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Many in Sri Lanka remember their own tsunami disaster

It’s now seven years since a huge tsunami struck countries around the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day in 2004. One of the worst-affected was Sri Lanka, where over 40,000 people were killed in the disaster. Seeing the plight of many Japanese people following the recent tsunami has reminded some Sri Lankans of the loved ones they lost and their own struggle to rebuild their lives.

The BBC’s Charles Haviland visited one of the Sri Lankan communities devastated seven years ago by the Boxing Day tsunami. In the small village of Peraliya, a housing estate has been built for residents by a local charity. Normally, people in this region live in one-storey buildings, but the new houses have two storeys, to provide a higher level for extra safety should another tsunami occur. The local charity which funded the project, with assistance from donations and sports stars, is run by Kushil Gunasekera. He admitted to the BBC’s reporter that he felt “devastated for the second time” because the Japanese people had been so generous and supportive to Sri Lankans after the 2004 tsunami. In fact, a Buddha memorial statue was erected in Peraliya by the Japanese people in honour of those who died. Now the Sri Lankans in these communities feel they want to help the Japanese in any way they can.

The Japanese tragedy has evoked painful memories, but many Sri Lankans are determined to move on with their lives despite the huge personal sadness of losing family members. In Peraliya, locals have been offered charity-supported training in subjects ranging from electrical engineering to lace-making. The illegal work undertaken by many young men before the disaster of breaking off coral from the reefs which help protect the coastline has now stopped. Instead, local youths have been taking diving courses which help them find repair work with harbour, boat and port companies. With early warning systems and periodic practice drills in place, Sri Lankan communities no longer trust the sea but are learning to live alongside it.

Many of the orphans left by the tsunami are also now growing up. Over 5,000 Sri Lankan children are believed to have lost one or both parents in 2004. As many have become adults, the numbers in orphanages are dwindling. Some children – more than 350 according to the National Child Protection Authority – were also settled with foster parents or close relatives, who received financial support for taking in the children.

As Sri Lankans remember their lost loved ones at this sad time, many will also be reflecting how their lives have moved on, thanks in large part to charities like Kushil Gunasekera’s, which have helped them build new homes and a fresh foundation.

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