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Sri Lanka's tsunami survivors too busy for tributes

By Rahul Sharma, Reuters, Jan 26, 2005

PERALIYA, Sri Lanka -- As many Sri Lankans observed a minute's silence on Wednesday and prayed for the thousands killed by last month's tsunami, Buddhist monk Pittugala Sumana had no time to stop as he organised food for survivors.

<< A Sri Lankan man lights a candle in memory of tsunami victims during a prayer session in Colombo January 26, 2005. Hundreds of mourners dressed in traditional white gathered in Colombo's Independence Square to hold a brief, silent vigil at 0936, the time the waves struck Sri Lanka, killing 38,000 people. REUTERS/Arko Datta

As chief priest of the Telwatta temple in southern Sri Lanka, Sumana has to ensure that people who sought shelter on Dec. 26 when the tsunami demolished their coastal villages get food, medical treatment, counselling and a place to sleep.

"A minute's silence? No, we are not observing it. There is so much to do," he said, as he went around checking a community kitchen set up at his temple.

Outside the temple complex, stunned villagers silently watched earthmovers and bulldozers clear the remains of their homes in what was once a palm-fringed fishing village.

Sumana cannot forget the day the tsunami hit. He was in the temple when suddenly hundreds of people came running shouting: "water is coming, water is coming".

"I saw water coming in from two sides. Thirty minutes later there was a big noise and then the second wave came," he said.

"People climbed up the trees. Some ran to the second floor of the building."

About 600 people flocked to the temple in the wake of Sri Lanka's biggest natural disaster, which killed nearly 40,000 people on the island, and left nearly 300,000 dead or missing around the Indian Ocean.

About 150 people are still eating and sleeping at the temple, while others have moved in with relatives living inland.

While there is enough food for survivors, some living in tents set up where their houses once stood, the need now was to begin reconstruction so that people could get on with their lives, he said.

Razed to the ground

"That is my house", said fisherman M.W. Bennett, pointing to a concrete platform next to a railway track. "There were two rooms, now there is nothing," he says as his wife and son watch the bulldozers clear debris.

But Bennett is thankful he and his family are alive. Most of his neighbours were swept away by the wave, never to be found.

"I am alive and I want to build my house. I want to live here, but I don't even have a tent," Bennett says, as his wife tearfully recounts how she clung to the roof of her house before being knocked away by flowing debris.

"My body is still sore and my head aches," she said, adding that her two sons survived by clinging to trees. She and Bennett spend most of their days standing by what was once their home, too numb to ponder the future.

Across the railway track from Bennett's home, Samson De Silva stands looking at the debris of his house where the tsunami killed his 9-year-old daughter and seven other relatives.

"My daughter was playing in the truck parked outside our house when the first wave came. The second one took her and the truck away. We found her body there, De Silva says pointing behind him.

He said his 11-year-old son, who was now living with relatives, was too scared to return to what was once his home.

"I want to rebuild my house, but there is no help," he says as his surviving relatives walk around looking at their belongings, which have been reduced to a heap of rubbish.

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