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Seaside Salvation:
Abandoned By State, Sri Lankan Fishermen Can Only Pray For Safety

The fishermen asked authorities for a breakwater to protect them. The requests remain unanswered so now, regardless of faith, they all pray to another god for safety.

19.12.2017  |  
Local fisherman, Shalitha Fernando, and his boat on the beach.

A few meters away from the shore, a small shrine stands tall in the rough sea. The waves repeatedly hit the three-meter tall pillar with a shrine on top of it. Shalitha Fernando, a fisherman in his mid-50s, stand on the beach, looking at the white painted pillar and murmurs few lines of prayer, before bowing towards the sea to worship his god.

As the sun starts to set, the fishing boats that have been out at sea start to return to the shore.

“I am praying that god saves their lives until they return to the shore,” says Fernando, who lost two close relatives when they drowned last year in the rocky shoals near the beach, says. “Until they return, life is uncertain.”

A freak wave hit the boat and they couldn’t control it. It capsized before our eyes and they drowned as we watched them.

The rocky shoals stretch more than half a kilometer out in the shallow sea and poses a risk to the 250-strong fishing community here.

Since 1976, the village fishermen have been requesting that authorities construct some sort of breakwater facility.

“We have lost 12 fishermen so far,” Fernando says. “We have written many letters to our politicians but they act as if they are deaf and blind.”

“Four years ago, I lost my brother and uncle here as their fishing boat hit the rocks as they were returning from fishing,” the local man says. “A freak wave hit the boat and they couldn’t control it. It capsized before our eyes and they drowned as we watched them.”

Now Fernando’s brother’s wife is working as a domestic servant in the Middle East in order to support the couple’s five children. The sons of other anglers who also drowned have been forced to leave school and start their own work in the fishing sector. A lot of the fishermen here are survivors of the deadly 2004 tsunami and have settled in this area illegally, surrounded by luxury hotels and beach resorts.

Another problem here is the broken lighthouse, which used to help the fishermen make their way through the rocks and back to the safety of the beach.

It is the same problem again, adds Palitha Gunawardena , another local fisherman. “We asked the ministry of fisheries and the electricity board to fix the lighthouse but nothing has happened. The only thing we have faith in now is god.”

“During the elections, candidates from all parties come to us to get us to vote for them,” says another angler M De Silva, who has just returned from his fishing trip empty-handed. “They promise to construct a breakwater but once they are elected they forget all about us.”

The fishermen in this area come from all sorts of faiths but many of them pray to the local deity, Kataragama, who is seen as a protective force.

The small shrine to Kataragama in the middle of the rocky foreshore was apparently built by one of the fishermen here although nobody knows who it was. Local rumours say that he would pray to Kataragama before going out to sea and that he eventually became rich and moved away, but not before he built this shrine.

Now all the fishermen in this area say a quick prayer to Kataragama as they leave the beach. Given that the authorities don’t appear to care about their safety as they return to the rocky shore, they can only hope that Kataragama will.