Sri Lanka Tsunami Blog
Posted at 7:27 AM ET, 09/28/2005

Chathura's New Life

A new life has begun for Chathura Madhushanka and his dad, K.M. Sarath.

Chathura lost his mom and sister to the 2004 tsunami, but on June 9 gained a new family when his dad married Chamari Nisansala, 20. He also recently left Sri Lanka for the first time to take a trip to Greece.

Chathura's new step mom brought her child from a previous marriage to the household. Seven-month-old Kaushika Sandamini is a beautiful baby girl about the same age as Chathura's sister was when she died.

Chathura couldn't be happier, and Sarath says their life is complete again. "I am happy about my new life. The baby looks just like my baby," he says.

I asked Sarath how he and Chamari met. He told me that two months ago he and Chathura went on a trip to Wellawaya to visit Sarath's uncle. His uncle introduced him to Chamari. They immediately liked each other, spent a couple of weeks together and then married.

While Sarath is at work driving a tractor and Chathura is in school, Chamari looks after the house and a friend helps her to care for little Kaushika.

Chathura left Sri Lanka for the first time on Aug. 11 to take a 21-day trip to Greece. His dad thinks the trip offered a good change for Chathura and a way to see another part of the world.

The family continues to live in one of the Weligama camps for residents who lost their homes in the tsunami. Although the new houses that the government promised to build after the tsunami have not materialized, the overall state of Sarath's camp is at least good compared to others. Each room is provided with a ceiling fan and a table fan. Non-government aid organizations and generous camp visitors have provided tables and couple of chairs for the camp inhabitants.

After Chamari moved in, the family made some clever re-arrangements around the home. They divided the tiny room into three sections. Front is the living room with Chathura's bed, then the bedroom and, at the back, the kitchen. The living room has a neat arrangement of artwork, done by Chathura. Chathura is very good in handwork. He loves to draw too. He also has now his own pet fish in a small aquarium.

-- Sascha Gerbracht

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Posted at 4:06 AM ET, 07/29/2005

A Slight Tsunami Scare...

Around 11 p.m. Sunday, July 24, the news hit Sri Lanka: an earthquake near the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

When Thailand started evacuation procedures, the people of Weligama became restless. Some of them immediately moved to higher ground. But others decided to remain and wait. I got a call from a friend immediately after 11 to turn on the TV and watch the news. Then, I found out about the happenings in Thailand.

I remained in front of the TV. Luckily, the earthquakes didn't trigger a tsunami, as many expected. After midnight, an announcement went through that the coast was clear. No tsunami. Some of the people who evacuated returned shortly after the news got to them. However, most of them were awake the whole night, listening to the radio for more warnings.

There wasn't as much panic in Weligama as when the March 30th tsunami alert came -- a true sign that the Weligama citizens are slowly recovering.

-- Sascha Gerbracht



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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 06/28/2005

Sewage Woes

Six months have gone by since the tsunami, and the people of Weligama are complaining about the stench.

The sewage system -- a network of open canals leading to the sea -- became filled up when debris from the tsunami was added to the tons of garbage that had been dumped there over the years. Instead of flowing out to the sea, the sewage has just been sitting in the canals, the biggest of which is about two meters deep and three meters wide.

A group of German sewage experts arrived in Weligama in May to clear the canals with the help of some locals. They had come from Frankfurt-on-Oder, Weligama's sister city in Germany. The local people were happy to see them, saying that it was noble of the "white men," as Westerners are called in Sri Lanka, to do such a dirty job.

But the German experts stopped work after just four days, saying they did not have the proper equipment. They haven't returned, and people are now wondering when, if ever, the canals will be cleared.

When there are heavy rains, some parts of town become flooded with sewage. The smell is particularly bad near the railway station, where the water doesn't flow at all. The stench of the garbage-filled canals is becoming practically unbearable.

-- Sascha Gerbracht

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Posted at 9:11 AM ET, 05/31/2005

Needs Not Met

I got a dispiriting e-mail from Dr. Enoka Wickramasinghe recently. She is the mental health officer for Weligama. We used funds raised in the U.S. to buy her a computer so she could keep track of people mentally affected by the tsunami.

Enoka writes that people are getting discouraged because, nearly six months after the tsunami, it is still not clear when their permanent houses will be rebuilt. Most tsunami victims are staying in refugee camps or other temporary accommodations. Fishermen are still without boats. Since their own boats haven't been repaired in most cases, they are without work. Their only hope is to work as day laborers on the boats of richer fishermen.

In Enoka's opinion, all this is going to have a negative impact on the psychological health of the villagers. There is little a psychiatrist can do to help people who are without work and without houses. As Enoka writes, "However much I or anybody else goes and talks to the people, their problems will not be solved until their needs are met."

-- Michael Dobbs

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Posted at 8:46 AM ET, 05/25/2005

Tsumami Trauma

Six months have gone by since the tsunami, but memories of what happened on Dec. 26, 2004, are still very fresh and raw here.

The mention of the word "tsunami" can send a shockwave of fear through the normally quiet town of Weligama. Some Weligama citizens still look at the sea as if the killer wave will return at any moment and take away everything they own.

The most recent tsunami scare happened a couple of weeks ago. A school child had been killed in a traffic accident. When she heard the news, the child's mother ran along the beach and then the main road, sobbing and crying. Some bystanders ran after, not knowing why she was crying. More and more people joined the run, spreading a wave of panic and fear through the town of Weligama.

I went to talk to Dr. Enoka Wickramasinghe, the medical officer for mental health in the Weligama district hospital. I thought that she could tell me more about the current mental state of residents.

Tsunami victims go through three mental stages, she said. The first is denial, which occurred as soon as the tsunami happened. The second is grieving , as people accept reality. The third and final stage is a return to normality.

According to Dr. Enoka, tsunami scares have had the effect of causing tsunami victims here to go back to stages one and two -- they have been "retraumatized." In particular, the tsunami scare of March 28, caused by another earthquake in Indonesia, means that it will "take another six months" before people go back to normal again.

Some 10 percent of the population, she added, never left the first stage after the tsunami and are in need of psychological attention.

-- Sascha Gerbracht

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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 05/19/2005

Monsoon Season

The monsoon season is underway, with its heavy winds and long rain showers. It has made life more miserable for tsunami victims who haven't been able to find homes of their own and are living in Weligama's temporary camps.

For Chathura, the rain isn't the only problem. The Sri Lankan army stopped guarding the camp he lives in two weeks ago, and security has deteriorated.

The camp was built by the Ministry of Fisheries in the Pelena neighborhood. Chathura and his father moved in about a month after December's tsunami destroyed their home, and considered it a step up from the camp where they had been living near Weligama's school.

The Pelena camp's temporary homes have a gap between their corrugated metal walls and sheet metal ceilings. When the rains started, camp residents tried to keep dry by sealing the gap with mats, plastic sheeting and even bed sheets. It has not been very effective.

When it isn't raining, the days are humid and very, very hot -- around 40 degrees centigrade (104 degrees fahrenheit). Fans aren't much help, so some residents have placed coconut leaves on top of the galvanized roofs. That has brought the temperature down a few degrees, but it is still very unpleasant.

A more serious problem is the Sri Lankan army's recent decision to stop guarding the camp, according to Chathura and his father.

The guards had generally kept order in the camp, forbidding the use of alcohol and not permitting people to enter or leave after 10 p.m. Since the army pulled out, drunks in the camp have become a nuisance and sometimes start fights. Chathura and his father go inside their small room when there are fights and lock the door. "We don't want to be a part of that kind of activity," says Chathura's father, a tractor driver.

There is also less water available for washing in the camp, because nonresidents have begun to take water that the guards had reserved for residents. "They just come in early in the morning and take it," said Chahura's father. "We don't have enough water to shower. At my own home I could shower whenever I wanted. Here, there isn't even enough water."

Chathura's father says that the government promised to rebuild his home after the tsunami, but has not delivered.

-- Sascha Gerbracht

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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 05/18/2005

Waiting for Nets

I went to find Sujith Nambukara, the fisherman who lost his wife and child during the tsunami and he brought me up to date with his news.

He has completed repair work on a boat that was given to him by Michael's brother, Geoffrey, and has been going out to sea for the first time since the tsunami. He told me that he had a couple of good catches, but is still frustrated because he hasn't received the fishing nets from Geoffrey that he was counting on.

For now, Sujith is able to borrow nets from a friend whose boat is being repaired. Once the repairs are finished, he'll have to return the nets. Geoffrey says the nets have been ordered and he plans to check with the supplier this week to see when they will be delivered.

In addition to returning to work, Sujith reports that he has moved out of the temporary housing camp where he was staying because it was getting overcrowded. He shared a single-room wooden hut with his mother, his father and his brother's family. He has moved in with his sister, who has a house on Weligama's Main Street.

He also organized an almsgiving -- the Buddhist equivalent of a memorial service -- for his wife and family. On the way to his mother-in-law's house, Sujith's three-wheeler (commonly referred to as a tuk-tuk) flipped over and Sujith was tossed out. He slid into the road, and suffered cuts and scratches to his left knee, arm and hand.

-- Sascha Gerbracht

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Posted at 6:40 PM ET, 05/17/2005

News From Dr. Enoka

I got a dispiriting e-mail from Dr. Enoka Wickramasingherecently. She is the mental health officer for Weligama. We used funds raised in the U.S. to buy her a computer so she could keep track of people mentally affected by the tsunami.

Enoka writes that people are getting discouraged because, nearly six months after the tsunami, it is still not clear when their permanent houses will be rebuilt. Most tsunami victims are staying in refugee camps or other temporary accommodations. Fishermen are still without boats. Since their own boats haven't been repaired in most cases, they are without work. Their only hope is to work as day laborers on the boats of richer fishermen.

In Enoka's opinion, all this is going to have a negative impact on the psychological health of the villagers. There is little a psychiatrist can do to help people who are without work and without houses. As Enoka writes, "However much I or anybody else goes and talks to the people, their problems will not be solved until their needs are met."

-- Michael Dobbs

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Posted at 10:21 AM ET, 05/ 5/2005

Videos and Panoramas

Travis Fox, a washingtonpost.com video journalist, joined Michael Dobbs in Weligama earlier this year and interviewed many of the people whose stories have been covered in this blog. Please join Fox as he discusses his experiences online at noon today.

-- Travis Fox

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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 05/ 3/2005

Some Good News

Good news from Weligama. It took much longer than I expected, but I was able to help resettle seven families from the little enclave of Sathniwasapura, next to the place where I was swimming on the morning of Dec. 26 when the tsunami struck. As I clung to a fishing boat, I could hear the screams of villagers drowning in their homes on the other side of the road.

For weeks after the tsunami, the survivors were living in tents on the ruins of their former houses. Although the government promised to provide permanent housing for all tsunami victims within six months (by the end of June), nothing has happened yet. It's still not clear where people will eventually live, as the government has imposed a ban on any new building within 100 meters from the sea.

The solution was temporary housing. With funds raised in the U.S., I was able to help pay for the construction of 15 wooden huts on land provided by a Buddhist monastery at the edge of town. The work was supervised by Kapila Jayasekera. According to Sascha Gerbracht, the son of a local organic farmer, the remaining seven families from Sathniwasapura moved into the huts in mid-April, in time to celebrate the Sri Lankan New Year.

"Sathniwasapura is deserted. Only ruins and memories remain," Sascha wrote last week from Weligama. "Most Sathniwasapura people seem very happy, even though their possessions consist of little more than their clothes and a few personal items."

Normally an occasion for raucous celebrations, the New Year festivities were quiet and subdued this year, Sascha reports. The people who run the refugee camp handed out parcels of Singhalese sweetmeats to celebrate the occasion, but there was no singing, dancing or throwing of firecrackers. Traditionally, New Year is a time when relatives get together to celebrate, rather like Thanksgiving in the United States. But this year, everybody's thoughts turned to lost loved ones.

-- Michael Dobbs

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Posted at 7:53 AM ET, 03/30/2005

Fear of Another Tsunami

We got the news around 11 o'clock in the evening. It spread like wildfire.

The radio reported that an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale had happened near Sumatra. The president of Sri Lanka warned of an "impending disaster" and ordered all coastal residents to evacuate to higher ground, at least 2 kilometers away from the coast.

In Weligama, all hell broke loose. People took all they could carry and ran inland, seeking refuge in temples. Belgian soldiers drove along the main road shouting, "Tsunami coming!" and telling people to move to higher ground. By the time the Sri Lankan police showed up to warn of the danger, most residents had already fled to temples and other places far away from the coast.

"As soon as I heard the news, I secured all our things, took my wife and ran as fast as I could to the temple," said Wasantha Abesooriya, a 47-year-old Weligama citizen. His house is located on Main Street, around 150 meters from the sea. When the warning came, he stowed his mattresses, gas cooker and some other possessions between the roof and ceiling, where the water wouldn't reach it. Then he tied the cooker's gas cylinder to his door to keep it from being swept away and left with his wife for the Agrabodhi Temple, around 1 kilometer inland.

Wasantha, who praised the Belgian army's efforts to warn people of the danger, stayed in the temple all night with his wife.

Sriya Abeyweera, a shop owner in her early 40s said that she was horrified by the news. "A neighbor told us about what happened at about 11:30 p.m. We just left everything as it is and ran," she said. Sriya, her 12-year-old son Minon, and the rest of the family left their home on the old Galle road, about 200 meters from the sea, and sought refuge in a house on top of a small hill about 1 kilometer away.

Around midnight, the radio reported that a tsunami could possibly arrive around 1 a.m. This was followed by a report of an aftershock of 6 on the Richter scale, and an advisory from the Sri Lankan government to stay on alert. I kept watching the news and called my friends, giving them updates on the situation.

Finally, at 3:40 a.m. an announcement was made that the danger is over. Relieved, but still terrified, many Weligama residents decided to remain in the temples until dawn.

I was curious about how Chathura Madhushanka and his father dealt with the warning and went to visit them later in the morning in the refugee camp where they have lived since the Dec. 26 tsunami destroyed their home.

As soon as he heard the tsunami warning, Chathura said he grabbed the pictures of his mother, brother and sister, who were killed in the tsunami, and ran with his father a couple of kilometers inland.

"Most of the camp residents climbed on top of the building beside the camp, but we just kept going," said Chathura's father, who felt that they would be better off away from the coastal area than on the roof of a building close to the sea. The fear was still visible in both of their eyes. Like so many Sri Lankans, they didn't sleep all night.

Chathura was still holding the pictures of his mom and siblings. He didn't go to school today. Actually, no one in Weligama did. Students who showed up at the schools were sent home for lack of teachers.

Although the earthquake was felt in some areas of Sri Lanka, no one seems to have felt it in this area, but people remain extremely frightened. Rumors are that about 70 earthquakes happened in the past 12 hours. Some think another tsunami could hit Sri Lanka any minute.

-- Sascha Gerbracht

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