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Tsunami Aftermath: Here comes the light
Sri Lanka - At the Beach Hut in Arugam Bay things are moving ahead.
Eventually the fog began to lift. A friend visiting from Colombo provided Ranga with a mobile phone and a small loan. Other contributions trickled in from former guests, a Briton, a couple of Australian surfers, a young man from Brooklyn who had visited several years before with his father.
Copyright THE WASHINGTON POST / The Standard.
John Lancaster

Here comes the light

Weekend: May 7-8, 2005

Ranga Krishnarajan, who ran his own guesthouse in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, and who lost nearly everything in the tsunami, cooks dinner in his makeshift kitchen

Four months after the tsunami, Ranga Krishnarajan is not entirely back on his feet. But at least he's back in the kitchen.

A gentle, soft-spoken man whose shy smile is partly hidden by an unruly beard, Krishnarajan barely escaped with his life when the ocean rolled inland last December 26, smashing his thatch-roofed guest huts and restaurant and with them his primary means of supporting his wife and nine-year-old daughter in Sri Lanka.

But Krishnarajan, 41, is no longer the destitute and desperate man he was in the first weeks after the tsunami. With help from an aid group and friends - including loyal foreign customers - he has built and equipped a makeshift kitchen under the eaves of his damaged home. There, surrounded by salvaged cutting boards and utensils, he is once again finding satisfaction, income and therapeutic benefit in the preparation of seafood dishes such as grilled lobster and barracuda marinated in garlic and lemon.

While most of his customers these days are aid workers, he also caters to the surfers and backpackers who once sustained his business and have started to come back, albeit in small numbers. Although his life is far from settled - his wife and daughter remain so traumatized they have refused to return home - Krishnarajan has finished work on three new cabanas and officially reopened for business last month.

"I like to be very busy,'' said Krishnarajan, who still bursts into tears at unexpected moments and is dogged by guilt over the drowning of a young girl who was staying at his home when the tsunami struck. "I don't like to think about anything.''

His prescription for putting the tsunami behind him - hard work and lots of it - has been adopted by many survivors in Arugam Bay, a once-picturesque fishing and tourist community of nearly 4,000 on the heavily damaged southeastern coast, about 220 kilometers east of Colombo, the capital.

Despite massive destruction and an overtaxed government bureaucracy, which has yet to deliver on many promises, the area is gradually recovering its economic pulse.

Local entrepreneurs are working with a US-based aid group, Mercy Corps, which eschews costly construction projects in favor of more modest initiatives aimed at restoring incomes and morale.
A visitor returning to Arugam Bay after an absence of nearly two months found it significantly improved. The beach and adjacent areas have been largely cleared of rubble, the main street is lined with simple open-air rest-aurants, and businesses are festooned with colored lights distributed by Mercy Corps with the aim of lifting spirits.

The aid group has also provided hotel and hostel owners with tents to serve as guestrooms until permanent ones can be rebuilt.

Because it attracts tourists, Arugam Bay has a leg up on many other ravaged communities, which lack its entre-preneurial spirit and relatively sophisticated business class. The area has been an especially attractive destination in the three years since the government signed a ceasefire with ethnic Tamil rebels who still maintain an active presence in the area.

But even here, a full recovery is a long way off. As in other areas in Sri Lanka, many families are still camped out in scrubland refugee camps because of bureaucratic inertia and confusion, especially concerning new land-use rules meant to discourage people from living near the sea. The delays have blocked construction of permanent housing.

A similar paralysis has afflicted the local fishing industry, which lost the use of 438 vessels out of a fleet of 450, according to an inventory by Mercy Corps. Only about 15 percent of the fleet has been restored. The government initially pledged to replace lost fishing boats but has since turned over the job to aid groups and private donors, who are struggling to coordinate the massive effort, aid workers say.

Still, there are bright spots, and Krishnarajan is surely one of them.

Even before the tsunami, experience had bred a certain resilience in Krish-narajan, a schoolteacher's son and member of the Tamil minority who grew up in the Tamil-dominated north. Like many young men of his generation, Krishnarajan flirted with the Tamil separatist cause and got caught up in the fighting that erupted between rebels and Sri Lankan government forces in 1983.

The same year, he was detained by two government soldiers, one of whom sat on his thigh while the other yanked his lower leg sharply to the side, breaking his knee "in a very technical way,'' said Krishnarajan, who still bears the scars from two operations to repair the damage.

By 1988, after two stints in India as a refugee, Krishnarajan had soured on the separatist movement and was determined to put the war behind him.

With the north still engulfed in fighting, he made his way south to Arugam Bay, an idyllic place with leaning coconut palms and sparkling waters whose mostly Muslim population had largely stayed out of the violence. Krishnarajan, like most Sri Lankan Tamils, is a Hindu.

At the time, Arugam Bay's nascent tourist industry catered mainly to vagabond surfers in search of the perfect wave; Krishnarajan found work as the caretaker of a small guesthouse whose owner had fled the country because of the war. His surfer clientele taught him to speak English and also how to cook, skills he later put to use when he opened his own business, the Beach Hut, in 1995. Along the way, he met and married his wife, Jayanthini, a schoolteacher and Tamil Christian from up the coast.

The Beach Hut prospered, particularly after the ceasefire. It grew to include 16 rooms, a garden restaurant and an Internet cafe. Krishnarajan lived with his wife and daughter, Lakshanya, in a four-room house next door.

On the morning of the tsunami, the Beach Hut was filled with Europeans, Israelis, Americans and a handful of Sri Lankans. The Krishnarajans also had a houseguest, Vinoo Jahanadan, 11, the daughter of close family friends, who came to stay with them every Christmas.

Krishnarajan was in the kitchen when he first heard the screams and shouted warnings. He thought little of the commotion, he said, until "my feet got wet.'' He ran into the street and was quickly overtaken by the surging water, which slammed him against a wall, stripped off his clothing and carried him inland for several hundred yards before he was finally able to grab a coconut palm.

His wife and daughter, who had been outside, were swept across the street and into the public library, which filled with water almost to the ceiling.

They escaped through a window. Vinoo was not so lucky. She tried to cling to one of Krishnarajan's employees, but lost her grip and was carried away, never to be seen again. Several other guests also died, including an eight-year-old American boy.

Krishnarajan spent three days searching for Vinoo's body before traveling up the coast to inform her parents. Even though they hadn't said so directly, he said, they made it clear they held him responsible for her death, adding to his burden of guilt.

The next three weeks passed in a fog of confusion and despair. "I'm not doing anything,'' he recalled in his broken but serviceable English. "Just walk around. I don't have a shower. I don't change clothes.''

But eventually the fog began to lift. A friend visiting from Colombo provided him with a mobile phone and a small loan. Other contributions trickled in from former guests, a Briton, a couple of Australian surfers, a young man from Brooklyn who had visited several years before with his father.

Meanwhile, Mercy Corps provided him with a wheelbarrow and a shovel so he could begin removing rubble, as well as a portable generator and a refrigerator. With the help of the loans and his modest savings, he hired laborers and completed the first of his cabanas in February. He plans to reopen his restaurant next month, although for now, he is happy to serve meals on makeshift wooden tables by the beach.

Krishnarajan's emotional recovery has been somewhat slower. One night last month, at a celebration to mark the Beach Hut's reopening, someone asked him to give a speech. He was overcome with emotion and couldn't summon any words. Speaking of Vinoo the other day, his shoulders started to shake, and tears coursed down his cheeks.

Being around people, he said, makes him "nervous.'' The only antidote is to stay busy.

Also unresolved is his future with his wife and daughter, who are living in a rented house across a bridge in neighboring Pottuvil, where the damage was less severe. They visit once a week. Last month, Krishnarajan had almost persuaded them to move back home. But they dropped the idea after another tsunami scare and a panicked evacuation triggered by an earthquake in Indonesia, where the first tsunami originated.

"When we pass the bridge and come to this side, there is fear,'' said Jayanthini, 37, a handsome woman with long dark hair and a flawless smile. "Even when you come you feel like leaving right away.''

At the Beach Hut, though, things are moving ahead.

Recently, a bare-chested Krish-narajan, clad in his trademark plaid sarong, prepared a lavish fish barbecue for a handful of foreign guests. To the accompaniment of hand drums, the meal was hauled by oxcart to the beach, where Krishnarajan poured himself a glass of arrack - a potent local liquor - and circulated easily among his customers, just like the old days. It was a clear night and the moon lit a silvery path on the sea. There were sounds of laughter and gentle surf.

For a moment, it was almost as if the tsunami had never happened.


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