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A family struggles to rebuild its life

By TIM SULLIVAN, The Associated Press, January 23. 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Far from the road here in Peraliya, Sri Lanka, where the rustle of palm trees nearly drowns out the rumbling midday traffic, a woman sits in the wreckage of what used to be her neighbor's house, trying to summon the right words to describe what nature has done to her.

Each time she tries to speak her voice chokes up. Over and over, she shakes her head.

"If I was the only person left, I'd kill myself," she says finally. "But I have to be strong for my husband and my daughters. I have to be here for them, to be strong for them."

Strength is something Sriyawathi Malani Gunathilaka understands. She's been strong her entire life, struggling on a tiny income to drag her family onto the lowest rungs of Sri Lanka's middle class, keeping her children in school, taking on more responsibility after her husband was weakened by a stroke two years ago.

But some things are too much. On the morning of Dec. 26, the Asian tsunami slammed into Sri Lanka, triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia. About 450 people from Peraliya and the adjoining village died here, along with some 800 railway passengers, killed when the waves crashed into their passing train.
Among the villagers killed was Sriyawathi's only son, Pradeep.

"I keep telling myself it was the lucky ones who died. It's the sinful ones, like me, who survived," she said. "That's why I have to always be running around now, looking for a little food, finding some clothes, looking for a chair so there's somewhere to sit."

What does it mean to rebuild your life? And how do you do it when your son - the embodiment of everything you've ever worked for - is dead, your home destroyed and your village shattered? How can you move forward when much of what you saw every day has become a barely recognizable expanse of devastation?

The life that was

Sriyawathi married a kind young man, worked hard, saved ferociously and sent all her children through high school.

Long the center of her family, she worked desperately to control its little world. When the children were young, she'd make lunch for them and then lock them in the house when she went to sell vegetables with her husband at the market."We're good people, good citizens," she said.

But mostly, she focused her dreams on her son, a young man who, she'll tell you, died at 19 years, six months and three days.

Plenty of people lost more than she did in the tsunami. Some parents lost all their children, and some children lost both parents. Some families no longer exist at all. While her house now has no roof and most of the back wall is gone, the basic structure still stands, from the red-brick facade to the white dust ruffle hanging above the front door, stained brownish gray when the waters rose almost to the ceiling.

But tragedy can't be compared, at least not to those involved. And even in a village like this, where grief is commonplace, people still stop Sriyawathi to tell her what a good boy her son was - polite, hardworking, caring - and how sorry they are for her.

"I've seen how most sons are, drinking, staying out, and my son wasn't like that," she said, a touch of bitterness in her voice.

Sometimes, she looks for solace in Buddhism, and her hope that he will be reborn into a better life.

The tsunami changed several lifetimes of plans.

When the waves began washing in, it was Pradeep who ran to alert his older sister, at home with her baby. He shouted warnings as he raced through town.

Then he went to help an elderly woman who lived near the beach. Witnesses say the biggest wave caught him there, wrenching him from a tree he'd grabbed. His body was found a few hours later. The elderly woman's body was never found. He was buried soon after in a mass grave.

Sriyawathi says she takes as little as she can from aid workers. "Let the people who really need it get it," she says.

When things are quiet, Sriyawathi's husband and his friends, who are helping with the cleanup, stand around smoking. The women make tea on an open fire.

Under their feet is the dark, rich soil of southern Sri Lanka, now stained red by thousands of pulverized bricks.

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