Just been for a mid-afternoon stroll to the very hot sunshine to the sea. It’s about a quarter of a mile and half a world away. Down the commercial street with shops at the top, a Dutch reformed church midway down, a couple of banks, rows of buses and tuk-tuks (trishaws – the main taxi) and you reach Dehiwala station – a raised concrete platform with a sign in the middle of the railway tracks. There’s a building in the centre of it where the staff sit and people can buy tickets.
There are groups of mainly men and gaggles of young people walking each way on the tracks. Then on the other side of the tracks between the station and breaking rollers is a fishing community, living in the still-broken remnants of homes smashed in the boxing day tsunami of 2004.
Bright blue signs in Sinhalese, Tamil and English with a bold graphic indicate one’s evacuation route should the sea come again with the ferocity it did on that day. That’s all the evidence there is down here of the government having spent any cash; all except a rather oddly-placed, barbed-wire surrounded outpost of the military with a couple of young soldiers passing the time with a group of equally young men on the other side of the wire.
The people live in homes that look as if they’ve gone the distance with Godzilla and King Kong. Tiled areas indicate where there was once a brick house. Some structures have part of the brick work in tack, the rest of the home being made of sheets of plastic, discarded advertising hoardings promoting fashionable menswear.
Families sit on plastic furniture, half in and half out of these structures. Here, a woman sorts laundry that’s hanging between walls made of pallets; there, a man washing through some clothes; in the distance another tends to his boat’s out-board engine; and everywhere, children play, jumping, hiding and giggling.
It’s hard not to feel a furious rage at the indifference of a government that seems able to man endless checkpoints around the city and pay for vast numbers of billboards everywhere lauding it’s victory in the recent war. In a bid to be fair, it is a poor country and it has been ravaged by a cruel and senseless war (aren’t they all? This one more than most, fuelled by the desire to atomise an already tiny living space, along ethnic, cultural and religious lines, pluralism in action, some might say; human sinfulness and the arrogance of power, some might reply; and so the argument goes on).
Surely somewhere the pittance can be found that would give these people decent hovels in which to live, where they can be near the sea that is their livelihood and rail track that takes their catch to markets along the lines. Surely somewhere the will raise these people’s lives above this level of destitution in a country that is showing signs of prosperity in other places can be found.
I was with my friend, William, earlier today. He’s been involved with a similar fishing village down the coast, near his church, since the tsunami (interestingly, Sri Lankans speak of the tsunami time; sentences often contain the phrase ‘in the tsunami time’). The reconstruction, which was still going on last we visited, has now finished. He’s promised to take me, which will be great. He’s done a wonderful job bringing this community together, helping them to rebuild as they wanted to, offering support with local officials, still there after the aid caravan has long since rolled on. Not surprisingly, some of the families have started coming to his church.
Just behind the beach community, on the other side of the railway track, a 122 appartment block is being built. I can see it from my room at the college, a concrete colossus, wrapped in blue plastic sheeting. It boasts parking and a rooftop swimming pool. It's owners will be able to look down on the shattered fishing community atthe end of a busy day.