Hardly anything is left here. The old stone buildings are crumbling, and weeds grow from cracks in the broken brick walls. Tile roofs, pierced by shells during years of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists, molder in the thick jungle heat.
The tsunami took what little remained of this fishing village at the northern tip of Sri Lanka: a school on the beach, part of a seaside Hindu temple, two of the three bedrooms in Kavignan Kothijal's house. Kothijal is grateful the wave came on a Sunday, the day after Christmas, when schools were empty and many Christian fishermen stayed home.
"We thank God for this," he said. "Otherwise, many people would be dead."
We got to Valvedditturai at midafternoon, after an hour's drive over rutted roads from Jaffna, the capital of the Tamil Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankans are Sinhalese and Buddhist, descended from Indo-Aryan immigrants from northern India. Tamils, who are concentrated in the north, came from southern India and are mainly Hindu.
All along the road were signs that we had left prosperous southern Sri Lanka, with its broad beaches and now-ruined tourist resorts. A man bicycled past in a T-shirt bearing the name of a group that clears land mines. Tarpaulins with the insignia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees formed makeshift roofs over broken foundations. Instead of billboards beckoning travelers to the Hibiscus Beach Hotel and the Royal Palms, women in brightly-colored scarves stooped in rice paddies, stray cows wandered the roadsides and soldiers peered from army bunkers piled with green sandbags.
The government and the Tamil rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the LTTE, have been fighting for more than 20 years here. In 2002, the two sides declared a cease-fire that still holds. The Sri Lankan government controls Jaffna and Valvedditturai, but the rebels have political offices nearby. The leader of the rebels, a reclusive lifelong guerrilla named Vellupillai Prabhakaran who has fought for a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka, was born in Valvedditturai.
"He is an honest man, a gentleman," said Balakrishna Samy, 67, a fisherman. He stood a few feet from a Sri Lankan army bunker, but his loyalties lay elsewhere. Samy's wife was killed in a government bombing in 1995. Now the water has taken his livelihood and those of hundreds of others.
"Nobody wants to go fishing," explained Kothijal, a dark-skinned man in a turquoise sarong and flip-flops who sells fish to wholesalers in the capital Colombo. "Everybody is afraid."
Kothijal and Samy stood in the street at the edge of a crowd. Aid workers from a German organization called Humedica handed out rice, lentils, sugar, canned fish and matches to fishermen who had lost their boats or their homes, but there was only enough aid for 426 families. The knot of men and women in the street yelled and pleaded for help. Women thrust forward their thin-limbed, large-eyed children. Men pushed in front of the women. Sam Rajasuriar, a Pentecostal pastor from Jaffna, said the food was the first help the people of Valvedditturai had received since Dec. 26.
Kothijal said the government isn't helping because Valvedditturai is mainly Tamil.
"They don't care about Tamil people," he said, leaning over the rail of his rusty bicycle.
On the day of the wave, Kothijal was standing on the beach, watching the fishing boats. When the water rose and receded, gathering force, he started to run inland. The wave caught him, but he grabbed a log and held on, and he floated to safety.
Down at the beach, brightly-colored boats lay alongside a turquoise and pink Hindu temple adorned with pictures of Ganesh, the Hindu god of auspicious beginnings. The temple's roof was half-gone. In back, a group of boys showed off a collection of waterlogged wooden animals used in religious festivals.
Across the street at the ruined school, chocolate-colored goats roamed the rubble, bleating and butting heads. A man stood in the ruins of his house, pouring a bucket of water over his head. An outer wall was missing, exposing an interior room adorned with family pictures. Red and blue kites hung in the sky. The palms whispered and the sea roared. In one ruined house, there was a black rooster, a bicycle wheel, a pile of fish nets and a can of Colgate toothpaste, as well as a crumpled card, the 3 of spades.
As the sun set, a young man stood knee-deep in the surf, waving to a visitor on the beach. He spoke little English, only enough to say that he was a fisherman and that he, at least, wasn't afraid of the sea.