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SRI LANKA: In hard-hit port, residents seek to mend broken lives

By Jehangir S. Pocha, Boston Globe, January 1, 2005

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka -- For generations, this southern port town has heralded the year's passing with firecrackers and all-night celebrations. But as the sun set yesterday, the air was heavy with despair: Sri Lanka was mourning its tsunami victims.

White and yellow flags of mourning fluttered along streets strewn with the rubble of destroyed homes, smashed cars, boats lifted yards out of the water, and uprooted trees with clothes, electric cables, and furniture entangled in their branches.

As people gathered for prayer meetings in churches, Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries, and mosques, their grief was compounded by the still-rising death toll.

A United Nations Development Program report assessing tsunami damage in Sri Lanka offered no reliable estimates of casualties along the southern coast. But local nongovernmental organizations and religious leaders said that as many as 7,000 people have died and tens of thousands were left homeless in and around Hambantota alone.

The government has put the overall death toll at more than 28,500, as of yesterday. More than 5 million have been left homeless.

''It's almost unbearable," Mohammad Sumantra Jainudeen, 55, said from beside the grave of his 16-year-old daughter, who perished with her mother and 22 relatives when the roiling surf overtook parts of Hambantota on Sunday. ''It feels like the end of the world is coming. Why else would God do this to us?"

Around him, 500 to 700 bodies lay in mass graves marked only with jagged pieces of wood. Scores of people sat under the shade of trees fringing the area; they seemed incredulous that water could have done so much damage.

''It wasn't the sea; it was a bomb," said the Rev. Indika Antony, who had been in the middle of Sunday services when the first waves hit. ''Everything was just flattened. We immediately tried to rescue the injured, and within minutes my cassock was covered with blood. It was like the sea was eating us."

The high death toll in Hambantota can partly be attributed to much of the town having gathered on the beach to attend a market festival when the tsunami hit. After the first wave came ashore, people rushed into the water to aid the injured, but were swept away by a second, much larger wave 10 minutes later, Antony said.

Food aid, relief supplies, and volunteers arrived quickly but the efforts seemed uncoordinated and scattered, residents say.

''Food is not what we need," said the Rev. Charles Hewawasem, who converted his church into a makeshift refugee camp. ''What we need are counselors. What we need is hope."

For many in Hambantota, shock over the destruction is too much to bear. Thousands have fled their homes, pledging never to return, said Jayantha Vihara, 33, a pharmacy owner. Those with nowhere to go have crowded into religious centers, where they try to comfort one another with explanations of divine intent.

''This is a message to all Sri Lankans," said Vellian Kumaa, 24, a sales clerk whose shop was swept away. ''We need to realize we need each other and stop fighting each other."

Kumaa was referring to the ongoing conflict in the country of 22 million between Buddhist Sinhalese, who are the majority community in southern Sri Lanka, and Hindu Tamils, who are the majority in the north. Tamils are seeking a separate homeland.

''The entire demography of the region has changed. . . . So many women and children are dead that communities will probably splinter," said Mithsiri Dias, a relief officer with Caritas, a Catholic aid agency. Because insurance is rare in Sri Lanka and there is little hope for compensation from the government, many people think they will never find the means to rebuild. They are moving to live with extended family or friends in other towns.

That will make relief operations difficult and inefficient, said Kevin Hartigan, Asia regional director for Catholic Relief Services, one of the first international aid agencies to arrive. The organization has pledged $25 million in relief for Sri Lanka.

Fear continues to grip much of the area, and residents ask one another whether another tsunami could strike soon. Despite reassurances that it is highly unlikely, some people say they cannot bear to look at the sea anymore.

''I cannot sleep. I hear the scream of the water when I close my eyes," Jainudeen said, gazing at his daughter's grave. ''But then I think of my one son who I still have, and I know I must go on."

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