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In Sri Lanka, survivors scramble for food, search for loved ones

KALMUNAI, Sri Lanka—Desperate refugees along Sri Lanka's eastern shores practice a daily routine. In the morning, they scramble for food at refugee camps. Then they head out to tsunami-ravaged areas to scrounge for belongings and hunt for the bodies of loved ones.

Invariably, bodies keep turning up.

As the sun sank Monday, volunteers dropped a dead boy into a hastily dug sandy grave in the town of Kalmunai. The town was one of the hardest hit in Sri Lanka, which lost more than 28,500 citizens to the tsunami.

"We don't know who he is. His face was demolished," said Mujahith Hirhavella, 19, a translator for a French search-and-rescue team.

Eight days after the disaster, a tour of Sri Lanka's heavily lashed eastern coast found refugees living in misery, but without the complete desolation of some areas of Sumatra in Indonesia, the nation most severely affected by the disaster.

Some refugees complained of lack of food. In most camps, they sleep on cardboard laid on cement floors. Sanitation facilities are inadequate.

But foreign relief is flooding into Sri Lanka—87 planeloads by the count of the state-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corp.—even if much of the assistance has yet to trickle to the country's farther reaches, such as the eastern coast. Torrential rains on the coast sparked floods late last week that left the region even more isolated from relief efforts.

"We are short of food," said George Ernest Senn, a village elder at a refugee camp of 40 families in Chawalakade, about 160 miles east of Colombo, the capital. "The flood waters rose. ... There is no way for them to get food because the whole district is under water."

"We are eating only bread and jam," said Mohammed Faizer, a 30-year-old staying with his family at a refugee camp in the village of Sammanthurai.

At camps closer to major towns, refugees complained less of lack of food and water and more of distress at failing to locate lost loved ones.

Thousands of people are still missing, many of them from hamlets along barrier islands and spits of land in the eastern Batticaloa and Ampara districts.

Walking near the shore of Kallady Uppoday, an outlying village from Batticaloa, legislator M.L.A.M. Hizbullah said 2,000 of the village's 5,100 people are dead and buried. Another 1,007 have been found alive. Some 2,000 residents are missing.

"Most of them are under the rubble of the destroyed houses or washed out to sea," Hizbullah said. "Today, we recovered 12 bodies. Every day we are recovering bodies."

Once refugees manage to get something in their stomachs, many walk back close to shore to where their shattered homes are, looking for belongings and corpses.

"We only found my sister's son's body and my aunt's body," said Sumatra Dharmadeva. "In our family, 12 people are dead, but we only found two bodies."

Faizer said many parents are obsessed with finding the bodies of their children, who appear to have been lost in particularly great numbers when the swirling waters of the tsunami walloped the shore on Dec. 26.

"They are going out in boats," he said.

In a devastated seaside district of Kalmunai, a town with a heavy Muslim population and a huge mosque on the seashore that rather miraculously survived destruction, refugees sat forlornly on the foundations of their ruined brick homes.

"We want to get some counseling for these people," said Mufizal Aboobucker, a senior lecturer in psychology at a nearby university who's helping with relief efforts.

A walk through Kalmunai underscores why some tsunami victims have yet to be found. Brick houses are shattered, with heavy walls caved in. Huge pools of floodwater isolate patches of rubble. Packs of dogs roam. A stench of decaying flesh hangs in the air, prompting many people to wear surgical masks.

Many refugees say they want to get on with their lives. A few appear on the brink of despair. On a remote rural track, a man with a bicycle flagged down a car and began weeping inconsolably, sputtering that he lost his whole family.

"What is the point of living? I should hang myself," he said.

Some refugees say they're angry at the national media for focusing more heavily on the distress of other regions, such as the more accessible southern coast of the nation.

"The Sri Lankan media cannot find us," said Mirasahibu Mahsoor, 37, a candy salesman and refugee.

Despite heavy flooding and downed bridges in eastern Sri Lanka, public health experts say they've so far averted outbreaks of diarrhea and infectious diseases.

But other medical issues are rising.

A physician in the surgical ward of the Ampara General Hospital, Chinthaka Surangan, said many refugees were coming to the hospital because of infected wounds.

"Patients are getting complications now," said Dr. P.K.C.L. Jayasinghe, the director of the hospital. "They are getting respiratory infections and pneumonia. They swallowed seawater."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI-SRILANKA

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