Long after the tsunami's deluge, 1.5m homeless still battle to survive

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The Independent Online

Almost a year after the Boxing Day tsunami ripped through Indian Ocean coastal villages, more than 1.5 million people remain in temporary accommodation, fighting a continuing battle with the elements.

Across south Asia, monsoons lash land littered with the tents and wooden huts that are still home to tens of thousands of displaced people. Aid agencies estimate that fewer than 20 per cent of the 1.8 million people made homeless by the tsunami are in permanent housing.

And many are now forced to bail water out of their tiny living areas on a near-daily basis. For months, torrential rain has caused chaos from India to Indonesia. With the flooding come mosquito infestation and hygiene problems as sewage floats through tiny shacks packed with people.

Estimates suggest the tsunami took between 216,000 and 280,000 lives, but for those who survived the initial disaster the physical and mental suffering continues.

And frustration regarding the pace of reconstruction is mounting.

In Sri Lanka, where more than 31,000 died, dozens of villages have been swamped in the past few days. Among them is Akurala Sudiraamaya, where the situation is so bad that rising water levels have brought fish and human waste into temporary homes.

"It is truly shocking," said one independent aid worker. "It looks like the disaster happened days ago, not a year ago. These people need proper accommodation and they need it now."

A few miles along the coast, W J Weerasekara, a former civil servant who was in charge of housing for the whole of southern Sri Lanka, now sits on the foundations of his flattened home next to the two-room wooden hut he shares with his nephew and his wife. His nephew lost all four of his children to the tsunami. Mr Weerasekara's wife and son also died. Two flags fly above their heads. One is white - in memory of the dead. The other is black - a symbol of protest raised to let the government know that they feel let down.

"We are not just sitting here doing nothing, but we need help to get into proper houses," said Mr Weerasekara, as Saroukali Sumatipala, his nephew, a tailor, abandoned his sewing machine to clear rainwater from the hut. Of the 78,000 houses it was estimated that Sri Lankans would need, only 5,000 have been built. That compares with more than 18,000 in Indonesia, which required 80,000.

Even more homes have been promised (but not yet built) in India's Tamil Nadu, which despite suffering fewer deaths last year was left with a huge number of displaced people.

Foreign government and private donors pledged more than £4bn for reconstruction across tsunami-affected countries and international aid workers poured into the region to help. But an Oxfam report on the disaster published last week claimed that many of the those who flew in did not have the expertise to carry out such large-scale projects to construct so many homes.

"Few humanitarian agencies had ever faced need on this scale, spread over such a wide area," said the group.

Some of the things that stalled efforts to get people out of tents, barracks and the homes of family and friends were unavoidable, Oxfam said, noting that land in Aceh that once housed 120,000 people was permanently submerged.

Meanwhile, Paul Dillon of the International Organisation for Migration, which is building transitional homes, added: "We had certain expectations about how quickly we'd be able to move forward and we haven't met all our marks. But at the same time, we're very well placed for 2006."

Some rebuilding projects could even be storing up humanitarian and environmental problems for the future. WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature) is warning that rebuilding in Aceh will lead to a new wave of landslides and floods if local forests are cut down for reconstruction work.

At least three landslides and two major floods have hit Aceh so far this year, and in 2004 thousands of people in four Aceh districts had to flee their homes when heavy rain on denuded forest slopes caused flash flooding. WWF believes timber needed for the big reconstruction phase must be sourced from outside Indonesia.

"Unless there is a commitment by those involved in reconstruction to use imported timber from well-managed forests, major reconstruction projects are likely to rely on timber logged from Sumatra's already-depleted forests," said Ralph Ashton, WWF's global tsunami response co-ordinator. "This will lead to more floods and landslides - what has been described as a 'tsunami from the hills' - and the potential for further tragedy for the Indonesian people."

One ray of light that has come out of the tsunami for the Achenese is a ceasefire in the 30-year conflict between local rebels seeking autonomy for the region and the Indonesian government. The war has claimed 15,000 lives, but after the tsunami killed 170,000 in the area pressure fell on both sides to end the fighting.

A much bleaker picture is emerging in Sri Lanka, though. There the Tamil Tiger forces are seeking an independent homeland in the north and east, and the government appears poised to renew hostilities.

Disputes over tsunami funds and a change of administration in Colombo have jeopardised a ceasefire that appeared to have brought an end to the vicious conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives over 20 years.

Bomb attacks and inter-ethnic violence in the east have increased in recent weeks.

For those who have been working to help Sri Lanka recover from the tsunami, the apparent lack of national unity is deeply depressing.

"There was a moment just after the tsunami when the country came together," said Maleec Calyaneratne of Save the Children Sri Lanka. "That is not the case now. If we had kept the momentum we could have taken the country forward. We couldn't hold that momentum, though. It is very sad."

Ms Calyaneratne does believe, however, that there are positive aspects to the rebuilding operation. Fishing boats have been replaced in communities around the island and homes have been found for children.

And the industry that most believe offers the best chance for economic recovery appears to be bouncing back. As in Thailand, the beaches of Sri Lanka are again filling with European holidaymakers ahead of Christmas. In some, occupancy levels are not far below what they were pre-tsunami. On 26 December 2005, P M B Sarath, who owns the Sunny Mood guesthouse in Unawatuna on Sri Lanka's south coast, thought he faced ruin.

Now, with the help of loans and money from friends abroad he is adding an extra four rooms on top of the building.

"The next year will be crucial," he said. "I hope people want to come back to enjoy the weather and the beaches. I want them to see that this can be a happy, welcoming country."

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