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"Look, the sea is coming towards us"

Anthonipillai Ahathammah holds a picture of her dead children

(swissinfo.ch)

Anthonipillai Ahathammah recounts what happened to her and her family when the tsunami hit her fishing village in northern Sri Lanka last December.

The 68-year-old Tamil widow lost her daughter Arulranjini Pasiltha in the wave, as well as her house and most of her belongings. She currently lives in the Thallaiyadi transit camp in a temporary shelter.

"I was in the front of the house, washing up the kitchen utensils. Then my daughter ran in and said, 'Mum, look the sea is coming towards us'. It was as high as a palm tree.

I told my daughter to take our jewels. She hurried but water came into the house, she said she didn't know what to do and that there wasn't enough time to get the valuables.

I grabbed a bag, water kept coming into the house and I was holding onto the window. The water was very strong and was coming up to my face and I was struggling to breathe. I thought how long will I be alive, the house was sinking into the water. The water carried the house away. I don't really know what happened but I was taken along and swept into the bushes.

Sandbank

I ended up on a sandbank about 200 metres from the house. I was still carrying the bag, but all my clothes had been swept away. Then the water went back to the sea. I walked back with the water and found some clothes at the next house.

My daughter was also washed away. She died. She was 34 and unmarried. My neighbours didn't tell me at first but they found the body in the bushes. She was my eldest daughter. I have eight children in all.

One of my sons died in the conflict after the plane he was in was shot down. The youngest son is abroad and sends money from Italy. Three other daughters are married and live here. I have another son in Italy and one in London, but it's not so easy for him to send money as he has a family.

I don't feel I could go back to my own place, it's all flat and there's no house. This [shelter] is better, I repaired it myself. Now they will build a permanent house, so it's ok. I'd like to move in as soon as it is possible, but the land is not yet ready.

We have received enough help [in the transit camp] in getting household things, clothing, everything. All my relatives live in the camp together. The school and community hall have been built, so people see that.

Frightened

We lived in a fishing village but now not all fishermen have returned to the sea. Some say they are still frightened of the sea after the tsunami. They also have the feeling the sea has come a bit closer.

We have community meetings to talk about reconstruction. Forums from each village gather on certain days and talk. I also participate.

I didn't own my land. I was given it by the government after the 1964 cyclone and we built small houses. I live on my own but three grandchildren come and sleep here at night, so I am not lonely."

swissinfo-interview: Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Thallaiyadi, Sri Lanka

Key facts

The Tamil-controlled north of Sri Lanka was hard hit by the December 26, 2004 tsunami. Half of the at least 30,000 deaths from the wave occurred there.
The Thallaiyadi transit camp is one of four built by the NGO Solidar, which includes the charity, Swiss Labour Assistance.
The camp has 55 shelters, 40 toilets, one pre-school and one community hall. It also has power generators and electricity.

end of infobox

In brief

Swiss Labour Assistance is helping to rebuild the region, including houses, kindergartens and community halls.

It expects to be working in the area for at least another 2-3 years.

The affected community is involved in all aspects of the rebuilding programme and the NGO is aiming for sustainable development.

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