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South Asia: Hardship in tsunami's wake

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Governments and survivors are at odds over housing problem

BY TONI RADLER

For thousands of tsunami survivors, life remains filled with extreme daily hardships.

One problem we can't help them with is getting them out of the "temporary housing" that has families living virtually in corrugated tin boxes, where they swelter in heat of 100 degrees and more day and night and sleep on concrete floors in 8-foot-by-12-foot windowless rooms.

We met one of the families in the Indian village of Velangani where 19-year-old Ramesh anxiously watched as a craftsman worked on his catamaran. Replacing catamarans destroyed in the tsunami and repairing fiberglass fishing boats is one of CCF's many livelihood interventions.

These catamarans bear no resemblance to the luxury catamarans that dot the Chesapeake Bay. Made of five wooden logs lashed by ropes, they are really wooden rafts that fishermen pole out into the ocean.

Ramesh, his brother, mother and three sisters were living in a small but comfortable four-room house on the oceanfront when the tsunami took away everything they had.

With the new catamaran, Ramesh and his 15-year-old brother, Elangovan, will begin earning a living for their family again. But that won't solve their biggest problem -- housing.

The temporary housing problems are not unique to India. The one-room units set up in Indonesia and Sri Lanka may look different. In Indonesia, they typically are made of wooden sides and tin roofs with a small window and maybe a raised platform. But they are the same in being hot, crowded and lacking in privacy.

To alleviate some of the heat, residents have put dried palms over the tin . . . but it's not helping much. Children are getting what Ramesh describes as jaundice, fevers, sweating and respiratory illnesses from the heat.

Affected villages in areas of India where the tsunami wiped out oceanfront houses average about 150 of these temporary shelters each, according to a CCF staff worker who oversees the progress of CCF's boat program and other livelihood interventions.

The problem is that governments and the people are at loggerheads about where tsunami-displaced families will rebuild their homes. Most fishing families want to go back to the oceanfront. But the governments want to create protective setbacks of 200 meters to 500 meters.

If the setbacks are created, they would move fishing families inland where generations after generations of fishing skills will be useless.

The arguments on both sides are compelling. The governments say another tsunami could put people at risk again. But displaced villagers point out that tsunamis such as the one of Dec. 26 haven't happened in 100 years. They are suspicious that the land will be used for beachfront development.

Even with the hardship of rebuilding their lives and the struggle of having to overcome the grief of losing family members, they feel that if they could rebuild on their original sites, at least they would be home again.

When the tsunami struck, Ramesh saw what he first thought was just a big wave. But as he saw it taking houses and people and when it topped 50-foot-high palm trees, he realized it would hit his house. He became instinctively afraid. He and his family ran for their lives and they made it.

Now he wonders if this is a life that was worth running for as life in a tin box stretches into its eighth month with no end in sight.

"We are getting sick. No one my age is living there. I need to live near the ocean and my catamaran." His mother, Muthammah, remembers the small four-room house where her family was happy.

"We had a kitchen, a bedroom, a hall and a sitting room. This is too hard," she says as she tries to prepare lunch, sitting on the floor cooking over the equivalent of a small gas camp stove.

Ramesh is worried about whether he and his brother will be able to make a living for his family, whether they will be able to earn a dowry for his oldest teenage sister and the others when their times come to marry.

The answers to these questions are unknown and the displaced seem to remain invisible in lands where rebuilding is happening everywhere and for everyone but the displaced, and where the word, temporary, is fast losing its meaning.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Toni Radler was on the Richmond-based Christian Children's Fund Emergency Response Team that responded to the devastating tsunami that struck India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka on Dec. 26. She returned to India last week. Here are edited excerpts from her report sent shortly after she arrived.