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[greenyes] Sri Lankan scavengers dig through piles of rubble, bricks, rotting food and dead animals.

Tough Times, Tough Men
Sri Lankan scavengers dig through piles of rubble, bricks, rotting food and dead animals.

By Mark Magnier, Times Staff Writer

GALLE, Sri Lanka * K.D. Nimal, 42, a coconut tree climber by trade, lost his wife, both parents and his 8-year-old daughter in the tsunami. Yet even as fortune ripped apart his life, it blessed him in at least one way.

That day, he'd brought his 10-year-old son along as he sidled up trees and cut down their fruit, preparing the boy for the day when he'd be old enough to do it himself. That seemingly casual decision saved his son's life.

"I'm so lucky I took him with me," Nimal said. "Now I need to make a good house for him."

Taking care of the boy has given Nimal a sense of purpose, he said, but the destructive waves also took his job away. Many trees were knocked down, and coconut oil mills have been idled.

Now he and many others across Sri Lanka are making ends meet by scavenging, searching for items of value in the mountains of rubble, dead animals, broken bottles and bricks left in the wave's chaotic wake.

Just below the historic Galle Fort built by the Dutch in 1663, an orange municipal truck roared up along the shore and dumped a load of debris from nearby structures destroyed by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Even before it came to a halt, 10 men ages 16 to 60 scrambled over, jockeying to be the first to pull out anything of worth. "Whoa! Don't hit me!" one of them yelled. Nearby, a flock of crows fought over a piece of carrion.

All the men were either barefoot or in flip-flops. Many had cuts and open sores around their ankles after encounters with jagged pieces of concrete or rubble. It's not dignified work, but many said they wouldn't eat that night if they didn't make a few rupees that day.

The prospect of running into some deadly chemical, picking up a nasty disease or finding a body gave few of these men pause. You have to survive first, they said, and an opportunity had opened up that would be foolish to ignore.

"I used to work in a morgue at the hospital," said D.G. Sunil, 40. "I've touched so many dead and diseased bodies, this doesn't worry me."

Periodically, the army or police swung through to chase the scavengers away. But they soon returned, and municipal workers had no complaint about them.

"They make our job easier," said K.D. Lalith, a 40-year-old Galle employee. "Then we don't have to work as hard carrying stuff away."

The scavengers sell their found items to individuals and scrap dealers.

A few hundred feet away, a blue truck bearing the logo of a recycling company in Colombo, the capital, awaited its next load of booty. The scavengers hauled over their finds, weighing them on a huge red scale of the sort used in railroad stations when steamer trunks and hat boxes were de rigueur.

The going rate for copper is about $1.35 per pound; aluminum commands 23 cents a pound; plastic cases for beer bottles earn 5 cents. "If you get copper, you're doing well," said K.N.T. Mahendra, 26, holding a small quantity of the metal wrapped around a stick.

Every once in a while, someone hit the jackpot. "One guy I know found a lady's gold bangle," said W. Basil Anthony, dressed in a blue cap and a sarong. "I found three wristwatches over there, but unfortunately they weren't working."

L.H.A. Premashantha, 38, has been earning $2 or $3 a day. Shirtless in a short plaid sarong, his few teeth stained from chewing betel nut, he was trying unsuccessfully to pull free a long loop of electrical wire anchored under a smashed brick chimney and a mountain of rotting food.

It takes a certain amount of speed, and a good eye, to get in there ahead of others. But a lot of it is luck, he said.

"I don't like going through garbage, but I need to support my wife and child," he said. "Once they start rebuilding, there may be jobs for general laborers."

Nimal, pointing to a pile of jagged metal parts, aluminum siding, wire from power lines, cans and pieces of a rusty oil drum, said the day's haul was a bit disappointing. He took a moment to reflect on all he'd been through in the last week.

After he and his son returned from the coconut grove nine days ago, they found their family gone, their house destroyed and all their scant possessions ruined.

Eventually, Nimal found his wife's body, but with no money to his name, he was forced to let the state take care of it. He never found a trace of his parents or his daughter, he said matter-of-factly. Just then, another dump truck rolled up and started to unload.

"Sorry, I have to get back to work," he said. "I've got a living to make."

Rose Niemi
Merced County Association of Governments
369 West 18th Street
Merced CA 95340
209-723-3153, extension 315

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