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The year after

One year on from the Boxing Day tsunami, is New Zealand aid making a difference?

About 20 kilometres out of Colombo, heading south on the coastal road, we see the first signs of the tsunami's destructive impact on Sri Lanka. A line of unmarked graves next to the shell of a seaside home is the first sobering reminder of how the people living along this coast must have felt as the sun set over their horizon last Boxing Day.

The Sri Lankan Government estimates that more than 31,000 people lost their lives in the tsunami; another 4280 are still missing. More than half a million people were made homeless, and thousands are still thought to be living in temporary housing or with relatives.

On the road from Colombo to Galle in the Singhalese-dominated southwest, the international aid response to the disaster is an ever-present feature. It seems that for nearly every new home being built there's a sign or plaque highlighting the generosity of international aid agencies and NGOs. But progress is mixed, and there seem to be distinct differences between recovery efforts in the southwest and the southeast.

Despite the fact that much-needed aid is getting through to the mainly Tamil and Muslim fishing and farming communities in the southeast - a recent Guardian report described that part of the country as being "awash" in international aid money - you have to look much harder to find an international presence on that side of the island. Indeed, it seems that a lot more help is needed.

It's questionable, however, whether Sri Lanka's fragile ceasefire, which has lasted for three years, will survive much longer. Continuing tensions between the island's various ethnic groups is one of the biggest hurdles to redevelopment.

Since the Tamil Tigers liberation movement launched an independence movement for minority Tamil speakers 22 years ago, at least 60,000 people have been killed, and western aid groups are naturally wary. Tension in the east - this time between Tamils and Muslims - flared again recently when a grenade thrown into a mosque killed seven people.

As country director of the international NGO Shelter For Life's Sri Lanka programme, New Zealander Chris Hills has been front and centre in the relief efforts in the east.

"Nothing can prepare you for the devastation wrought by the tsunami," Hills says, reflecting on the aftermath. "One of the most horrific things I saw when I arrived in Trincomalee in January was just how many orphans there were. These kids were just wandering around without parents, without direction, it was truly heartbreaking."

Many women died along the eastern coast, he says, because they were in their homes by the sea when the first wave struck - the men were generally working up in the hills or at a safe distance from the coast. A recent report has noted that the tsunami killed a disproportionate number of women; in some areas, four times as many as men.

"One of our first priorities," says Hills, "was to get the schools back up and running as quickly as possible so children who had been orphaned had a place to go. Because so many school buildings had been completely wiped away, we set the schools up wherever we could - in temples, mosques, community centres and tents. Many of these schools are still operating out of temporary quarters, but we're starting to see new schools opening all the time."

For the most part, he says, the emergency schooling system has worked well throughout the affected regions of Sri Lanka. One year on, about 80 percent of children are back at school. The other 20 percent have the opportunity to go back, but for a variety of reasons have not done so yet.

"Maybe their father was killed during the tsunami and they are now the family's only source of income, or they need to be at home to look after younger siblings."

In some cases, however, the problem is simply that schools have been relocated too far inland from the children's coastal villages, which presents a new challenge for poor families. How do they get their kids to school without transport?

One of the most practical examples of Shelter For Life's assistance over the past year has been the provision of bikes for relocated schoolchildren. The programme has been developed in partnership with HOPE International, a New Zealand NGO that has received matching funds from NZAID, the government's international aid and development agency, which is also funding school refurbishment programmes throughout the region.

Hills says it's great to see some of the fathers also making good use of the bikes, as they, too, are no longer within walking distance of their workplaces.

Another obstacle to long-term planning and redevelopment on both sides of the island is the government's so-called "buffer zone" policy. There's an immense feeling of confusion among all the villagers we talk to about what the buffer zone actually is.

"At first it was that you couldn't rebuild within 200 metres of the coast," says Hills. "Then they reduced it to 100 metres. Then just before the elections it was down to 65 metres, and in same cases only 50 metres. No one knows where they'll be able to rebuild their homes."

He believes, however, that the most significant challenge to redevelopment in the east is an ongoing feeling of fear and uncertainty.

"You have to realise just how afraid these people still are - not only that another tsunami or earthquake may come and destroy their homes and lives again, but also the constant threat that a civil war might flare up at any moment. After all, the tsunami is not the first time many of these people have lost everything through disaster."

This Boxing Day, Hills is back home in Auckland taking a much-needed break before his next assignment, in Pakistan, where an estimated 500,000 people are facing the Himalayan winter without shelter.

During the coming year he believes we'll see a lot more progress in Sri Lanka and other tsunami-devastated countries.

"The first year was about emergency relief," he says, "and next year will be about reconstruction and redevelopment."

He also hopes that everyone in the NGO community will heed the lessons learnt since the tsunami.

"One of the most important things I've learnt through my work in Sri Lanka is that, as international NGOs, one of the first things we should do when we arrive in a disaster zone is to find out what is already there in terms of local expertise and knowledge, and to look at the ways we can help these people to help themselves. It's about assisting these communities to recover and empower themselves, rather then coming in and doing it all for them - that is what will sustain these people for the long term."