Sri Lankans Rebuild Lives Swept Away in Tsunami

Every morning and evening, Velmurugu Kangasuriyam gathers his 2 1/2 year-old daughter and his wife and confronts the wreckage of his former life.

His wife, Thaya, lights an oil lamp on the mantle of a dark, bare concrete room. Kangasuriyam presses his hands together and closes his eyes. Little Theresa follows in imitation. For a long minute his new family stands in silent prayer.

Thaya places orange flowers in front of pictures of Hindu gods. She lays several more before a picture of Kangasuriyam's parents.

The last flowers sit in front of a photo of a woman in a striking red bridal sari: Devi, who was Kangasuriyam's wife for just 10 months before she died, along with his parents, three of his sisters and a brother, four years ago Friday.

The tsunami that crashed over south Asia on Dec. 26, 2004 and killed 230,000 people washed away nearly everything Kangasuriyam held dear. Sixteen close relatives were killed. His seaside village was razed, his house demolished, his business destroyed.

Four years later, with international aid and prodding from his remaining family, the 30-year-old has rebuilt his life. He has a new family. He has a bigger house in a resettlement village set back from the ocean.

He opened a new bicycle repair shop to replace the one where he worked alongside his father from boyhood.

A quiet man, Kangasuriyam says he is finally getting his life back in order.

"I want to be happy with what I have, and get over it," he said.

About 35,000 Sri Lankans died in the tsunami. More than half a million were left homeless.

Aid groups have since built more than 100,000 new homes, though several thousand families still remain homeless, according to the United Nations.

Many of the survivors have worked to rebuild their lives and carry on, though nearly all bear deep and permanent scars of the disaster.

For Kangasuriyam, the reminders are hard to escape.

Every Friday, as he returns from prayers at the Hindu temple, Kangasuriyam stops at the remnants of his old village, Passikudah, a few hundred yards from the beach in the Batticaloa district on Sri Lanka's east coast.

The house he lived in for 10 months with Devi is little more than two red steps leading to a cracked foundation and a jagged shard of wall.

His parents' home next door is a slab of concrete covered in thick black mud, rotting coconut husks and a tangled bush and vines. He tries to keep the foundation clean, he said, but the jungle keeps reclaiming it.

His four sisters and three brothers lived nearby as well.

They were a close-knit family, Kangasuriyam said. After school, his nieces and nephews would play together outside. After dinner, everyone would converge on his parents' home to drink tea and gossip.

Growing up, he and his brothers all worked in their father's bicycle repair shop, learning how to rebuild a bike that had been dismantled down to its ball bearings. Eventually one brother left to become a postmaster, another a Hindu priest.

The third started his own bike shop, leaving Kangasuriyam, the youngest son, to drop out of school and help his father in his shop.

As his parents grew frail with age, it fell to Kangasuriyam to care for them. He couldn't do it alone, he said, so he asked his parents to arrange a marriage. He met Devi, from a village five miles away, on their wedding day.

She was a good cook, always smiling and happy. She was kind and took such good care of his parents that when the newlyweds got into an argument, his mother took her side and hit him, he said.

Devi was a gifted storyteller and their nieces and nephews flocked to their house. It didn't hurt that she snuck them treats.

"He was extremely happy," said his brother, Sarawanamuttu. "In our whole village there was no one as good as her."

As Kangasuriyam thinks of his first wife, his eyes sink to the ground. He rubs his chin and scratches his lip in silence.

She was 4 months pregnant, he said.

"Every time I remember that, it's very painful," he said.

His memories of the tsunami are confused, but Sarawanamuttu says the brothers were working together in his bicycle shop when villagers ran by screaming that the sea was coming.

Sarawanamuttu says he grabbed his daughter and ran for safety, while Kangasuriyam ran back toward the village to get his family.

His other surviving brother, Ganeshamurthi, the priest, says he was in the temple when the screaming started and saw Kangasuriyam running to the village. He grabbed him, but Kangasuriyam broke free and tried to get home.

Kangasuriyam says he ended up unconscious, hanging from the branches of a tree 30 feet off the ground, and was taken to the hospital. It took days for the scale of his tragedy to emerge.

He hobbled down to the morgue and saw his father's body. Then, two of his sisters' bodies were brought in. The next day, they found his wife. In the days after, the bodies of nieces and nephews began appearing, he said. His mother was never found.

He stopped eating, talking and washing his clothes, Sarawanamuttu said. He would see his surviving nieces and nephews and wouldn't recognize them, he said. From their village of 800, 258 people died.

"He would cry from time to time. It wasn't only him, it was everybody," said his sister-in-law, Kumudawathi. "There was nobody to pay attention to him because everybody lost people and everybody was crying. There was no one to talk to and calm people down, because everybody lost someone."

Kangasuriyam moved with 2,000 other homeless to the yard of a Pentecostal church. His surviving sister and brothers kept him going, he said.

They pushed him to apply for housing in a resettlement village being built by an international aid group, and within months he became secretary of the residents' committee.

In lieu of payment for his new house, he had to help build it, and he threw himself into the work, he said. When it was done, he continued making bricks for his neighbors.

More international aid enabled him and Sarawanamuttu to open a new bike shop together. With aid groups donating hundreds of bicycles to tsunami victims, they suddenly were swamped with bikes to tune up.

The long hours of work on the house and in the shop helped Kangasuriyam cope with his loss, Sarawanamuttu said. "Those things got him involved in life again," he said.

But, "he is not back to normal, and sometimes he talks nonsense," the brother said.

He spent so much time at work that his brothers and sister decided he needed a new wife to care for him. They found Thaya, a woman from their village who had always had a crush on Kangasuriyam, seven years her junior.

In May 2005, just five months after the tsunami, they were married.

Theresa was born the following April.

The toddler struts around the house in the new neighborhood of Pettiyadichcheni, about half a mile from the beach. As her father sits in one of the brown plastic chairs lining the living room walls, she stands between his legs and burbles playfully.

Many have told him Theresa looks just like 2-year-old Dilani did, and he thinks, maybe, she is the reincarnation of his lost niece.

Ganeshamurthi says the little girl has restored some of his brother's faith and happiness.

"He is beginning to forget his old life," he said.

But every day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., the family enters the shrine room and offers prayers at the photos of his lost family. Kangasuriyam says it is important for Theresa to know what happened, and it's important that his parents and Devi not be forgotten.

Thaya, who lost her own mother in the flood, says she understands her husband's feelings and is not bothered.

Kangasuriyam and his brother spend their days working side by side in the bike shop. They never speak of the tsunami, Sarawanamuttu said.

"Everybody knows what happened to everybody. There is no point in talking about it," he said.

Looking out over the ruins of his old village, Kangasuriyam said he once led a carefree life.

Every weekend, he played volleyball or cricket, then headed to the beach for a swim. Since the ocean turned on him four years ago, he has not gone back. Even the distant crash of waves rattles him.

Theresa is scared as well. He told her the sea killed her family, and when the wind blows especially hard, she shivers in fear of another tsunami.

"I'm still scared of the sea," he said. "People have called me many times to go, and I say, 'No. I'll never go back."'