SMILING AGAIN: S Pushparanee, a Sri Lankan widow with eight children, inside her CARE Australia-built transitional home.
SMILING AGAIN: S Pushparanee, a Sri Lankan widow with eight children, inside her CARE Australia-built transitional home.

Ray of hope for Tsunami victims

Six months after the devastating tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing 38,000 people and leaving almost a million people homeless, there are glimpses of hope. And thanks to more than $1.27 million donated by APN newspaper readers, including well over $100,000 from readers of The Northern Star, hundreds of homes are being built, food and water is being distributed, and roads and community facilities are being constructed. APN reporter MARK FURLER and photographer Kevin Farmer spent the past week in Sri Lanka, visiting new villages being built by CARE, the main beneficiary of APN's appeal. This is their story.

TO an outsider surveying the rubble that remains in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka, it would be easy to say not enough has been done in the past six months.

But after travelling hundreds of kilometres and visiting refugee camps and villages up and down the coastline of this teardrop-shaped nation, we have seen plenty of which Australians should feel proud.

In the past six months, CARE has helped 32,818 families in Sri Lanka ? about 130,000 people. They have distributed thousands of packages of food and clothing and millions of litres of water.

Hundreds of transitional shelters, temporary toilets and wells have been constructed, as well as roads, community centres and medical facilities.

But one of the most impressive aspects of CARE's work has been its focus on ensuring Sri Lankans help themselves to rebuild their lives. Cash-for- work programs have seen people paid to clean-up the rubble in their own neighbourhoods or help build their own transitional home.

Others have been given up to 15,000 rupees (just over $200) to buy materials to set up their own businesses, whether it be the village shop, hair salon, bicycle repair business or basket-weaving enterprise.

Fishermen have been given boats and outboard motors, while hundreds of radios and batteries have been distributed to keep people informed, entertained, and help rebuild a sense of community and belonging.

CARE has a five-year strategy in place to help Sri Lankans rebuild their own lives and it recently signed an agreement to construct 6500 permanent houses over three years in seven districts.

Another major challenge is the lack of co-ordination among relief groups themselves. There are about 160 different groups from all over the world registered with the government to help in Sri Lanka, but the real number could be in the hundreds.

Some smaller groups have come in, promised the world and delivered little before leaving, leaving victims feeling betrayed and angry.

Security is another looming issue. At least 40 people have been killed in politically related or motivated incidents between February and April.

In Trincomalee in the conflict plagued east, we travelled through roads bordered by landmine country, through many military and police checkpoints to visit an area where CARE has built more than 400 transitional homes.

In Sri Lanka it costs less than $1000 for a home to be built and water supply restored. The 400 homes we visited in three separate settlements took about three months to construct. The homes were handed over just before we arrived amid much relief for people who had been living in tents down the road for six months.

The transitional homes are primitive by Australian standards but in many cases are better than what people in the poorer parts of Sri Lanka were living in before.

Timber frames combine with besser blocks, mud, concrete floors and tin roofs to provide a two-room home, the largest of which is about three metres by three metres. Widow S. Pushparanee, a mother of eight, said she liked her new home while her son, a fisherman who lost his boat, had been given cash by CARE to buy nets to rebuild his livelihood.

The widow, whose husband died of a heart attack before the tsunami, said she would like to return to where her old home had been, but the government would not allow it because it was too close to the sea.

Just down the road another widow, Kalavathy, has been given about $50 to buy cooking equipment and food items to start her own pastry business. She sells her items at the school canteen and in the village, making about 4000 rupees ($55) a month.

Father of 11 Nallathamy, who is 80, does the village's laundry, ironing uniforms for the schoolchildren and the army, with the most basic of irons bought with cash from CARE. In each village there is normally four shops, some private, some funded by CARE as a livelihood initiative, and a community centre. There also numerous wells, toilets and a place to wash clothes. There is usually a market, while one of the bigger villages had a barber, a bicycle repair shop, and basket-weaving business all funded by CARE.

CARE has also ordered new fibreglass boats and outboard motors to kickstart the fishing industry in a community where 68 people died and fishermen were carried one kilometre inland in their boats by the tsunami.

The distribution of hundreds of radios has allowed people to keep up with the news of tsunami relief efforts while they also have greater confidence of being forewarned of another tsunami.

Even just having their own music is a big thing for many. "They forget all their cares when the music is on," one CARE project officer said.

But talk to CARE project workers in the field, as we did over several days, you get an idea of the many obstacles in the way. In many cases, it can take two months to get land clearances before construction can take place.

There is already significant tension created by the fact that victims of the tsunami are being given new homes, food and cash just months after the tsunami while victims of the horrific Tamil conflicts are still waiting for help which was promised years ago.

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