Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Tsunami survivors still homeless after five years

News and Press Release
Originally published
KALMUNAI, 21 December 2009 (IRIN) - Seven-year-old Muffla Mubarak and her friends are revelling in their new homes in the French Friendship Village in Kalmunai, a town on the east coast of Sri Lanka, 300km from the capital Colombo.

"I am happy here. I don't want to go to the sea," she said smiling.

Muffla has little memory of the devastating tsunami that swept through her family's village of Maradamunai five years earlier, but she knows the sea is to be feared.

Her village and two adjoining it were probably the hardest hit when Asia tsunami struck the island nation on 26 December 2004, killing more than 220,000 people in 13 countries. As many as 8,500 of their fellow residents died that day, villagers estimate.

In Sri Lanka, some 35,000 people died, more than one million were displaced, over 100,000 houses were destroyed and the post-tsunami reconstruction bill reached US$3.2 billion, according to government figures.

Muffla's family is among the thousands who have received new homes, while others have moved away from the coast altogether.

To mitigate the risk of a similar disaster, Kalmunai Division authorities are enforcing a 65m no-build buffer zone along the coast.

"It is better that we moved away from the beach," Muffla's aunt, Rasheena Umma, said. "If we stayed near the sea, I would never allow them [the children] to go out," she said.

And while their new house is smaller, the family is happier, Umma says.

Muffla's father told IRIN that even though he did not lose any family members, he had no desire to return to the beach.

Still displaced

Five years on, however, not everyone is as fortunate.

In Kalmunai, at least 1,300 families still await permanent housing, according to government officials.

Some are staying with relatives while others are still living in ramshackle tin-sheet-roofed temporary shelters.

"The problem has been identifying land for their relocation," says Mohamed Naufer, the divisional secretary for Kalmunai.

The beach is heavily populated and there is also a marsh nearby, he explained, adding that authorities have already had to reclaim paddy land to build new houses.

Naufer predicts that by early next year, all those who remain in temporary shelters will be given houses.

But many residents remain sceptical.

"We have heard that since the day after the tsunami," Abdul Kareem, a resident of the Jiffery temporary shelter in Kamunao since 2005, said.

His home looks fragile and the dark interior is cluttered with clothes, furniture, cooking utensils and even domestic animals.

Residents also live in constant fear of fires due to electrical short-circuits.

"We have had one fire already," Kareem said, looking nervously at the thick wires in the rafters.

However, even some of the new housing units are not risk-free.

Two weeks before the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, heavy rains flooded drainage pits at the new tsunami housing scheme near the Sainathimaruthu mosque in Kalmunai.

A new beginning

But despite the many shortcomings, most survivors wish only to move on and rebuild their lives.

In Hambantota, on the south-east coast, where reconstruction has long since ended, no one is waiting for housing or donations, and while survivors still complain that the assistance they received never matched the expectations or the headlines created by the international aid operation, most are content with what they received.

"We are happy with what we got," says Mohamed Rasik, in Siribopura, a new housing scheme of over 1,500 units. "After all, we lost everything." He lost 37 family members.

The new housing site has its own school, a community centre and transport. "It is good, it is slowly becoming like a village," Rasik said.

But even here there are signs that the reconstruction effort did not go to plan.

Right at the edge of Siribopura is Hungama, a new housing project undertaken just months after the tsunami with public donations from Hungary.

Even the homeless refuse to move in as the units are so badly built, say residents . As a result, some have been turned into government servants' quarters, while others have only been occupied after survivors undertook extensive repairs with their own funds.