Sri Lanka's Ondachchimadam, After the Tsunami

One year ago, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean created a devastating tsunami. In the fishing village of Ondachchimadam, 74 lives were lost, along with hundreds of homes. Life goes on in the village, but the economic and emotional impact is still keenly felt.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

At this time last year, we knew that there had been an earthquake and a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, but we had no idea; no idea how far the damage stretched, from Indonesia to Thailand to the Horn of Africa, no idea how many homes and towns were destroyed, no idea that thousands upon thousands were missing, and no idea that more than 200,000 people had lost their lives. The scale of the disaster would become clear over the following weeks as we heard from places such as Aceh in Indonesia, the Indian city of Madras and the coastal villages of Sri Lanka. NPR's Philip Reeves went to Sri Lanka to cover the aftermath of the tsunami and he recently returned to see how one fishing village was doing one year later.

(Soundbite of ocean)

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

At the edge of the beach where the sand meets the coconut palms, a young man with a bicycle is staring at the ground. His name is Talusan(ph). He's 19. He comes here to be alone, to listen to the pounding waves and reflect on better days.

TALUSAN: (Through Translator) That's what I usually do. I come and look at my house and then spend some time here and then go back to the camp.

REEVES: The camp is where he now lives. His family home used to be here, hugged by the sea, a neat little bungalow amid the palms. But the tsunami wrecked everything.

TALUSAN: (Through Translator) I'm very sorrowful and I'm very, very sad. Some people say that we should come back to our old homes. But then my family is scared to come back here.

REEVES: This is Onthachimadam. It's a village about two-thirds of the way down Sri Lanka's east coast. Several thousands people, most of them Tamil Hindus, live here on a sandy strip of land between a lagoon and the Indian Ocean. When the waters rolled in they swept away 74 lives. They also polluted many of the wells, drowned much of the village livestock and destroyed hundreds of homes.

(Soundbite of village noises)

REEVES: In the village bus shelter a group of men idles away the afternoon playing cards. Weeks after the tsunami, this shelter was crammed full of men, women and children whose homes were destroyed. All around there were tents for other displaced villagers. But the tents have gone. Most of the families have moved to sturdier, though temporary housing. The card players say villagers have other worries now. Many of the men of Onthachimadam are goldsmiths who lost their supplies of gold and their tools in the tsunami. And, says Cindi Tambi Tamaraga(ph), these men still need help.

Mr. CINDI TAMBI TAMARAGA: (Through Translator) The goldsmiths, which are the majority of the males in this village, for generations have been goldsmiths and they know nothing else. And now they're devastated; have nothing, no capital left. If they will help--be given--for these people to resume their profession as goldsmiths and work independently, that would be the greatest help that people could do.

(Soundbite of village noises)

REEVES: Nearly one year on, there's a feeling the village has snapped out of the shock and grief that gripped it in the tsunami's immediate aftermath. It's come back to life.

(Soundbite of village noises including music)

REEVES: Music wafts out of one of the village's five temples. They're now being restored. The village wells have been cleaned and much of the wreckage has been cleared away. Beneath a nearby palm tree, Money Kavasamham(ph), a weather-worn fisherman, is sitting on a plastic chair. His grizzled face and bare chest are streaked with gray ash, a mark of holiness among Hindus. A few feet away stands the tsunami-battered home of his sister-in-law where he now lives. His house was also destroyed. He says he and the village's other fishermen, who all lost their vessels in the disaster, are back at sea working as small cooperatives.

Mr. MONEY KAVASAMHAM: (Through Translator) There are about 100 fishermen in this area and we have broken up into groups of 30. The problem is the catch isn't enough to divide among 30 people.

(Soundbite of village noises)

REEVES: They're not the only ones back at work.

(Soundbite of village noises)

REEVES: A few hundred yards to the west, a group of workmen are hammering away. This is a workshop run by a German aid agency, one of three NGOs operating in the village. It's training carpenters and masons who are now in great demand in Sri Lanka as it rebuilds. Reconstruction is one of the most contentious issues in the village. The government has banned anyone from rebuilding within 200 meters of the sea, an area universally known as the buffer zone. Those further inland have been given the equivalent of $2,500 towards rebuilding their homes. Those within the zone have been promised new houses elsewhere. But, says fisherman Money Kavasamham, so far they've got nothing.

Mr. KAVASAMHAM: (Through Translator) The buffer zone ends over there--that building you can see over there. And people within the buffer zone are very depressed and very sad because we have gotten no help.

(Soundbite of ocean)

REEVES: These days sadness is woven into this village's life, and so it will be for many years to come. You can reconstruct after a catastrophe of this scale, but you don't forget. Out by the beach, lost in his thoughts, 19-year-old Talusan hasn't forgotten. He doesn't seem much interested in talk of building a new life. He just wants his old one back.

TALUSAN: (Through Translator) Well, we were happy and we had our home and we had our jobs. We have none of that now. Life is very difficult and I feel depressed. There's no money in my pocket and life's changed and I don't feel too good.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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