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El-Li-Lo Tsunami Relief Project

A project implemented and guided by local fishermen for the rebuilding of their homes and livelihood.

El-Li-Lo was set up by local fishermen with the help and support of me, Rebecca Walker, a PhD student from Edinburgh University. I am currently based in Sri Lanka for two years carrying out research for my PhD on the lives and futures of Sri Lankan people displaced by the civil war, and now, the tsunami. I arrived in Sri Lanka in October 2004 and after witnessing the tsunami and being involved in emergency relief work, distributing supplies to refugee camps, visiting tsunami wrecked areas and planning and writing funding proposals for villages on the east coast, I started working with a group of fishermen living in the eastern town of Batticaloa. Having lost many family members and relatives (some all), their homes, belongings and entire fishing business in the tsunami, not to mention nearly losing their own lives, these men displayed incredible courage and indomitable spirits as they fought to rebuild their lives and create and future for themselves and their families.

The El-Li-Lo Project grew out of the relationship I developed with these fishermen and their families, both personally and in working to recover their businesses and build new homes. Through the amazing response of family and friends back home and across the world I was able to financially support the group in building temporary shelters, replacing household items and also starting to build up their fishing business again. We started with the building of 19 temporary shelters, which were constructed by the fishermen themselves. Following this the project then provided sets of necessary household items, including lamps, cooking utensils and mates for each family, plus a bicycle. Simultaneously, the fishing business was rebuilt with the purchase and sculpting of a timber boat and purchase of three nets and tubs for drying. Now a second boat is being built and money is being sought to start building permanent housing for 13 of the families.

Me with the chief fisherman, Yogesarajah
An El-Li-Lo family outside their temporary shelter
The fishermen with their new boat

1. 19 Temporary shelters

The first stage of the project and most crucial at that time was to get the fishermen and their families out of the tsunami refugee camps and into temporary shelters. This was so that they could not only have some privacy and control over their environment but also to try and restore some normalcy and routine in their lives. The shelters were built from a wooden structure with concrete support posts, tin sides, a cement floor and tiled roofs. The houses were built entirely by the fishermen themselves, which allowed them to have control over the project and build structures that they knew would last through the various weather changes etc, and also kept them busy and active during a time when the trauma and pain of the tsunami was still so raw.

Once the shelters had been built, we were able to furnish them with all the necessary household items (as described below) as well as a steel cabinet and a set of plastic chairs and a stool. These were items that the families specifically requested to make their homes more comfortable and most importantly to them, to be able to host guests. In July the money was given for each house to have a cement floor, as sand was proving very difficult to cope with. This month the fishermen are building temporary kitchens with some more funds collected. This was felt most necessary by the families since with the rainy season on its way, cooking inside the home would be neither practical nor nice.

Although the structure if the same, each of the shelters is unique in its own way and each family has done so much to turn the ‘shelters’ into ‘homes’. Some now have electricity, hanging shelves and hooks and pictures on the walls. After their first night in their new home, one mother turned to me and said “that was the first night since the tsunami that I have slept soundly and through the night. Now I feel safe”.

The first structure of the temporary shelters. A group of fishermen’s wives and children showed chatting outside
The completed shelters

2. Distributing household items

After the temporary shelters were built, necessary household items, including cooking utensils, lamps and mats and bicycles were purchased and distributed to each of the families. The items included: The families were all given the opportunity to identify the items they felt they most needed and also to select the best quality ones. Since this project is in their hands, it is important that they chose what is necessary based upon their knowledge and past experiences.

The items ready to be distributed
Me handing out the items

The fishermen with the household items and their new bikes
Inside one of the shelters

3. Reviving the fishing business

Fishing is a way of life for the men. The business was built up by the father of the chief fishermen and has been in his family for generations. Their daily lives were defined by the movement of fish and taking the boats out to drop the net and then pull the catch in. When the tsunami hit the men had been on the beach and had to run for their lives. Many saved others on the way. Two of the crew died. Every member lost at least one family member or relative, and one man lost his wife, all three young sons and his parents. The men also lost all 5 of their fishing boats, all their nets, storing equipment and drying tubs etc.

El-Li-Lo has sought to revive the fishing business by replacing their destroyed timber boats and nets. In doing so the men have been able to quickly return to sea thus facing their fears and seeking some normalcy in their lives. Since May now the men have been making daily trips to sea. However it was only last month that the fishing season properly started and the catch started to come in. The men now need to make enough to cover the 8 months they have lost since the tsunami and to build up their business again fully.

Three of the men with their destroyed boat
A new timber boat
The first new timber boat

Me with the fishermen and their new boat
One of the men with their catch