

Government officials say that exceptions for tourist businesses will be made on a case-by-case basis. “We have to give some kind of concessions to the tourism development, otherwise the economy will be affected very badly,” said Thosapala Hewage, secretary of the Ministry of Urban Development and Water Resources, which oversees coastal planning. “You cannot compare a hotel to a house of an ordinary person. . . . We cannot encourage people to settle down in those areas.”

ThaseemA?a??E?s other big challenge is getting back to work. Government officials have not followed through yet on promises to replace or repair fishing boats, as they have in many other parts of Sri Lanka. Thaseem and other fishermen have presented lists of their equipment needs to the government fisheries inspector in Pottuvil, who dutifully sent them off to Colombo. So far the fishermen have heard nothing. “ItA?a??E?s very slow,” acknowledged the fisheries inspector, Ibrahim Udumalebbe. “IA?a??E?m getting worried because the fishermen are helpless now.”

In the absence of government help, Thaseem said, he has presented the same list to at least a half-dozen aid groups, so far without results.

Lyn Robinson, who is working for Mercy Corps in Arugam Bay, said the group was evaluating a request from Thaseem and five other canoe owners for help in repairing their damaged boats and nets. She said the effort had been complicated by a dearth of skilled carpenters and fiberglass experts, but expressed hope that Mercy Corps would soon be able to meet the fishermenA?a??E?s needs, perhaps in collaboration with two Britons visiting the area on a private aid mission.

In the meantime, Thaseem will be waiting in his chair. “My property and my family, everything finished now,” he said matter-of-factly. “I am alone now.”

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