Page last updated at 00:55 GMT, Sunday, 27 December 2009

Lost and found: Recovering from Sri Lanka's tsunami

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Hikkaduwa

Five years after the Indian Ocean tsunami many Sri Lankans still find the losses hard to bear - but with help from outside, some are picking up their livelihoods again.

Cinnamon oil
Sarath Kumara lost a lot in the tsunami, but his livelihood survived

On a plantation in the island's south-west, Sarath Kumara and his men harvest the cinnamon crop as the birds of the forest sing.

The slender trunks of the shrub will give spice. From the leaves they will extract oil for cooking, medicine and aromatherapy.

The rhythm of farming life seems timeless.

But the tsunami brought death to this village. Mr Kumara lost his brother and his cousin's wife. Fifty died in this village and 3,000 more in the nearby town.

His crop was devastated as the wave swept up a narrow lagoon from the sea 2km away.

"The water was black," he says.

"It rushed towards us like a river, bringing trees, uprooting all my cinnamon bushes, destroying my cinnamon oil shed.

"It was loud like a strong wind. All the fish in the river were poisoned and our land was flooded for four or five days."

Aid squabbles

Nearer the open sea another cinnamon farmer, Lionel Mohotti, faced similar problems, although mercifully his family were saved.

For a while his land was covered with a huge layer of slippery mud. That went, but much of the terrain remains saline and waterlogged. He plants new bushes but the soil is unyielding and a lot of the shrubs will not survive.

The tsunami hit as much as three-quarters of Sri Lanka's coast - 40,000 people were killed and countless homes and fishing boats were ruined.

Wijerathna Kombo and grandchild
If we get the money we'll build a two-storey house to make us safer
Wijerathna Kombo

In war-affected areas in the north and east some aid was administered by the then rebel group, the Tamil Tigers, and observers say some was diverted into weapons purchases.

In the more peaceful areas, foreign and local aid agencies were in competition to provide help. There were squabbles - and some aid still has not got through.

Wijerathna Kombo, living right on the coast, lost his wife in the disaster.

He was in a fishing boat when the tsunami hit and has never dared return to the fishing trade for fear his children might lose another parent - he has twin daughters, a son and two grandchildren.

He has had some compensation from the central government but still awaits more funds promised by an international charity and says it is the same for several neighbours.

"We are still leading a sad life after the tsunami," he says.

"If there is another tsunami we will definitely be affected by that as we still live in the same damaged house.

"If we get the money we'll build a two-storey house to make us safer."


Much of this part of Sri Lanka has recovered well, with rebuilding spurred by the strong local tourism industry.

But at points along this coast you still see the blackened shells of ruined buildings, like one next door to Mr Kombo.

Dried cinnamon leaves being processed
The cinnamon farmers have benefited from aid money

It is like intruding upon a grave, it seems no-one has entered in five years.

There is a foam mattress on the floor, some crumpled-up sarongs, a tin of cheese snacks, a cigarette packet - mundane household items.

The window has fallen in from its frame and is just lying on the floor.

People say four members of the household perished and the one survivor has mental problems.

Some measures have been taken to mitigate the effects of future disasters.

At a large Buddhist temple - a spot which was untouched, and to which thousands fled to safety - there is now a big mast containing a high-tech early warning system.

Rock embankments have been built along parts of the shoreline. Even especially protective shrubs are being encouraged to grow.

And money and expertise, both public and private, are also helping rebuild livelihoods - for instance, those of nearly 400 cinnamon farmers and their families.

'Rising living standards'

Back at Mr Kumara's, a fire crackles at his cinnamon oil distillation plant.

The facility was almost destroyed by the flood. Now it is once more in service, its furnace heating water whose steam extracts the oil from the cinnamon leaves.

A new house seen through a wrecked house
Ruins abandoned since the tsunami stand beside new houses

Aid money - from the Department of Export Agriculture and the Spanish Red Cross - has not just restored it, but also improved its technology so it now gives higher yields.

The smell of the wood smoke combined with the aroma of the burning cinnamon leaves is pungent and seems far removed from the terrible path of destruction carved by the tsunami.

The agriculture department's Chaminda Wimalarathna says post-tsunami aid has raised technology levels in farming in much of Sri Lanka.

"Most of the people now have organised really well. And they are using a technical way of cultivating their cinnamon lands," he says.

"The living standard dramatically came up."

Lionel Mohotti, the second farmer, is also benefitting.

The programme funds organic fertiliser to improve the unyielding soil. With other funds, he and his son have set up a cinnamon plant nursery.

And the cultivators have formed a new association to work together in marketing the crop and minimising price fluctuation.

For those who remain jobless after the tsunami, like the many fishermen too traumatised to return to the water, things remain difficult.

Others are luckier, like the farmers that have had targeted aid. They have been able to go back to what they used to do.

Mr Kumara is trying to move on.

"We can't recover our lost lives. But everything else is restored," he says, as he stuffs the dried leaves into a barrel to make more cinnamon oil.

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