Then & Now

19:41, Oct 12 2012
HAMILTON'S GIFT:  Sellahandi Priyantha’s house now.
HAMILTON'S GIFT: Sellahandi Priyantha’s house now.

Having first reported from Sri Lanka in 2005, Nicola Brennan-Tupara revisited to see how it was recovering after years of civil war and the Boxing Day tsunami. In her first of a series of articles from that country, she tells the story of Seenigama, which felt the full force of the 2004 tsunami. The villagers still remember the Kiwis who helped them rebuild. 

Sellahandi Priyantha rushes to get a stack of photos - carefully laminated so they will stand the test of time. Among the pile are two that show how much the December 26, 2004, tsunami took from his small village on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka.

Standing next to a pile of debris, Priyantha looks solemnly at what once used to be his family home.

HAPPIER DAYS: Ruwan Kumarasiri
HAPPIER DAYS: Ruwan Kumarasiri and daughter Nethumi relax on the front porch of the house built by Operation Phoenix.

It was just a pile of rubble and, at the time, Priyantha thought that was it for his life in Seenigama.

"We thought we would have to relocate, that the government would move us far from here."

But then the Kiwis arrived.


Foundation for Goodness sports management director Aruna De Silva
Foundation for Goodness sports management director Aruna De Silva with their sporting wall of honour.

Lead by Hamilton city councillor Ewan Wilson, a 15-person team, mostly from around the Waikato, arrived just over a week after the tsunami to help villagers such as Priyantha rebuild. They called it Operation Phoenix.

Priyantha says the villagers were scared at first to rebuild so close to the ocean, fearing another tsunami.

So Priyantha volunteered to be the first cab off the rank, allowing Wilson and his team to build on the only part of his house he had left - the slab.

Others soon followed and by the end of the project, the team had rebuilt or repaired 49 houses, thanks to the $200,000 or so donated by Waikato businesses and people.

Priyantha is proud his house was the first to be completed.

A huge smile comes across his face when a photo of the completion ceremony turns up in the pile of photos. In it, Mr Wilson cuts a ribbon to declare it finished.

"I just want to say thank you to the New Zealanders. They gave us the chance to live in our village again," he says. Seven people now live in the home, including his four sons, aged 22, 18, 13 and 9.

"We are really happy with the house."

They have done a few improvements, but the structure hasn't changed much since the photo. The living room is filled with possessions they have accumulated during the past seven years, after losing everything but the tiles on their floor.

Seenigama has been the poster child for tsunami recovery in Sri Lanka thanks to the Foundation for Goodness, where Priyantha works as head of security.

Founded in 1999 by Kushil Gunasekara to uplift his ancestral home town, the organisation has worked to rebuild the lives of those in the village and surrounding areas.

Gunasekara was there the day the tsunami struck, waiting for his best friend, the famous Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan, to arrive.

He saw the giant waves destroy everything in their path.

He swore then he would do everything in his power get the village up and running again.

Through the Foundation's Centre for Excellence, one of the few remaining buildings, and from Gunasekara's family home, he and his team have managed to train some 883 villagers in livelihood development, IT and business.

They have also set up a medical and dental clinic and have provided a counselling service.

It's a place full of activity, but how the centre came about is ever present.

Above a high arched doorway - about four metres high - is a muddy mark.

The inscription, "Tsunami water mark - 26:12:2004" towers over even the tallest people.

Four bodies were found floating in the pool just behind the door.

A hundred or so metres up the road is the sport complex - a thriving centre for children. Several from there have gone on to represent sports at the national level.

Sports management director Aruna De Silva proudly shows off the abundance of trophies the children have achieved.

One of their most outstanding students, Ashan Tharanga, now plays for the national under-19 cricket team. His mother died in the tsunami not long after his father, a fisherman, went out to sea and never returned. The 11-year-old orphan's future wasn't looking too bright.

But his skills on the cricket pitch were soon noticed by the foundation, which helped him foster his talent and make the national team.

Last year, the centre added a gym to its facilities, which include a cricket field, netball and volleyball courts and a swimming pool funded by Canadian musician Bryan Adams.

A huge sign with his name on it hangs above the pool - he auctioned his guitars to fund the project. While he has never visited the site, he is sent photos.

So while the tsunami took so much, including 200 lives, the villagers say life in Seenigama is much better now.

Young women crowd the street, walking home after studying at the centre.

They have just learnt how to bake a cake - a skill that might one day allow them to set up their own business.

But the day that shattered all their lives is never far from their minds.

Ruwan Kumarasiri, who also lives in a house rebuilt by Operation Phoenix, returned from working in Dubai early this year after a tsunami scare.

After two years of working abroad, he feared losing his wife and 2-year-old daughter, so came home.

A few weeks ago, they had another scare. There were rumours that a tsunami was coming. Many people panicked, ran home, packed their bags and got ready to flee.

Ruwan called his brother, a local policeman, who said there was no threat.

"So people are still very scared."

Despite that, Ruwan says their lives have improved a lot since the tsunami.

He lost one brother in the massive wave, but his other siblings are doing well with good jobs.

All seven remaining family members live in the house built by the Kiwis.

He remembers them fondly, especially Wilson.

He was always rushing around the place organising everything, Ruwan says.

The team built them an amazing house, much bigger than the one they had before.

"They did a very good job. They are the reason we were able to stay here.

"Because of their help, we didn't have to move from our ancestors' home. We wouldn't have been able to rebuild so quickly without their help."

He loves living in Seenigama, now more than ever.

The community has become much closer and stronger since the wave, and much more prosperous.

"It has developed a lot more, which is a very good thing."

Before the tsunami, the people of Seenigama used to dive for coral, which they would crush and sell to be used in plaster for houses.

Children would skip school and go diving to make some money, so there was no incentive to stay in class.

The destruction of the reefs around the village compounded the tsunami's impact on the village. Now, they realise the impact and have stopped.

People in the village have been trained as divers to show tourists the redeveloped coral reefs.

Many of them have gone on to get jobs as lifeguards in Dubai and now the children stay in school.

As he lifts his daughter Nethumi into his lap, Ruwan begins to smile.

While the tsunami took so much from his family, he realises he was one of the lucky ones.

He lived in a resilient village which, with the help of donors from all over the world, has managed to overcome devastation.

As he waves goodbye to the Times , he has one last word to say: "Thank you".

Hamilton makes a difference

In January 2005, Hamilton city councillor Ewan Wilson and trans-Atlantic rower Rob Hamill boarded a plane bound for Sri Lanka.

They took with them clothing, water purifying equipment and enough antibiotics to treat 1000 people.

What they found when they reached the country's southern villages was nothing short of jaw-dropping.

The tsunami engendered by a massive quake off the coast of Sumatra killed 200 Seenigama villagers and derailed a train nearby, killing around 1000 more.

It flattened thousands of houses.

Fishing boats moored 400m offshore were swept up on the road.

In Galle, beds lodged in trees told the story of patients who didn't have a chance.

All told, around 35,000 Sri Lankans were killed. A further 100,000 were displaced.

The country was the second worst hit, following Indonesia, where around 167,000 were killed.

While international attention focused on Thailand, Mr Wilson realised the desperation in Sri Lanka and set about getting Waikato builders on board to help rebuild Seenigama.

Within three weeks of arriving, they'd built two factories, two school shelters, three toilets and some shower blocks, plus had repaired dozens of houses.

By the time they packed up their tool belts and left, Operation Phoenix had rebuilt 47 partially damaged houses, built 10 new houses in Seenigama and 10 in the city of Batticoloa and rebuilt a small factory, medical clinic, and toilet blocks.

They also bought a van to convert into an ambulance and cleaned many water wells . . . and raised more than $200,000.

Nicola Brennan-Tupara's trip to Sri Lanka was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Waikato Times