5 years after tsunami: Sri Lanka's 'new normal' by the sea

In Sri Lankan communities hit by the tsunami five years ago, things are back to normal but they will never be the same, writes John Northcott.
Fishers on the west coast of Sri Lanka prepare nets to bring in the morning's catch in November 2009. About two-thirds of Sri Lanka's shoreline was severely affected by the tsunami of December 2004. Tens of thousands died. (John Northcott/CBC)

As you watch surfers tumbling down foamy breakers in the setting sun, it's hard to cast the mind back to the scenes of devastation beamed around the world that Boxing Day Sunday five years ago.

I was in Sri Lanka just a few months after the tsunami hit. About two-thirds of the country's shoreline had been severely damaged in one way or another. Tens of thousands had died.

Driving down the coast road from the capital, Colombo, the devastation was visible everywhere: twisted rail lines, collapsed bridges, houses that had become just a couple of ragged, mouldy walls.

The survivors, many living in small temporary aid-agency housing, were inconsolable. Many were begging, tearfully. Others just crouching, wearing rags and still bewildered.

And there was the train. The Sunday that the tsunami struck was a holiday. The train had been packed with families heading south, parallel to the coast.

An initial wave had hit, sending people fleeing inland. They had clambered aboard the train in an attempt to get to safety, so it was packed well beyond normal capacity when a second wave hit.

Wreckage among palms

As many as 1,500 people are estimated to have died on that train. The torqued wreckage sat among the palm trees.

After the disaster, it became a tourist attraction, with the occasional minivan full of uncomfortable-looking tourists arriving to timidly take photos and fend off the beggars who emerged from the trees, hungry-eyed.

The beaches that surround this jewel of an island like a pearl necklace were a mess.

One coastal area had simply been turned into an enormous mass grave. The sand was the easiest place to dig, and so thousands and been laid to rest almost where they fell.

For kilometre after kilometre, as far as you could walk, the sand was blanketed in domestic detritus: shampoo bottles, shoes, combs, pots, and pans. The everyday items of a once thriving community, turned out by the angry waves.

Walking past the wrecked houses and overturned boats, you felt very alone. There were few fishermen, no children, no dogs.

Back to normal, never the same

Five years later, the beaches are full of activity once again.

Children who as lucky infants were carried to safety, too young to remember their narrow escape from the fury of the ocean, now push and shove each other into the waves. Fishers form a long tug o' war line to laboriously drag their teeming nets to shore. The old men lean against beached fishing boats and dogs yap and scramble along the sand.

In the beach community of Hikkaduwa, things seem back to normal but they will never be the same. Some hotels and restaurants have been repaired and rebuilt. Others never will be.

Telmac, who drives a three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi, had a house right next to the ocean. He escaped, but he has been unable to return home. He tried to sleep there one night, but the nightmares came, and that was enough.

His original taxi was destroyed by the tsunami. He bought another, but it will take him years to pay off the $4,000 purchase price and the interest payments are very high.

He will never be the same, physically. Like many along the coast, he still suffers from agonizing gastric trouble. No one is sure why, he tells me, but everyone assumes it has to do with drinking bad water in the days and weeks after the disaster.

The tourists are back, too, but not as many as in the past. Local hotel managers report that the number of visitors continues to be about half of what it was before the tsunami.

Seaside urchins

As one said, "Every year, I pray to my god that more people will come, and every year, it doesn't happen."

The beach boys are also back, sidling up to visitors hoping to walk on the beach unmolested. No such luck. Desperate for money, these seaside urchins offer everything from boat rides, to drugs, to sex.

About the only thing they don't charge for is talk. They'll tell you about running into the jungle or up to the second floors of hotels to avoid the nine-metre waves five years ago.

There's also a lot of talk along the beach about who acquired what in the aftermath of the disaster. Locals with influence and contacts in the right places are rumoured to have received much of the aid money to rebuild, or to have simply pocketed the cash and walked away.

Over the past five years the world's attention has turned to other issues, to focus on the heartbreak of other disasters. But along the Sri Lankan coast the tsunami remains fresh in people's minds.

The impact of those deadly waves is still felt here in every life, every day.

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