'Who will want to come back here?'

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The Independent Online

It was the bay of beauty that became the bay of bodies. A glorious mile-long crescent of golden sands, smiling faces and happy holidaymakers that early last Sunday morning was gearing up for sunshine on Boxing Day. The optimism of a tourist town early in season was everywhere.

It was the bay of beauty that became the bay of bodies. A glorious mile-long crescent of golden sands, smiling faces and happy holidaymakers that early last Sunday morning was gearing up for sunshine on Boxing Day. The optimism of a tourist town early in season was everywhere.

Then came the wave. Like countless other communities across south Asia, Unawatuna will never be the same again.

It will never be the same for Sunil Mutha Mirinchage and his family. It will never be the same for P M B Sarath. It will never be the same for Shanta Anura. And they, we are told, are the lucky ones in this stunning tragedy that, without discrimination, swept away hundreds of locals and tourists. Yet the wave now face a struggle to make it through 2005.

Since Sri Lanka first cropped up as a destination to mention at dinner parties in the early 1980s, Unawatuna was the jewel in a crown that shone despite civil war in the north. Tourists were herded towards the shimmering coast that runs south from Colombo, just past the southernmost point of the island at Dondra Head.

The Westerners brought some prosperity and an aspirational way of life, but Unawatuna, which retained a certain style and character amid the huge corporate developments elsewhere.And the locals prospered. Tourism brought direct benefits for those who were able to tap into the new market, as owners.

A decade ago, Sunil Mutha Mirinchage opened a shop. It thrived and six years later he sold it and his house to operate the Sunnymood Guesthouse. It was a brave move and he also needed a big bank loan. But it appeared to be paying off. The guesthouse's four rooms were always full during the short tourist season that runs from December to April. Its simple but clean and friendly environment appealed to the type of tourists who pore over the pages of Lonely Planet and the Rough Guides.

His wife, Sudantee, did the cooking. The visitors loved her mix of Western and Eastern dishes. They doted on his 13-year-old daughter, Chaturee. And in recent months they have cooed over his new baby. Last Sunday he had couples staying from Denmark, Germany and the UK when the wave wiped out Sunnymood Guesthouse.

Mr Mirinchage, 40, shepherded his guests and his family to safety as water poured in from the seafront that is normally 100 yards from them. He then clambered to the second-floor roof terrace, closely followed by Jaffe, his German shepherd dog. From the roof, he watched the bodies float past. Across this bay of wonder, hundreds lost their lives and people say bodies are still being washed up. But for Mr Mirinchage's guests, the nightmare is over. The following day, after the water subsided, they were on a coach back to Colombo for their flights home. They will be for ever grateful to a brave host.

But Mr Mirinchage was not insured. He had chased a dream of making an independent living as a small businessman and now the Boxing Day tsunami looks to have killed it. He does not want for food or water. His house is still standing. But as a business proposition it is ruined. He has a family and for that he is grateful, yet how can he provide for them in the coming year?

That is the question being asked by people across Unawatuna. There are few tears now. Mourning has taken on a quiet dignity and resignation. And the ones the waves have left behind wonder what will become of them. Faces give little away as the people walk past upturned vehicles that that part-block the coastal road. But, as a relentless rain poured on them yesterday they were scared. "Who will want to come back here, even if we can rebuild?" asked Mr Mirinchage at his ruined Sunnymood Guesthouse.

On top the cliffs at the western end of the bay is a Buddhist temple, where survivors had taken refuge. Among them was P M B Sarath, his wife and their two children. He dives for lobsters and knows the tourists fuelled the demand and lifted prices, boosting his income.

Before Boxing Day there were five people in his household; his wife's mother lived with them. She is gone now. Mr Sarath, 42, set out by bicycle on Sunday just before 9.30am to fetch a mathematics book in Galle for his 16-year-old son, Prasad. "I would love to have seen Prasad go to university,'' he said as Prasad nodded next to him. "I did not get that chance but I thought he would."

As Mr Prasad entered the town on his bike he heard a soft rumble, which grew. Then, the wave engulfed him. Flailing, he managed to catch hold of a shoe rack outside a shop which he clung to for half an hour.

When the water subsided, he sprinted back home only to find it empty. The next two hours were the longest of Mr Sarath's life. Eventually he found his wife and children in a temple, slightly inland, but close to their home. Two days later, his mother's body was found. Also gone is their house, Mr Sarath's boat and their possessions, including his diving gear. Without that he cannot make a living. "My children will not go to university now."

Across to the east of Unawatuna, a grave was being dug. The man with the spade said his sister had clung on for a few days, but her lungs gave in. She had been an asthmatic. He had already lost two children. The rain lashed down, hampering Shanta Anura's digging. But he slowly dug on, his dead eyes saying simply: "I have nowhere to go after I have buried her."