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Two years on, tsunami victims rebuild their lives
A Ganesh Nadar in Kanyakumari
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December 27, 2006

The second anniversary of the tsunami tragedy was marked by silent processions, floral tributes and candlelight vigils in memory of the victims in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. Kanyakumari was the second most affected district in the state after Nagapattinam.

Eight hundred and one people died in Kanyakumari on December 26, 2004, when tsunami waves lashed the coast. The beach in Colachel was quiet. As a mark of respect to the dead, fishermen had not gone out to sea.

Those who had lost members of their family sat quiet, obviously in pain. They attended the special prayers at the local church, placed flowers and candles on the memorials and wept silently.

On the beach, two old fishermen were sitting in the shade of a vallam (fibre boat). Fifty-year-old Lopez Eklas said a wall had collapsed on his house during the tsunami but he was lucky as his family escaped. He lost his catamaran in the tsunami. He bought another one with the compensation of Rs 10,000 that the government gave him.

For six to seven months they had been scared to go to sea but after that they had overcome their fears. "Even today the fear is there at the back of our mind, but now we are used to it. We go regularly."

He has five children. Two are studying, while one of his sons goes fishing with him. He says he catches enough fish to feed his family, but there is no profit and hence no savings.

Anthony Pillai is 67 years old. His house is the first on the beach, and was the first one to be struck by the tsunami. "I was at sea at that time. There was no effect there. When I came back and saw the destruction I realised how lucky I was as my family had survived. Others were not so lucky."

He has four daughters and a son. His son is also involved in fishing. "I am entitled to a house, but I refused the government offer. I want to stay on the beach. The government repaired my house."

He too lost his catamaran and got compensation of Rs 5,000. He did not use the money to buy another catamaran. "I go fishing on other boats. We do not get a salary, we get a share of the catch. Sometimes we get Rs 25 to 50 and on a rare day we can get Rs 100."

For four months after the tsunami the government and NGOs fed them. After that he started working.

On the beach there are still people living in temporary shelters as their permanent houses have not been completed. Emilie Jelustin lives in one of these shelters.

She is an old lady and mother to nine children. One of her kids died seven months back. "Five are married and gone, now I am living with two kids, a boy and a girl, my husband is no more."

In the tsunami she lost everything that was in her house, including her jewels. She says "We are lucky we escaped, memories of that day are still fresh in my mind. There were corpses everywhere."

As she lost her house the government has sanctioned a house for her. "We will get it soon."  Her son-in-law who lives nearby looks after her family. He too earns his livelihood by fishing.

Sudha Anthony has a house on the beach. Her house survived. "I was carried away by the waves, but luckily a man saved me," she says with a shy smile. She is married and has two small kids. She has no plans to shift from the beach. The waves had carried away her door and windows. The government replaced both.

A mile away from the beach, 329 permanent houses are nearing completion. The supervisor there, D Gladstone, said, "The construction work is over, only carpentry work is left. We will complete it by February."

Construction was delayed here because in the beginning the administration could not find land. Finally they decided on a salt pan. More than 40,000 loads of sand gravel mix was dumped in the area to strengthen it. Construction was started only after qualified engineers under the guidance of Professor Shanta Kumar declared it safe.

District Collector Sunil Paliwal was transferred here in the aftermath of the tsunami. He says, "Given the circumstances, I am satisfied with what we have done."

In this district, out of 2,578 houses sanctioned for tsunami victims, 2,101 houses have been completed. Out of this 2000 have been handed over. 101 houses will be handed over on January 3.

Moreover, 825 houses are being built for those that were within 40 feet from the high tide line. Four hundred have been completed and handed over, 142 are ready and 38 will be handed over on January 3.

For all these the government provided the land and NGOs built the houses. There are also another 1,900 houses being constructed for joint families and homeless families. In this case both the land and houses are being provided by NGOs.

The Special Tsunami [Images] Orphanages have now been integrated with the regular government orphanage. A new building for this purpose is being constructed at a cost of Rs 45 lakhs.

Chinnamuttom harbour which suffered extensive damage, has been repaired and is now functioning. New fishing harbours have been sanctioned at Thengapattinam and Colachel.

St Mary's School in Colachel was one of the places which functioned as a temporary relief center after the tsunami. Today a huge crowd assembled here to take out a procession to the beach in memory of the victims.

James Hospital here was in the forefront of looking after the injured during the tsunami. Their services have been widely acclaimed. Today they had a function in memory of the victims. A few fishermen were given nets, a few were given boats and some girls and young women were given sewing machines.

At this function, the Bishop of the Kanyakumari Diocese Reverend Devakadasham lit a candle in memory of the victims. There was a placard near the candle. It said: 'We have not forgotten, we cannot forget.'

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