Arugam recovered better than Komari

KOMARI, Sri Lanka — Thambi Raja Kulandiran looked out on the devastated landscape that surrounds his house late last month and wondered when his neighbors would return.

Last December, the Indian Ocean tsunami tore through his hometown on the nationA?a??E?s east coast, forcing him and hundreds of others to seek shelter in makeshift camps run by the Sri Lankan military. Now, a year after the disaster that killed more than 31,000 Sri Lankans, only a handful have come back.

Some are afraid of another killer wave, said Kulandiran, 42, a baker who lost two children that day. Other locals, he said, have grown dependent on handouts from the government and charities. “If the people stop receiving aid in the camps,” he said, “they will return.”

Fear and apathy are not the only obstacles to recovery. Government red tape and ethnic violence also have impeded reconstruction, though the influx of foreign capital has sped up the process in tourism areas.

According to aid workers, a government rule that prohibits new houses from being built near the seaside has been the biggest obstacle to helping disaster victims, many of whom remain homeless. The country needs 100,000 homes for tsunami survivors, according to the United Nations, but only about 6,000 have been constructed.

Sri Lankan authorities last month eased up on the regulation, but officials in the country expect a long rebuilding process.

“You might hear that people will be back in their homes in a year or two years. ThatA?a??E?s just not going to happen,” said James Ackley, who directs the American Red CrossA?a??E?s tsunami-recovery rebuilding efforts in the country.

Luckily for Kulandiran, his property is outside the restricted zones and, with the help of an international nongovernmental organization, or NGO, he rebuilt his home and was one of the first Sri Lankans to come back to Komari. He is trying to establish a sense of normalcy and has opened a new, small business – the Komari Super Bakery. But without people to purchase his bread, he is barely making enough money to support his wife and their sole surviving child.

About eight miles to the south, however, the town of Arugam Bay is bustling with economic activity. Thanks in part to a flow of tourist dollars, it has recovered quickly from the tsunami, and the banging of hammers and other sounds of construction echo throughout the area. Even the ironically named Tsunami Beach Hotel has been rebuilt.

Tourists are slowly returning to Arugam Bay, which is famous for surfing, and the influx of charity workers has been a boost to the local economy.

“Everyday NGO, NGO, NGO,” Muhamed Dazd, a 22-year-old Sri Lankan, said of the almost daily arrival of workers for International Relief and other humanitarian groups. Dazd is building two small guest houses to take advantage of the foreigners he expects to arrive.

But his hopes may be dashed by a recent surge in ethnic violence. Last month, Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president and many Sri Lankans anticipate his tough stance against separatist rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Homeland), to lead to a resumption of the nationA?a??E?s 20-year civil war.

After the tsunami, hopes ran high the tragedy would help build a peace between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese, who run the government. Optimism has eroded with assassination attempts and retribution killings.

The violence at times has prevented aid organizations from doing their charitable work. “Many days IA?a??E?ll get a phone call from one of my colleagues on the east coast saying, A?a??E?The town shut down again, there were two people shot last night,A?a??E? ” said Ken Little, Sri Lanka country director for SamaritanA?a??E?s Purse, a Christian charity based in Boone, N.C. Politics in Sri Lanka, he said, is “blood sport.”

The situation has become material for a street performer in a tsunami refugee camp outside Trincomalee, a town of 60,000 on the east coast. A bearded man in a blue sarong, squatting before a group of children, asks his sidekick – a gray Languor monkey – to describe politics in Sri Lanka. The primate picks up a plastic toy gun and marches in a circle. The crowd of tsunami survivors laugh.

But in Tiriya, a small Tamil village about 25 miles north of Trincomalee, the situation is no laughing matter. The families in the village have been caught in the crossfire of the civil war for years. Locals say they need help but the government has directed more aid to tsunami victims.

“The tsunami IDPs are receiving everything,” said R.K. Sowendanrayah, the townA?a??E?s school principal.

Back in Komari, Kulandiran said he is determined to rebuild by focusing on the good memories. “We try to forget the tsunami,” he said, “but remember the children.”

The massive Indian Ocean tsunami that struck almost without warning a year ago has been described by relief experts as one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. Upward of 250,000 people died and tens of thousands were left homeless. The catastrophe reached from Indonesia in the east to the coast of Africa – some 4,000 miles away – and eight countries suffered major casualties and damage. The rebuilding effort is under way – more successfully in some regions than others. For instance, at least half of the tsunami survivors who had lost their jobs have returned to work, the aid group Oxfam has reported. But environmental groups have noted that nearly nothing has been done to fix the damage done along vast stretches of AsiaA?a??E?s coastline.

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