Tsunami? We call it the Golden Wave

Three Christmases ago, a tidal wave devastated the Sri Lankan coast and the people who lived by it. Today, villages, hospitals and schools have been rebuilt better than before, and the tsunami is even hailed as a blessing
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By Stephen Brenkley in Galle, Sri Lanka,and Nina Lakhani

On Boxing Day 2004, Keerthi Karunanawyake had gone to his work as a motorised rickshaw driver, leaving his family at home. "Vajira [his wife] and her sister saw the sea was behaving strangely," he says. "When it came closer, they all decided to run. They were able to climb on to rooftops, but my mother was too old to do that. We found her body many hours later."

Three years on, Vajira has recovered from the serious injuries she suffered when a wall fell on her, but she, Keerthi and their three children are still living in two rooms, three miles inland from Galle. They have to pay 4,500 rupees (21) a month in rent, and cannot afford to replace many of their belongings. Even though they own a house, in an idyllic setting between the beach and Galle's town centre, it will remain uninhabitable until Keerthi can find enough money to finish rebuilding it.

The cricket Test between England and Sri Lanka which ended in a draw yesterday was the first to be played in Galle since the tsunami, and has been taken as a symbol of the town's revival. According to government figures, 98 per cent of the 15,000 homes either destroyed or damaged around Galle have been replaced. But Keerthi and his family fell foul of a new regulation that banned building within 100 metres of the sea. It was rescinded too late to help the rickshaw driver."There were people around after the disaster who could have helped me rebuild my house, but they went," he says. "I have to do it myself."

The same random laws of chance that destroyed one community and spared another three years ago, when an earthquake measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale caused a disaster that killed 250,000 people in 13 countries, now apply to the survivors. The international response was unprecedented 7bn was pledged by governments and aid organisations and some areas have found themselves unexpectedly better off.

One example is the tiny village of Seenigama, along the coast from Galle, once the home of a Sri Lankan businessman and philanthropist, Kushil Gunasekera, who established the Foundation for Goodness in 1999 to improve local people's prospects. Its modest work was transformed after the disaster: the foundation has now helped to build 1,000 houses as well as medical, educational and women's centres. Children of the village sometimes refer to the tsunami as the "golden wave".

In the area worst hit by the disaster Aceh province in Indonesia, where more than 150,000 people died it at least brought to an end a bloody insurgency that had lasted several decades. Geno Teofilo of Oxfam says the peace deal helped reconstruction, and life in one remote town, Calang, which lost every building and 7,000 of its 10,000 population, is beginning to return to normal. "Most of the survivors are living in permanent homes," he says. "Overall, the relief and reconstruction effort in Aceh is classified as a success."

Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which received donations from four out of every five British families, totalling 390m, is completing a three-year programme with member organisations such as Oxfam and ActionAid to rebuild villages, schools and hospitals, and supply equipment to the 1.5 million people who lost their livelihoods. Unicef reported last week that it had built 100 schools, with another 254 on the way, and 59 out of 164 planned health facilities.

While the physical damage is being repaired, however, the work of rebuilding shattered lives is only just beginning. In his cramped flat near Galle, Keerthi Karunanawyake says: "They were very bad days after the tsunami. Things are getting better, but it will take a long time."