Families try to rebuild their lives after tragedy


Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 12:36 a.m.
This is how Lal Karunamuni knows the difference in the landscape around him: With his bare feet he prods where the beach road washed out; his groping hands confirm that his bed, cupboard, gas cooker and radio are gone; he smells the sludge in his bedroom and toilet; and he feels the heat of the fires burning debris.
The rest he must take his neighbors' word for.
Karunamuni, 52, is blind, which makes his survival of the Dec. 26 tsunami all the more remarkable. A cousin saw him walking toward the massing sea, shouted at him to stop, then dragged him up two flights of stairs to safety.
Yet beyond needing his friends' guiding arms to navigate the rubble, Karunamuni's challenge in the tsunami's aftermath is no different from the challenges facing millions of others affected across Asia and Africa. Lives must be restarted, houses rebuilt, families reconstituted and losses weighed against others' misfortune.
Karunamuni said he was 26 when he went blind, a driver for tourists who, heady with youth, ignored signs of worsening glaucoma until the world went dark.
Soon after, his brothers built him a small home near the sea. He knows every corner of his neighborhood, at least as it existed before the water remade it.
Karunamuni says he reveres Helen Keller and likes to quote poetry: ''O say what is that thing called light which I must never enjoy/ What are the blessings of the sight, tell your poor blind boy,'' which he attributed to John Milton, although it is by Colley Cibber.
Karunamuni sang, in a lovely voice, a song he wrote soon after losing his sight. It begins, ''I can go with this stick everywhere, you do not say I cannot go here and there,'' and ends, ''I have a future, can become a teacher.'' He did not. His brothers were poor, and his country, still developing, has few resources for the disabled.
So, Karunamuni has spent more than two decades just getting by. He has survived on his brothers' charity and 500 rupees a month - about $5 - from renting out the extra room in his small house. He has lived on curry and rice.
His financial status, always fragile, is now precarious. Most of his possessions are gone. The extra room cannot be rented now; its interior was sucked out by the sea. He is staying with Kaluperuma Chandrasiri Silva, 56, a cousin who lives nearby, and whose own home was inundated with 5 feet of water.
Silva's mattress is still wet. The papaya trees in his yard are already shriveling and dying. The restaurant where he worked is gone, and with it his job.
The hotel where Karunamuni's nephew, Mahesh Kumar, worked is closed. Seven adult members of the family are now subsisting on one schoolteacher's income.
Karunamuni, whose cloudy blue eyes sometimes look like the sea, is waiting for the government to assess the damage to his house and help him clean it.
Then he will sleep there, as he has for 25 years, within earshot of the waves. He calls the sea ''a very dangerous bugger,'' but believes its innocence has returned.
Karunamuni grasps clearly both his diminished finances and his relative good fortune.
''Other people lost everything, not only myself,'' he said, and casually pointed to the damaged houses as if he could see them.
Family tree denuded Muhammad Zain's home sat feet from the sea in a housing scheme in Hambantota, a town on the southern coast. Where 300 houses once stood, perhaps 10 are left. The rest were broken to bits by the tsunami.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan of the United Nations flew in to visit Hambantota on Saturday. ''From the air I saw a beautiful country, but there has been a lot of damage,'' he said, Reuters reported.
Zain's family has been smashed as thoroughly as any structure. The water took the lives of as many as 60 relatives, including his two children and pregnant wife, and four of his eight siblings. An elaborate family tree has been denuded.
With so much mourning to do, the family, now divided among relatives' homes a safe distance from the sea, has not begun to think about rebuilding. Instead, they are focused on reuniting those still alive. Like hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan families, they rely for income partly on relatives working in the Middle East. This week, they were still collecting family members from abroad. There is also the future of an orphaned child to attend to.
Zain, 40, a fisherman who also lost his boat, sat on the couch between two of his sisters. On his left was M.I. Najuma, 35, who was in Dubai, where she worked as a housemaid, when the wave struck. She had not seen her husband, a postman, and her son, 5, since she left for Dubai a year ago. On the phone, her son had asked for a bicycle and toys. When last seen alive on Dec. 26, father and son were heading to the store to buy a lollipop.
She had heard the news of the tsunami from her sister, living in Abu Dhabi, who learned about it from the BBC. When Najuma asked her employer for leave, he said no, accusing her of lying, she said. Only after a call from Sri Lanka conveyed the news of death, and after she threatened to kill herself, did he give her 15 days' leave, after she worked at his family wedding that week.
The bodies of Najuma's son and husband were buried before she could see them.
Seated next to Zain was Najuma's sister, Naisarina Tasim, 45. She lost her daughter, son-in-law and 3-year-old grandson. The only survivor on that side of the family, her 9-year-old granddaughter G. Risla Adahan, sat on her lap.
Tasim wanted to return to Abu Dhabi, but not without Risla. She had no idea how to begin getting the necessary permissions to take her out of Sri Lanka or a get her a visa for the United Arab Emirates. For now all she could do was cry.
"There is no one to look after this girl," she said, and said again.
Just then Nasar Mahamud, 31, walked in, having rushed back from Kuwait.
As he hugged his wife's grandmother, Karim Srainana, 83, she cried. She had lost two of her three sons. One of them, she said through sobs, always gave her part of his salary.
Mahamud's wife and 5-year-old daughter had survived. The little girl had a talent for singing, the family said, and they asked her to perform. For a few minutes, there were smiles, laughter, forgetting.
Listening for water On the first night back home, G.H. Premaratna and his family could barely sleep, listening instead for the sound of the water. The children dreamed that it was coming again, and shouted, "Run! Run!" The women slept in one bedroom, the men in the living room. The morning sun streamed in where the doors and windows used to be, and just 65 yards away a placid sea shone.
The family woke up to the day's tedious work of cleaning and repair. Their house in Koggala still stood, although half of the front wall and the kitchen, which had been out back, were gone.
But the family - father, mother, two girls and a boy - was intact, and they preferred the privacy and familiarity of home, however damaged, to the crowded indignity of a refugee camp.
The rebuilding along the coast is as slow as the destruction was swift. One step at a time, first the home, then the livelihood; first sweep away, then reconstruct.
Here the morning's project was cleaning the well. A generator pumped out the brown water and sludge, and Premaratna, a fisherman, climbed down inside his 15-foot well to scoop from the bottom.
At the top of the well stood G.M. Wijewickrama, 25, an industrial engineer at Martin Emprex, a British textile company in the free trade zone nearby.
Wijewickrama gets his water from taps, and knows nothing about pumping out wells. Yet he was here on Wednesday, volunteering in a local fisherman's yard, his well-cut white shirt and finely spun gray pants spattered with muddy water.
"We have no experience but we can manage," he said.
By afternoon, the well was pronounced clean, although the water was still brown. The family bathed with it and washed dishes with it.
They pondered the jars of rice and dried coconut that had survived what so many human beings did not.
In the fading light, Premaratna's oldest daughter, Yamuna Kumari, 22, carefully tended the fire over which she was cooking lentil curry in the absence of a kitchen.
The cooking utensils had been donated, and so had the lentils, the family living from one handout to the next.
It was their second night back home. With no electricity, they ate dinner by candlelight just feet from where they had been eating breakfast when the tsunami came. The need to fuel themselves was the only continuity between then and now.
Premaratna had lost his boat, but his two daughters worked in a nearby garment factory. The family would be provided for, but finding the money to rebuild the house was another matter.
It had taken his wife, K. Florida, seven years of working as a housemaid in Lebanon to pay for building the six-room house and stock it with a television, washing machine, irons and more. She had left for the Middle East when her second daughter, now 17, was only 5 months old.
"The best part of my life I spent in Lebanon," Florida said, the words traced with sourness. Now much of what she had sacrificed for was gone.
That hurt, but she knew, amid her country's landscape of loss, what mattered more: in the candlelight, two long-haired daughters cooking, and a father feeding bread and curry to his 8-year-old son.

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