After the deluge

Today, The Independent begins a series of reports that will tell the story of the aftermath of the Asian tsunami through the experience of a single community. Mirissa is a Sri Lankan fishing port and tourist resort, with a population of 4,695. Lying 150 miles from the capital Colombo, close to the island's southernmost point, Mirissa was hit by three giant waves. Two-thirds of its families lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones. In the coming months, we will chart the villagers' progress as they struggle to recover. Emergency aid and individual initiatives have already brought some help. But is it what the people need? And will it be enough? Jeremy Laurance reports
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An arc of virgin sand, untouched by parasol or sunbed, curves around the bay at Mirissa. From its eastern extremity at Parrot Rock to Paragalle headland in the west, the palm-fringed shore frames a vast turquoise sea. A boat launched south from here would not strike land again until Antarctica, half a world away.

An arc of virgin sand, untouched by parasol or sunbed, curves around the bay at Mirissa. From its eastern extremity at Parrot Rock to Paragalle headland in the west, the palm-fringed shore frames a vast turquoise sea. A boat launched south from here would not strike land again until Antarctica, half a world away.

This is one of the most beautiful beaches on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Travellers came from Europe, Australia and America to stay in the Bay Moon, the Calm Rest and the other simple guesthouses among the trees behind the beach. They swam and surfed and danced at the full-moon parties, snapped pictures of the famous pole-fishermen and brought much-needed tourist income to one of the world's poorest regions.

Today the beach is empty - as it was yesterday, and the day before. The gentle slope of yellow sand is crisp and clean, the palm trees sway in the breeze, and the light glitters on the ocean. It is a good, warm sea. But no one comes.

One of the strangest features of the tsunami zone - the narrow coastal strip of devastation, mostly no more than 100 metres wide, that marks the shores of South-east Asia - is its setting. This is no heat-blistered and fever-scourged wilderness. This is not the scene of genocidal murder or terrorist outrage. It is an earthly paradise. Disasters are not supposed to happen in paradise.

Something else is different, too - the scale and nature of the response the tsunami provoked. The total sum of money raised by the Disasters Emergency Committee, representing the major British charities, stands at £260m - more than four times the previous record of £60m set during the Kosovo war. It is the biggest act of collective generosity in history. Timing and familiarity played a part - the drama was unfolding on TV screens as people sat surrounded by their families over Christmas, witnessing a great human tragedy in a part of the world many had visited.

But this was also a disaster for which no one could be blamed. There were no warring tribes here, no corrupt governments or armed conspirators. There were victims, but no perpetrators - and that helped to open hearts as well as wallets. For it is not only money that people have given. All along the southern tourist coast of Sri Lanka, tiny charities set up virtually overnight have leapt into action. While the main aid organisations focused on the big problems - feeding and sheltering the homeless, restoring water and sanitation - ordinary individuals from across Europe and elsewhere have upped and left their homes and arrived with a few dollars and a clutch of good intentions to do what they can - sometimes with unexpected results.

Six weeks on, although the village of Mirissa lies crushed and is still coming to terms with its losses, some signs of renewal are visible. Foundations for the first new houses are being laid, boats are being repaired, children are back at school and small enterprises are starting up. In the now sandy lanes dotted with scarlet hibiscus bushes and glossy banana trees that wind among the faded one-storey block-built houses behind the beach, a sense of normality is returning.

In the shade of the tall palms, dark-eyed children laugh and shout "hello" to any passing Westerner. Tuk-tuks - the three-wheeler motorcycle taxis so characteristic of the region - swerve by, music pounding from their decorated cabs. Beside stacks of ruined furniture and chunks of fallen masonry, bare-chested men stand chatting or looking on. But everyone is smiling. Fear and grief have eased with the passing of time and the knowledge that many fared so much worse.

From high up on Paragalle headland, the beach looks perfect, an image fit to grace the cover of a travel magazine. But down among the palms, the destruction beyond the shoreline is obvious. The houses are smashed, walls gaping, roofs hanging at crazy angles. A toilet bowl still plumbed into the ground stands facing out to sea, the bathroom around it gone.

The waves here crested the beach and swept through the forest of palm trees for more than a kilometre inland, up to and over the main coast road that bisects the village. They demolished the Methodist primary school, flattened the walls of the Suranadan Buddhist temple and wrecked hundreds of homes, shops and guesthouses, which were flooded to a depth of five feet or more. Fourteen people died, including one Canadian tourist; 47 houses were totally destroyed and a further 80 were seriously damaged. In all, 1,115 families in the village - two-thirds of its families - have had their lives wrecked by the tsunami through loss of life, property or livelihood, according to the Divisional Secretariat in nearby Matara.

Sectus Jayawickrama, a 56-year-old English teacher at a local secondary school, was watching television on the morning of 26 December when he heard shouts and the sound of people running. He looked out, saw the water swelling around the house and yelled to his wife. He ran through to the kitchen with her behind him and got out of the back door. As he did so a wall collapsed and water flooded in, sweeping his wife off her feet. It was 10 minutes before he could get back to her. By the time he did so, she had drowned. He found her body under the sink in their kitchen.

He is a small, grey-haired man, and he looks exhausted. He spends some time enumerating the family's material losses - at least 100,000 rupees (£558) in cash and property - perhaps because he thinks a visit from a Westerner means a donation. He lives in a large gloomy house that suffered no structural damage, and has an unmarried sister to look after him, so he will not come high up the list for help.

But what about the trauma he suffered? Like many from the poorer regions of the world, he does not comprehend the Western obsession with emotion. It is some time before he admits to having feelings about his wife. "I felt helpless after the disaster. I thought, without my wife how can I live my life? She was my shadow, she was always with me," he says after a while.

Fifty metres from Jayawickrama's front door, and closer to the shore, Marakka Darmadasa, 60, sits amid the shattered ruins of what was once home to 14 members of his family. Three generations lived under one roof, running a restaurant and guest rooms, the Bay Moon, on the edge of the beach. Only the shell of the house remains, chunks of masonry lie tossed aside and the roof hangs dangerously.

The family were all together in the house when the tsunami hit. By some miracle, they all escaped. Two of Darmadasa's grandchildren were rescued by a neighbour. But their home and livelihood are gone. Mrs Darmadasa worked for 10 years as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia to earn the money to build the Bay Moon. Two years ago, they took out a loan to add a couple of cabanas, on which they owe 8,000 rupees (£44) a month. Last July, they increased the loan to buy crockery and utensils for the Christmas tourist season. Now there is no season, no tourists and no means of meeting the payments.

Silver-haired and gap-toothed, wearing only a sarong, Darmadasa is there every day, protecting his property. "We are not beggars. But now we cannot do anything but beg. We have never done it before, we are very sorry about it. But we have no money," he says.

The Darmadasas are among the better-off families in Mirissa, as they profited from the tourism boom. But many others depended entirely on it. A few yards to the east lies the Paradise Beach Club, with its swimming pool, bar and restaurant and 40 cabanas. All that remains is a pile of rubble and splintered wood. Eighty people used to work here and in two nearby establishments under the same ownership. Now only a handful of labourers are employed to clear the site. An estimated 450 workers - waiters, cleaners, drivers, farmers, labourers - who depended directly or indirectly on the tourist trade in Mirissa have lost their jobs.

Vast sums of money are waiting to go into the rebuilding effort on this coast. One donor, the Swiss Development Corporation, has pledged $2.2m (£1.2m) to build 1,000 homes in the Matara district (which includes Mirissa), where 2,362 homes were totally destroyed. And that is not the only pledge of aid.

But nothing is happening, because of a government edict forbidding the renewal or repair of any structure within one hundred metres of the shore. The order dates back to green-belt legislation passed in 1984 aimed at preserving the coastline, but it has never been enforced. Now ministers claim that it is essential to protect the population from any future tsunami.

The decree, which provoked outrage and disbelief, is holding up the recovery of the entire island. As there has been no mention of compensation for the loss of valuable beach-side plots worth millions of rupees, owners are sitting tight. It is also unclear where the coastal communities are to go, or whom they will displace. The government wants to build three-storey apartment blocks in new towns inland, but the proposal has been widely condemned.

In Mirissa, the first tourist cabanas appeared in 1980. But it is only since the mid-1990s that the village has become known to travellers around the world for its beautiful beach, friendly people and laid-back atmosphere. In the past few years, tourism in Mirissa has boomed.

Before tourism, however, it was known for its fishing. Tuna, mullet, snapper and butterfish can all be caught by the boatload in the warm seas here. With its natural harbour round the western side of the headland, Mirissa prospered. It is now the largest fishing port on the south coast.

But the tsunami wrecked 21 boats, ranging from 38ft ketches with a crew of seven to 14ft catamarans, known as "orus" (oruvas). Another 97 boats were severely damaged, and many lost nets and equipment.

Fishing is a precarious living at the best of times. On a good day with a big catch, a fisherman might make 5,000 to 6,000 rupees (£26 to £31). But that has to cover the bad days, when he might catch nothing. Now the tourists have gone and half the market has disappeared. The fishermen relied for much of their trade on selling to hotels and guesthouses. Since 26 December, the price of fish has plummeted; a kilo of tuna that fetched 200 rupees in early December now goes for 50 rupees.

Fishermen who do not own their boats and rely on being hired by an owner are among the poorest of Mirissa's population, and they have been hit hardest economically. Figures show that at 24 January, the latest available, 723 fishermen had lost their employment as a result of the tsunami. Together with the 450 guesthouse and other workers who have lost their jobs, more than a thousand wage-earners in the village have been left without an income as a result of the disaster. Even these figures are not entirely accepted, and the Divisional Secretariat admits that they may not be accurate. But it is clear that unemployment, already the region's greatest single social problem, has been made significantly worse by the tsunami.

Yet Mirissa escaped lightly. All along this coast, there are places where communities have been obliterated by the force of the waves. Thal Aramba is a couple of kilometres away from Mirissa. Among the 65 families who lived to the east of the canal there, 23 people are dead and eight severely injured, with shattered limbs that will leave them permanently disabled. Almost every house was flattened.

Three waves struck this coast, and the level of destruction they caused depended on the precise manner and sequence in which they hit. If one wave was receding as another was rolling up towards the beach, they combined to form a wall of water twice as high, and with twice the force. Accidents of geography - the lie of the shore, the angle of a rock - determined whose lives were taken and whose spared.

So who is helping the people of Mirissa? There is little evidence here of the major aid organisations that are busy restoring main services in the towns.

The most visible of them is the Irish environmental charity Goal, whose teams of workers wearing fluorescent coats can be seen cleaning up debris along the congested coastal road as buses roar by honking and belching fumes. In villages like this, it is friends and neighbours - local businesses and wealthy expatriates - that people have to rely on. In this, too, Mirissa has been more fortunate than many other villages on the coast in the number of its friends around the world, drawn by its relaxed charm.

By the Paradise Beach Club, a lorryload of foam mattresses with bright covers is being delivered. A young man who describes himself simply as "Ben from Brighton" is distributing them to 24 families whose homes he has inspected. "They have been sleeping on these nasty, sticky mattresses that have been ruined by the salt water. I thought this might make them feel better," he says.

He works as a gardener in the South of England, and holidayed here last year. After the disaster, he raised about £2,200 from friends and flew out at the end of January. He's spending the cash on whatever he thinks might help. Even charitable actions such as this can be fraught; his generosity sometimes provokes grumbles from those who have been left out.

And there are many people here like Ben. Didier, a bronzed, tattooed Frenchman in his forties, was staying with friends at the Seaview Villa up on the headland on 26 December. The group had some medical supplies and they improvised a first-aid station at the temple. His friends have since departed but Didier, who has no medical training, stayed with his box of bandages, plasters and antiseptic ointments. He can still be seen touring Mirissa, offering help to the injured.

There are other fledgling aid organisations here, cleaning up the schools, carrying out running repairs, handing out small grants to get people back on their feet. But there are problems. While all help is desperately needed, there are signs of resentment among those locals who miss out on the aid, and rivalry among the organisations that are providing it.

Nine teachers from the local primary school, which was itself destroyed, lost their homes. A teacher's basic salary is between 6,000 and 10,000 rupees a month (£33 to £55) - not enough to rebuild a house. The average family income in Mirissa from all sources is estimated at 12,000 rupees, or £67.

As the teachers gather to tell their stories, someone takes me aside and gently protests. "Why do you only listen to the teachers with damaged houses? We are all poorly paid and have little. Why do you not help us?" This is a recurring theme - the way that, for some people, the tsunami has brought good fortune.

Salla Ariyathilaka, 38, lived with his wife, Shirani, 32, and three children in a one-room shack with no electricity or running water by the harbour. It was destroyed, and the family have taken refuge in the Weheregala temple. Immediately after the disaster the temple housed 59 families, with 10 people to a room. Now it is down to 13 families as people returned to their damaged homes or moved in with relatives.

The Ariyathilakas had nowhere to go, but now they have been promised a house set in a verdant valley at Nugagahena, a kilometre from the beach. Here, among the mango trees and palms, where kingfishers, orioles and parakeets dart among the bushes, 104 houses were being built for fishermen under a government housing scheme. Work ground to a halt after the tsunami because the fishermen could no longer afford the loans on which it depended. Some of the houses were half-built, as their owners bought concrete blocks at 23 rupees each (14p) as they could afford them. Now the scheme is under way again after British donors stepped in.

Jane Thompson, the operations manager for a UK-based timeshare company, identified it as a project she wanted to support. She arrived on 10 January with her partner, Steve, a builder, looking for a way to spend a six-figure sum pledged by her company. Her sunny disposition and sharp mind for business make her an effective networker, and she is well known in the village.

But, as with many similar operations along the coast, it proved hard to determine exactly who was involved or how it was all funded. Credit for the housing project is also claimed by Geoffrey Dobbs, a wealthy British businessman based in Hong Kong, who introduced the first luxury boutique hotels to the south of Sri Lanka and has a large house in Galle, the main town to the west of Mirissa.

Dobbs, who has spent more than a decade in Sri Lanka, likes to play the "colonial patriarch" (his own words), driving an antique Bentley and scolding the natives. He was scathing about the international aid organisations, dubbing them Nato - No Action Talk Only. He set up his own feeding operation for the homeless in Galle immediately after the disaster and claims to have raised $500,000 from business contacts and friends, and spent $60,000 of his own money.

He's driven by a loathing of bureaucracy and admits to being "shamelessly commercial" in his entrepreneurial approach to the aid business. He launched a "Fish and Ships" scheme in the UK (with a lunch at the House of Commons attended by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary) to raise money for fishing boats. He organised a stunt in the capital Colombo in which a crate of fish was delivered to President Chandrika Kumaratunga during a cabinet meeting to draw attention to the plight of the industry.

The major aid organisations, however, while welcoming all offers of help, are wary of giving support to individual initiatives. Jo Poldesak, the programme manager for Oxfam on the south coast of Sri Lanka, said the generosity of friends and relations had been astounding. "Our only word of caution is that people may be falling through the gaps. People living 200 metres inland are just as poor as they were before, and when they see others receiving food and cash, it is very difficult. We have to co-ordinate the effort to minimise the risk of provoking resentment."

A sign of growing tension in the community can be seen a few kilometres east of Mirissa, beyond Matara, where a banner has been put up across the coast road, in English and Singhala, the local language. It reads: "Please come another tidal wave to take away the cheats who are benefiting from the tsunami response without deserving it." It is impossible to be fair in a disaster. People help whom they can.

But the business of dispensing aid can be cruel. At the primary school, I asked the head teacher, Vitharana Sagarika, if the children caught in the wave - 188 out of 450 - had suffered after-effects as a result. No, she said, they were not disturbed, but they were suffering in a different way. So many had come saying that their father had lost his job, or their house was damaged, that when donations of clothes or food came in it was difficult to know who to help. "Mentally the children go down because they see others with new clothes and their parents cannot afford new clothes. It is very hard for them," she said.

So, while the wave apparently left these children unharmed, the aid that followed it is hurting them. Just as the tsunami carried people off at random, now, with equal randomness, people are being picked out for help. It is impossible to help everyone, and easy to cite this as a reason for helping no one. But while people will accept the randomness of an act of God, they may be less ready to accept it when it is an act of man.

The Independent visited Mirissa in partnership with AdoptSriLanka, an organisation set up to help the villages of southern Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami. AdoptSriLanka's other media partners include The Washington Post, Le Figaro and Condé Nast Traveller. For further details:


Ananda Jayadewa, 50, built the first cabanas on the beach in 1980. Today, he owns the largest hotel, the Paradise Beach Club, which is totally wrecked, and two establishments near by, which were not damaged. "The travellers who came here first loved the beach. It was totally undeveloped, no one was trying to sell you things - it was peaceful and friendly," he said. He has had to lay off his 80 employees at the beach club. Asked if he would look after their families, he said: "We've given them a reference letter saying they worked for us. That's all I can do."


Osmund Fonseca, 60, overslept on 26 December, which saved his life. His wife and adopted son had spent the holiday with relatives at Matara and he was supposed to be meeting them on a train back to Mirissa. He got to the local station late and was unable to gain a foothold. A few minutes later, the train was caught by the waves and his wife and son drowned. "I was married for 21 years. I am alone now but I have learnt how to endure."


Thotabadugee Lakmini, 25, keeps her son Lasidu, aged 16 months, pressed close to her chest. She has hardly let him out of her sight since he was torn from her grasp when the waves struck. Her plight could have been worse had the first wave, which flooded their house with a foot of water, not given them warning. She fled with Lasidu under her arm, but the second wave swept her off her feet and she was unable to hold on to him. After an hour of frantic searching, she found her son, unharmed, in a bush.


Karuna Siripala lost a freezer, two fridges and 275 boxes of Fanta - his entire stock for the tourist season. He also lost one wall of his shop. To signal to his customers that he was still open for business, he put a counter that was undamaged outside and displayed a few of his goods. "I hope the government will help," he says. "I have applied for a bank loan but many people have lost shops. The government told the banks to grant loans to shops, but there is a waiting list." He grins. "I can laugh now, but I couldn't then. Some people lost their lives, families, everything."


Nine primary-school teachers lost their homes and 450 children lost their school in the tsunami. The Methodist primary school was sited on the beach close to Parrot Rock. Now two halls have gone, and a third is ripped in half. A sign on a pillar supporting the wrecked roof reads in English: "Life is not a bed of roses." Temporary classrooms are being put up in the playground of the secondary school, half a kilometre away. But no one knows when, or even where, a replacement primary school will be built. One teacher said: "I thought we were all finished when the wave came. If the school had been open, many children would have died. We would have all died."


For two years, Lionel Hettihewa, 42, made a good living from tourists. He had a boutique right on the beach where you could buy a tailor-made shirt for 400 rupees (£2.20). "It was a very good location - between the best restaurant and the most popular hotel. I only sold to travellers," he says. Now, not only the shop but the travellers have gone. He has been kept in business by orders for school uniforms, paid for by foreign donors, to replace those lost in the tsunami. "I am waiting till the hotels are rebuilt. No one is on the beach now. I think the tourists will come back but it will take at least a year. It will be difficult, but I can survive."


Suwanda Sumudu, 26, the husband of Thotabadugee Lakmini, is still not back at work. He was employed on a large, 28ft catamaran that was badly damaged and is being repaired. Even if he could go back to sea, the prospects are not good. The market for fish has collapsed along with the tourist trade - the price of 1kg of tuna has fallen by 75 per cent. The couple had begun building a new house before the tsunami. Now they are dependent on charitable support to complete it.


The Suranadan Buddhist Temple has stood for 140 years in its present position, 200 metres from the beach. Its small stupa [shrine] was undamaged, but the exterior wall and nursery school were demolished, and 4,000 of the 6,000 books in its library were destroyed. The Rev Ahangama Piyaguna Thero, head monk of the training school, estimates that repairs to the hostel where the trainees live will cost 50,000 rupees (£270). But a better option, he says, would be a new three-storey building costing 120,000 rupees (£650). "When the tsunami comes again we must have protection," he says.

THE AID WORKER: After a disaster like this, people need things to happen very quickly

I have worked as an emergency aid co-ordinator for nearly 15 years. After September 11, I was the first aid worker to go into Afghanistan. I've worked in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia and Angola. For the last two years, I've been with No Strings, a charity that uses puppets to help children - and adults - talk about their emotional traumas. Our first project, in Afghanistan, used puppets to teach people about land-mine safety awareness.

After Boxing Day, I was seconded to Sri Lanka by Goal, the humanitarian agency, to work here on the logistics side of things. It was clear the adults needed to be activated. Every day you meet people who've lost partners, parents and children, and it lifts them to have something to focus on, to clear away some of the devastation and help to rebuild.

They've been very keen. It has also allowed them to earn some money and become self-sufficient - another vital step. We've set up cash-for-work schemes, paying them local rates on a daily basis to clear the roads, to repair boats, to set up a brick factory co-operative and to start building schools.

When I arrived, Louise Conlon, an Irish nurse seconded to Goal, had already started a small school in one of the temples. I saw it as something we should use as a model and expand immediately. Progress has been tremendous. So far, we've got five temporary schools set up in rooms in various temples, with more than 1,000 children involved. But, ultimately, the monks will require their rooms back, so we're now building more permanent sites to replace them.

It's incredible how hard people have been working. One group of monks cleared a dense jungle site in a day for us. I thought it was a joke when I saw the area. They've been going round the clock, and we now have two substantial schools half built, with their foundations in and everything.

It's funny the things that have been important. People have lost everything, so we supplied books and paper and pens and things, and used local tailors to make school uniforms. The uniforms were one of the first things asked for. They are lovely white and green things with little ties, and the kids went wild for them. For the kids, it's all part of the normalisation of things. It's very important that what we're doing isn't different from before.

Now, the focus is moving from dealing with the emergency to helping children to cope with what they've been through. There's a Unicef child protection unit here to help the more traumatised children, but all the kids could do with this. We'll be looking to do more through No Strings projects later. So far I haven't done much with Hamish, my puppet, but when I have brought him out, they have gone nuts. We'll probably start with a basic message, as in Afghanistan while we were setting up the project to teach children about the danger of land mines. You don't make it too heavy, and you bring in lots of fun.

What we've been able to do here is start to get people back on their feet. You want it all immediately. We have run into problems over deeds and so forth where we want to build, but that happens. You have to tell yourself to be realistic. I do. I can't believe how quickly these projects have taken shape. That's what people need; they need things to happen fast, and they need to be involved."

Johnie McGlade