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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January, 2005, 00:24 GMT
Tsunami fishermen begin to set sail

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Beruwala, Sri Lanka

Landing fish in Beruwala
Some 2,500 people in Beruwala depend on the harbour
It is late in the evening at Beruwala's tsunami-ravaged harbour but Nirmal Fernando is hard at work.

He is loading ice into the container of a big fishing boat so it can sail out next morning.

Just outside the harbour, massive cranes are still moving boats that December's tsunami tossed from the sea into ditches, canals and roads.

But inside the devastated harbour Fernando, an ice supplier, says he is back in business already.

"We just carried out some minor repairs on the boat and we are set to go out to sea. Life has to go on," says Fernando.

No insurance

As he speaks, a fishing boat stacked with tuna pulls up into the harbour after two days at sea.

Harbour official DMKB Dissanayake
The boat owners look for an auspicious time in the almanacs and sail out
DMKB Dissanayake,
harbour official

About 500 shipping boats, including 370 registered ones, used to dock at Beruwala, 40km (25 miles) south of Colombo, before the tsunami hit.

Now more than 150 lie damaged and scattered around, 40 of them almost beyond repair. None was insured.

The harbour's once-bustling fish auction hall, office building and the critical fuel station have been damaged too.

But two weeks after the tragedy, 140 boats with minor damage are already seaworthy and sailing out, says harbour official DMKB Dissanayake.

"There are fishing boats leaving for Madras in India too from this harbour. The boat owners look for an auspicious time in the almanacs and sail out," he says.

Lucrative

Some 2,500 people in Beruwala depend on the harbour for their livelihood - boat owners, fishermen, ice suppliers, workmen, fish sellers.

Beached boat in Beruwala
More than 150 boats lie damaged here - 40 almost beyond repair

Fishermen typically get half of the money raised after the catch is auctioned off - after the boat owners deduct expenses such as fuel and food for the voyage.

Fishermen here mostly bring back tuna and shark fin, which have a lucrative export market.

Beruwala is evidently serious about its fishing tradition: a painting by children on a local school wall shows foreigners negotiating prices with a fish seller on the beach.

The letters WTO (World Trade Organisation) in the painting extol the virtues of free trade, which residents hope will bring more business to the town.

But this is the darkest hour for business, with damaged boats, out-of-work fishermen and unfounded rumours about contaminated fish which have affected domestic consumption.

Loans

Outside the harbour on the main road south to Galle, cranes pull huge boats from the busy main road.

The scene brings tears to the eyes of BD Amalranjanuthala, a local boat owner.

He says he lost two of his three boats in the tsunami - one bought barely two years ago on a 4.5m rupee ($45,800) bank loan.

Only half of the loan has been settled and Amalranjanuthala has no clue how he is going to pay the rest.

"I have no boat, my home is gone, my 18-month nephew is still missing. I am staying with relatives. My mind isn't working any more," he says.

The plight of the fishermen is possibly worse.

They while away their time sitting by the sea, repairing their nets and speculating about when they will be called again to resume fishing.

Fishermen in Beruwala
Fishermen while away time waiting for boats to become seaworthy

"We are dependent totally on the boat owners. Only when they get back their boats can we go out fishing," says fisherman AS Manjuladishanth.

"How much time can you spend in the crowded relief camps? So we come here to chat a bit and spend our time."

Fishermen here reckon it will take at least four months for them to get back to sea.

Till then, it is a desperate life for these men and their families.

Already, their women and children have begun lining up on the road to Galle to beg for alms, clothes, anything.

Cars and vans carrying tourists and locals stop briefly to distribute money, clothes or food.

Harbour official Mr Dissanayake says the boatmen will all be compensated by the government after a survey of the damage.

But the process does not seem to have started - boat owner Mr Manjuladishanth says he has not filled out any forms yet.

"Give me a boat, any boat, I will make sure it goes out into the ocean straight away," he says.

"Remember, 35 people, including fishermen, work for me alone. It's a question of a lot of people's lives."


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