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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 January, 2005, 00:44 GMT
Fishermen curse the cruel sea
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Weligama, Sri Lanka

Fourteen-year-old Renuka gazes out to sea, her eyes scanning the foaming surf before settling on a rock jutting out from the water.

Paranakada harbour
The carcasses of boats litter Paranakada harbour
"There, somewhere there," she murmurs, pointing to the spot where her father's boat went down.

Her father, Sujith, was one of about 350 people who were swept away in the fishing villages along Weligama, in southern Sri Lanka.

Renuka's mother, Indrani, was on the upper floor of their double-storey cottage built just metres from the sea.

"I heard a huge bang - I thought maybe there had been an accident.

"Then I realised that everything was being swept away. I grabbed my younger daughter and ran out."

Along with Renuka, she waded across the flooded road to safety, holding her other daughter over her head.

Future worries

The sea has been Sri Lanka's treasure trove.

Chief monk Dunagama Gnanasiri Tissa
Tell me, if private aid can come through what is stopping government aid?
Dunagama Gnanasiri Tissa
chief monk

For the tens of thousands of fishermen living in the region, it offered huge stocks of tuna, lobster, crab and shrimps.

But in Renuka's village, Paranakada, as with all the others in the vicinity, nearly every boat has been destroyed.

The carcasses of broken boats litter Paranakada's tiny harbour.

Once, more than 100 boats were moored in its clear green waters. Now, a few bob gently in the water but their owners are too nervous about taking them out to sea in case they are damaged.

"Most of the boats simply vanished," says Chandrapala, another local fisherman.

"They sank or were swept away without a trace."

Most of the villagers are sheltering in the 200-year-old Buddhist Sri Somendra temple.

"We've lost everything. We don't have any home left," says P Chandrika, whose husband is also a fisherman.

Red Cross volunteers help the wounded
Red Cross volunteers have been helping wounded survivors
"Right now we're getting food and shelter in this place," she says looking around her. "But what about the future?"

Nearly 1,000 people have moved into the temple, where they are fed two meals a day.

Families huddle together, setting up temporary residence by marking out their space with clothes and a few personal belongings.

Red Cross volunteers clean and dress wounds and hand out medication.

And although government aid has started arriving in parts of Sri Lanka, none of it has arrived here.

All the food and clothes that have been sent to the temple have come in from private contributors and ordinary Sri Lankans from places such as the northern towns of Anuradhapura, Kandy and Ratnapur.

"Tell me, if private aid can come through what is stopping government aid?" asks the temple's chief monk, Dunagama Gnanasiri Tissa.

Debt burden

Sam Bandula is the senior police officer at Weligama.

"There are 12,000 fishermen in this area. All of them have been affected one way or the other," he says.

"There is a plan to send dry food rations to these people. But they have no way to cook. They have no fuel, no cooking stoves. There is no electricity."

I don't care what my husband does now. He'll just have to find other work. I'm not letting him get on to a boat
Chandrika, fisherman's wife
But police and government officials in Weligama are helpless - many of them have suffered themselves.

"My wife had a narrow escape," says Mr Bandula. "Some of my men were not so lucky."

They do not even have proper records of the missing because the police station was flooded.

That is of little comfort to 42-year-old Gamini, whose family lost five boats.

"Just one of my boats cost me 4.4m rupees ($42,000). Where am I going to get the money to buy a new one?" he says.

A wrecked boat
The force of the wave carried boats far inland
Many of the fishermen took out bank loans to pay for their boats. Now they are concerned not just about asking for a fresh loan but having to finish paying the old one.

Bankers say they will be responsive and accommodating.

Nawaz Rajabdeen, of Sri Lanka's Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, has travelled south to assess the damage.

He believes the government should create a rehabilitation fund for the fishermen.

"The money should not come out of a bank," he says. "The government can quite easily create a fund out of aid money."

It is a gesture that Weligama's fishermen are hoping to attract.

But Chandrika does not want her husband ever to go out to sea again.

"I don't care what he does," she says. "He'll just have to find other work. I'm not letting him get on to a boat."


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