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Sri Lankan Fishermen Lose a Longtime Friend

The tsunami damaged more than a village's fleet. It snapped men's trust in the blue waters on which they had built their families' lives.

January 20, 2005|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

WELIGAMA, Sri Lanka — The old man frowns and says he has had enough of the sea.

For 55 years, Samson Silva thought he had worked out a partnership with the turquoise ocean waters that each morning responded to his visits by yielding a bounty of tuna, mullet and grouper. The fish fed his family and provided him with a comfortable livelihood.

That changed on the morning of Dec. 26, when the sea turned its back on him, unleashing a series of killer waves. The brutal force of the water snapped his boat in half like a twig and killed 200 of his fellow fishermen -- good men, he says, who did nothing to deserve such a fate.

"Now I am fed up with the sea," says the 67-year-old, who began fishing these waters when he was 12. "I never thought I would say that. The water has been my companion for half a century. But I will never go back there. Not after this. The sea has seen the last of me."

In this fishing village where 90% of workers make their living pursuing the daily catch, the tsunami hit hard. Along with the shattered buildings and the staggering death toll, the waves damaged the psyches of the fishermen who now stand grounded next to their battered boats, watching the sea and no longer trusting it.

Countless boats line the shore, awaiting repairs that could cost thousands of dollars each. Others lie in pieces, hopelessly scattered around the sand like brightly colored driftwood.

Silva isn't the only one who now questions the sea. Others hear his talk and nod in agreement. So far only a handful of fishing boats here, out of a flotilla that once numbered in the thousands, have skittishly returned to the tepid Indian Ocean waters to resume their craft. Those who have chosen to return try to scrape up the money needed to repair their boats, while their wives and families plead with them to move inland and find other work.

For most, this is the only life they know. Fishing goes back generations in their families. As boys they chose the sea over schooling, when they watched their fathers cast off in hand-carved boats before the sun came up. Eventually they got their own chance. They bought newer boats that had engines and modern nets, boosting their earnings to $15 a day.

Two years ago, Saman Sarath took out a loan to buy a 40-foot fiberglass trawler he called the Taruka Puthu, named for his 6-year-old son. He signed up a dozen friends and family members as shipmates, and for months on end their luck was good.

They ventured 10 miles out to sea and worked as a team with the slippery nets, returning with pride to spread their flopping catch on the tile floor of the local fish market. The money from their labors flowed like water.

Now Sarath's beloved blue, green and orange boat lies on its side like a beached whale, a mammoth hole punched in its hull. His motor and nets are lost at sea. Without insurance, he remains financially liable for the $1,500 loan for the equipment.

At first, his family held out a dim hope that the government would respond with low-interest loans, but so far Sarath has seen no officials come to his town.

Sri Lankan parliament member Mahinda Wijesekera recently held an impromptu roadside news conference about a mile from the village, assuring the fishermen who crowded around him that help was on the way.

"So far, all we have been able to offer is emotional support, but the money will come," said the nation's former fisheries minister. He said he planned to introduce a bill calling for a loan of about $500 to every fisherman hurt by the tsunami.

But the fishermen say they don't believe such promises. They are self-sufficient men. At sea, they are alone with their boats. And they are skeptical that the government can help them return to work. Sarath saves his wrath not for his government, but for the ocean.

"I feel very angry with the sea," he said, leaning barefooted against his boat, dressed in an undershirt and beige sarong. "If no one had died, we would have forgiven things. But too many people were killed. We were friends with the sea, used to its ways. But it has turned around and stabbed us in the back. And that we can never forget."

Even though his trust has vanished for good, he knows he must return to fishing to feed his family.

The fishermen say the tsunami struck at the harbor's busiest time of year. That morning the water was so full of boats you could almost walk across and not touch the surface, many say. Some fishermen had returned home to celebrate Christmas, and others had come for the Buddhist New Moon holiday.

Suddenly, the towering waves flowed as high as the tops of the date palms, carrying some boats a mile or more inland. Some of the lighter oruwa -- the narrow, foot-wide boats big enough for only two standing fishermen -- lodged in trees or on rooftops.

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