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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grief Turns to Anger on Sri Lanka's Coast

PERALIYA, Sri Lanka -- It was different, people here will tell you, in those first few days after the ocean came roaring over the horizon and slammed into Peraliya, driving trees and boulders through the village at 800 kilometers per hour and leaving behind more grief than anyone would have thought possible.

Tsunami survivors shared water, food and what medicine they could scrounge. Some passed shovels back and forth, searching for survivors. Others stared at bloated corpses, trying to figure out which body belonged to which family.

It's how things ought to work in places like Peraliya, a community of fishermen and small traders with an intricate social web. "The whole village was like one family" in those early days, said Sriyawathi Malani Gunathilaka, who lost her only son to the waves.

But six months later, the community that has inhabited this sandy land for generations is coming apart, its social networks snapped by jealousy over which family gets how much aid money -- and competition over how soon they will get it. The resentment is magnified by officials who have left villagers desperate for any scrap of information about what will happen to them. The Dec. 26 tsunami killed about 450 people from Peraliya and an adjoining village, and more than 31,000 across Sri Lanka. Hundreds of villagers here, and some 900,000 people elsewhere on the tropical island, were left homeless. It is the aftermath, though, that may destroy Peraliya.

"Everything has changed completely," said Sriyawathi, sitting on a water-stained easy chair, one of the few pieces of furniture left after the waves knocked down most of her house. The cushions smell of mold and dirt. "It's all about the jealousy."

Peraliya still looks like a battle scene, with piles of wreckage and spaghetti-like coils of wiring strung haphazardly. On some days, there are only a few dozen people lolling around a village where more than 1,500 once lived. Hundreds of villagers have moved in with relatives, or found cheap shacks to rent elsewhere, or become squatters in the island's interior. Even some of the new homes remain empty much of the time.

But even the poorest villagers now have somewhere dry to sleep, though sometimes it's just a wooden shack. Everyone gets a few dollars a week in rice and other essentials. Real homes of concrete and brick are finally going up.

Promises of more to come dance around the village. Politicians talk of land, and visiting foreigners talk of engines for fishing boats. Always, there's talk of cash.

Pledges of $3 billion in international aid and debt relief poured into the country after the tsunami, and despite the half-built, half-destroyed feel of most villages, aid officials insist things will improve dramatically over the next year.

But information is lacking. If the money is out there, no one has told the people of Peraliya -- and most other villages -- how it will reach them. Top regional officials have only visited for a few quick memorial ceremonies.

The people who live within the 100-meter buffer zone have heard that they would be given land in a forest about 10 kilometers away. But no one has seen the land or knows anything about the houses that will be built there.

The government insists things are going well. A recent headline in the government-run Daily News said Sri Lanka's program to distribute foreign relief money had won "global praise," and Finance Minister Arath Amunugama said of the program: "This novel system has eliminated unwanted red tape and is a very efficient system."

Few villagers would agree.

"We don't have anything," said Manjula Jayasiri, a fisherman who lives in a wooden shack built with Danish aid money "We don't even know where we're going, and someone a few meters away already has a house?"