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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 January, 2005, 16:43 GMT
Divers who survived tsunami

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Kirinda, southern Sri Lanka

Kirinda village
All along the coast, idyllic villages have been destroyed

On that fateful Sunday morning, J Najib looked up at the darkening sky and decided not to go diving in the deep sea off the beach of Kirinda in southern Sri Lanka.

Najib, who dives up to 120 ft (36.576 metres) into the ocean to hunt for his country's famous sea shells for a living, stays away on overcast mornings because there is not enough light to guide him down to and from the ocean floor.

So he settled down to a quiet, lazy day when the killer waves struck his village, Kirinda, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka.

"The sea rushed in, swallowed our homes and many of our people. It was all over in a couple of minutes. I ran out of the house, braved the strong current and fled down the main street," he says.

More than 100 people died in Kirinda, and most houses were razed to the sand.

But all the 175 deep sea divers of Kirinda - who like Najib make their living by finding shells from the ocean floor - survived the savage sea.

Most of them lost their diving equipment and their homes, but these strong men managed to wade through the currents and run to high ground to escape the rampaging waters.

No compensation

When Najib returned to the beachfront village a few hours later, he saw dead bodies and debris on the mud-slicked streets.

Such killer waves we have never heard of or seen before the tsunami hit us
Shiafdeen, Sri Lankan diver

His home was just a flattened bed of concrete. His newly purchased jeep had been washed away, as had his expensive diving gear.

Like others in his village, he had no insurance and is unlikely to receive any sort of compensation.

Najib and his hardy young diver friends are no strangers to danger.

Deep sea diving is fraught with risks and many of them suffer from blackouts while looking for shells on the ocean floor.

Then there are star fishes who, as the divers say, give them an "electric current-like shock" if they brush past you, and other "beautiful fish" which can sting and shock.

"But such killer waves we have never heard of or seen before the tsunami hit us," says diver Shiafdeen, 24.

Deep sea divers work for four months a year - November to February - and earn anything between $300 to $500 a month - good money, by Sri Lankan standards.

During the diving season Najib and his colleagues also take foreign tourists deep sea diving off Kirinda and charge them $100 per dive.

Diver J Najib beside his destroyed home
Many divers will not be compensated for their losses

At other times of the year, they earn a living by fishing in the ocean.

With their fairly rudimentary diving gear - breathing apparatus, diver boots, metal helmets - the divers of Kirinda braved the sea and lived off its riches.

Like AS Aslam, 24, son of a trader, who began diving five years ago because it earned him good money.

"In the morning we got hit by the tsunami I was taking out my equipment to go into the sea even though the light was not very good.

"And then I heard people running and shouting with the waters chasing them," he says.

Home disappeared

Aslam was lucky - his diving gear and home escaped the wrath of the water because he lived a little more inland than his friends.

Another diver, 30-year-old S Abdeen, was preparing to go diving that morning when he saw the waters rush in.

He jumped on to a passing jeep and drove off. When he came back, he also found that his home and gear had disappeared.

Sitting in his home in a higher part of the village, another diver, 24-years-old Shiafdeen, proudly shows his pickings from the sea.

Ship washed up on Sri Lankan coast
The tsunami carried ships hundreds of metres inland

He brings out shells of all sizes and colours which find their way to foreign markets to make bangles, jewellery, or simply ornament pieces.

"The tragedy is that most of us had stocks at home which got washed away. We sometimes stock the stuff, waiting for prices to rise and sell," he says.

"I really don't know how we became the target of the wrath of the sea.

'Warning to humans'

Nestling around lush green rainforests and quaint fishing villages, the village beach is an unusual landscape of mellow waves, huge rocks with 'I love you' graffiti, and colourful fishing boats.

Today, this once idyllic village of divers and fishermen has almost ceased to exist. Soldiers barricade the ruins to possibly prevent looting.

"Maybe the sea was testing us people," mumbles Aslam. Najib turns philosophical looking into the calm waters on a Sunday morning two weeks after the tragedy.

Diver AS Aslam with a sea shell
Deep sea shell divers lead a life fraught with risk

"Look, it is so calm now. Maybe that morning the sea gave us a warning. It was a warning to human beings to behave properly and be honest," he says.

Though some of the parents of these first generation divers are telling their sons to keep off from going down into the sea, the men are not listening.

"We earn well by diving. Why should we give it up? We are ready to go into the deep sea again," says Najib.

But it is not going to be easy.

The divers usually hire boats, but with over 150 destroyed in the small fishing harbour, and most of their kit washed away, the future of the Sri Lankan sea shell industry looks bleak.

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