The return of hope: 'Families are rebuilding homes from the top down'

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The Independent Online

Nearly six months on, the tsunami is still all we talk about when I meet my friends. Despite the physical evidence of destruction on every side, some people are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that their lives have changed for ever.

Nearly six months on, the tsunami is still all we talk about when I meet my friends. Despite the physical evidence of destruction on every side, some people are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that their lives have changed for ever.

The hardest lesson we have learnt is the uncertainty of life. But next weekend, when we remember the disaster, there is another anniversary. The Poson festival marks the day when Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka 2,300 years ago. It will be a time for celebration and a chance to mark a new chapter in our lives. There are more and more positive stories as the community starts to regenerate.

It can be those who have suffered worst who adapt most quickly. My mother's friend lost both her daughters, but looking after her remaining grandson has given her a focus. Talking to other victims' families has made the grieving easier, she says: we have all suffered together.

Most of the community have accepted that life will be different from now on. A friend who works in the capital, Colombo, didn't want to leave his family alone, but eventually had to return to his job. He now comes to Dickwella at weekends and oversees the building of his new home.

Fear of the sea, of another tsunami at any moment, is slowly diminishing. People are staying the night in their homes rather than migrating inland to sleep, and hysterical press coverage no longer sells newspapers. My mother, a teacher, says school is almost back to normal, with only the younger children suffering from nightmares. All of her pupils now have school books and uniforms, and attendance is back to pre-tsunami levels.

But there is still a sign of lingering trauma in the manner of rebuilding: most are creating new homes from the top down, as it were, constructing the upper storey on stilts and leaving the ground floor for later. It looks a bit bizarre, but is a psychological safety net.

Others, such as my family, are adding a second storey so as to feel safe at night.

In Dickwella, many new houses are within 100 metres of the coast, something the government has banned. Last week officials visited my friend at the bottom of the road and told him to stop building, but he refused. If the government were providing new plots inland, people would move, but there is a desperate shortage of available space.

At least in our village there have been grants of £1,300 to those whose homes were completely destroyed. The problem is that this is not enough to build a good quality house, especially since the price of materials has almost doubled in the past six months. Now you need at least £3,000 for a good family home. We feel fortunate, though, because most other villages haven't received any money yet.

The rebuilding spree has provided jobs for skilled craftspeople - in particular carpenters, masons and electricians - many of whom are well paid by international aid organisations. They fear that they will be unemployed once the job is complete and the non-governmental organisations leave, but over recent months I have travelled along much of the coast, and I know Dickwella is better off than many other places.

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