Bored and confused, Sri Lankan tsunami survivors play the waiting game

W.D. Ariyapala sits among a cluster of men, some skimming newspapers, others slurping on coconuts. Hanging out in the rubble where they used to live or work is their latest pastime.

"I don’t know what to do. I read the paper. I come in every morning, I look to see if anyone can help me here, then I wait, and I go home in the evening," says Ariyapala, outside what used to be his wood carving shop.

He counts his blessings: his home is intact and his family is safe. But like hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, he has lost his livelihood and has no idea how he and seven family members will now get by.

"Everyone is waiting. There’s nothing happening."

Across the road, metres (yards) from the lapping surf of palm-fringed Unawatuna beach, Samantha Nanayakkara, 27, kills time with his 65-year-old mother outside the spacious green tent that aid workers delivered a few days ago.

The waves that thundered into Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 people, crushed his home and also dragged his two tuk-tuks into the ocean. It also robbed him of money to trade fish, his family’s other source of income.

"Now we have nothing," he says.

Emergency tents have sprung up along the road here in the past few days, most of them housing a sad and small array of retrieved household items.

Inside Nanayakkara’s temporary home, a few plates, cups and saucers are stacked neatly in one corner, a baby stroller they are keeping safe for a neighbour is in another, with a few bags of donated clothes.

Nanayakkara sleeps on a thin mattress in the corner with his brother, while his parents and other relatives take nightly refuge at the temple, a few hundred metres away, where the whole family must trek to use a toilet.

Scrubbed and washed clothes are neatly laid out on the tent’s roof, steaming dry in the searing tropical sun. A tarpaulin from the UN’s refugee agency gives them extra shade where their kitchen used to stand.

Thanks to a massive international and local aid effort, their immediate needs have been taken care of: food, water, and a place to sleep. But the next step for them is anyone’s guess for now.

"We have no plans. The government is giving information on the TV and radio, telling people to wait," Nanayakkara says.

Confusion over government restrictions on new beach development means they fear they will need to move inland, which angers D. Nilaweera, 56, whose uncle was killed in his corridor-like travel agency right next door.

"I ask, where are these people going to go? These people can’t go anywhere."

Most people living in Sri Lanka’s devastated coastal belt survive directly on tourism or fishing and say they must remain right by the sea to survive.

The sense of community here remains strong. The lifeless body of Nilaweera’s uncle was found with grocer N. Dammika’s dead father, hundreds of metres away from where they were caught unaware by the tsunami.

Their bodies were put into the same coffin and buried together.

Now Dammika and his relatives are using a single sledgehammer to smash up chunks of their collapsed grocery store into a manageable size to carry away, somewhere.

"Nobody is helping yet. Maybe the government will give us help later, we don’t know," he says.

A few doors away, however, guesthouse owner Saliya Amaraweera, 39, is already overseeing the reconstruction of his damaged building, wanting to reopen again promptly. No one has approached him with any offers of assistance.

"But I’m not expecting any help. I built this place up step by step and I will do it again."

He acknowledges that he is one of the lucky ones, with the means to kickstart his business again: "There are people who have lost everything. They should get aid."

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