The survivors: 'I am grateful that my family survived. So many died. But I have to start again now, and I don't know how. We will try.'

What do you do when your home has been destroyed, the boat that was your livelihood has been smashed and 30,000 of your neighbours have been killed? How is it possible to go on? Stephen Khan in Kalamulla, Sri Lanka, meets a man who has no choice but to face those questions and find a way to rebuild among the ruins of his former life

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The Independent Online


The sorry remains of Gamini Fernando's bright little boat are still tethered to the tree where he left it two weeks ago. It lies lifeless and decapitated, like the carcass of an abused pet. Someone should bury it.

But Mr Fernando can't quite bring himself to do that just yet. For this small glass fibre vessel was what kept his family afloat. His wife and three daughters depended on it for their way of life. His son had realised the boat could provide a good living and bought one of his own when he left home and married.

Now, though, it can provide nothing. All that remains are two ragged chunks, half a mile apart. Such was the power of the tsunami that ripped into Sri Lanka two weeks ago - the surge of water that has altered the islanders' lives for ever.

The Fernando family live in Kalamulla, a fishing community midway between the capital, Colombo, and the shattered town of Galle in the south of this island. And, unlike more than 30,000 of their compatriots, the Fernandos lived to tell the story of 26 December. Yet their struggle for survival has only just begun.

The sea had been good to them. For more than 30 years, Mr Fernando went out on two-man boats, cast nets and brought in the fish. He hauled in pulunna, paraw, salaya and karalla - which are cooked in fresh coriander and coconut and adored by the locals. But the good times really came when the fishermen provided for Western palates. The huge prawns that can be harvested from the sea brought in the big bucks. Mr Fernando could make as much as 10,000 rupees a month. At £50, it might not sound like much, but it was more than teachers in state schools here make and enough for his family to lead a comfortable existence.

Over the years, Mr Fernando and his wife Ramani built a home together. It was just a couple of rooms when their son Isanka was born. When daughter Irica came along they extended it. And with Iresha and Nimesha came further rooms.

By Christmas Day it truly was a house to be proud of. Nestled amid the palms and coconuts, and less than 200 metres from the shore, this was the epitome of an island paradise. Now their home looks like it was struck by a bomb programmed to spare only palm trees. In that morning of carnage, the Fernandos were lifted from their world of plenty and plunged by the wave into homelessness and desperation.

Mr Fernando had risen early on the morning of 26 December. He planned a number of trips to sea and was unloading the first catch when he watched the sea eerily retreat. Instinctively, he straight away told his family to flee. But his son, Isanka, was out in his own boat. Mr Fernando gazed out to sea nervously, and then his fears were realised. Less than three minutes later, with a 15m-high wall of water charging towards him, Mr Fernando could do nothing but run.

Weaving between bushes, leaping fences and jumping over ditches, he finally reached the road and safety. "For a moment, I wept," said Mr Fernando this weekend. "I thought my family could not have survived." But he found his wife and daughters at a nearby school. Kalmulla

had been spared the degree of devastation wrought further south and on the east coast. Yet his son was out at sea. "We cried. We were sure he was lost."

But Isanka came back, perplexed by the event of the morning. Having been some distance out from the coast, he had not been subjected to the raging wave, which crested closer to shore. And so the family was safe. Many of their friends had not been so fortunate. They heard many stories of loss and wails of mourning. Yet the Fernandos had been made refugees.

Their immediate fear was hunger. But food came soon. "Local people from inland brought packs of food within hours. Then later, water. We were lucky that shops less than a mile inland were untouched and some rich people bought things for us," Mr Fernando said.

"The next day more food parcels arrived on lorries from Colombo. We are so grateful to people here and from abroad who helped. They kept us going."

The Fernandos were fortunate enough to be in an area with good road links. Their immediate needs were met within days, unlike tens of thousands elsewhere across the Indian Ocean rim.

But this week the new struggle has begun. Now the realisation dawns that they have nothing. "I cannot believe we are all well, given what you see here. And I am grateful. So many have died," he said. "But I have to start again now."

Following the tragedy, the Sri Lankan government has decreed that no homes can be built within 300 metres of the shore. That means the Fernandos will have to move. Finding a new plot may not be easy, despite pledges of government support for reconstruction.

"The most important thing for us now, is that I get back out there. The sea is our life. It provided for us and it will do again. We who have survived need boats to do our jobs and put our lives back together."

And while the aid effort still, understandably, focuses on getting vital, life-saving materials to those in the worst-hit areas, how to help survivors rebuild their lives is already being considered.

Tracey Edginton has spent the past two weeks delivering aid for Save the Children in Martara, south of Galle. "At the moment we are still getting the food packs out in this area. But the response from around the world has been tremendous and we are looking at how donations can be used to get families back on their feet."

Local volunteer groups have also been raising huge sums in all the stricken countries. Greg and Pamela Podoro in Colombo have organised relief convoys and are now looking at how sustainable, quality housing can be quickly constructed. "We are still sending emergency packs to desperate people, but this is just the beginning. The need for aid does not stop when the initial, shocking images fade."

But perhaps the aid project with most pertinence to the Fernando family is one being proposed by Gavin Major, a Yorkshireman based half an hour's drive north of Colombo. When the tsunami struck he was contacted by dozens of friends in the UK who were desperate to help. The cash has been pouring in.

As he already has a boat-building operation providing sea kayaks for the European market, he plans to build new boats for the fisherman of Sri Lanka. When told of such schemes, Mr Fernando and his family smiled. Incredibly, these are people who just keep smiling. We walked back down to the beach area and wandered through the broken gate of his house towards the concrete mound in search of a jotter for 14-year-old Nimesha. The schools are due back tomorrow and she does not want to fall behind.

His story helps put into perspective an overall reconstruction task that is so large it is almost unimaginable. Some experts say the cost could eventually reach $14bn (£7.5bn), and the whole rebuilding process could last more than a decade.

Preliminary estimates for Sri Lanka say restoring the country will cost close to $1.5bn. In Thailand, the damage is much worse. Rebuilding the tourist industry alone will cost more than $500m, according to Thai officials.

India's estimates of rebuilding costs have been climbing all week and now stand at a minimum of $2.6bn, excluding the Andaman and Nicobar islands. In the Maldives, where the entire population has been affected, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom said that $1.3bn is required over the next few years. In Indonesia, the reconstruction costs are estimated at $2.2bn over five years.

These are the dry statistics, and they are sure to rise. Beside them, and the work they represent, Gamini Fernando's little boat hardly seems important. But those uncountable billions are made up of tens of thousands of little boats, hundreds of thousands of homes, and millions of livelihoods now lost.