Hope amidst despair

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By The young ones in Sri Lanka have been hit the hardest by the tsunami. But they are also the ones who are lending a helping hand to children and adults alike. Nisha Lahiri reports
  • Published 28.01.05
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REACHING OUT

Tharaka is 20 years old. He likes spending time with friends and watching movies (his favourite is Kal Ho Naa Ho). But this college student in Galle, Sri Lanka, also helps bring smiles to the faces of children less fortunate. After the tsunami hit his hometown, he and his friends did their bit to help the survivors, young and old.

Tharaka is a team leader of the NGO Dieherm, advocating child rights and working with underprivileged children to ensure that they go to school. He is one of the oldest members of the NGO, comprising school and college students, like 21-year-old Gihan.

On December 27, the day after the tragedy, once all the members were accounted for, the volunteers spread out, going from door to door in the unaffected inland areas collecting food and other essentials, and then distributing the items among the survivors at the relief camps.

With monetary help from international funding agency Save the Children, which works with Dieherm as a partner organisation in Galle, the youngsters continue to distribute basic necessities. But their focus has widened, and the next phase has begun. The aim is to help the youngest survivors limp back to normalcy.

Tharaka, Gihan, Radeeka and others have already formed sports groups among children at various camps, from cricket to football. Gihan, though shy, has the children flocking to him at every camp. Now, they are starting playgroups.

?It will take a long time, but we can help by at least making a start. We are in it for the long haul,? says Tharaka. ?We are getting play kits from Save the Children.?

The young group also spends time listening to the problems of adults at the camps. Sometimes, they do what they can to find a solution.

The youngsters are still awed and moved by what they see and hear. Like the story of one woman in Wellabada, Megalle. She survived with minor injuries, but lost all her belongings.

Inside her house, the watermark reaches the ceiling. The only item that didn?t get washed away was her wall clock. The hands of the clock are stuck at the time the tsunami struck ? 9.30 am.

In a Buddhist temple-turned relief camp, Tharaka is touched by another incident. Sriyani walks around with her one-and-a-half-year-old twin daughter and son, hoping somebody will take their picture. And when someone does, she shyly asks them to send her a copy. Family photographs were her most precious possessions.

?She lost everything, you know,? Tharaka says.

 

SCHOOL SCENES

Perhaps the most poignant sight in Sri Lanka?s tsunami-devastated eastern and southern coasts are schools smashed to smithereens. Broken chairs and tables lie strewn around and at places, pages of books have been laid out to dry. Most of the country?s schools in the coastal areas are situated right next to the sea. An idyllic setting to learn and play, but prime targets when the waves came roaring in.

Most schools have lost teachers and students ? although not in school, since December 26 was a Sunday. At the moment, it?s more clean-up and counselling time than classes.

Principal Ubaidullah?s school in Kinniya town, Trincomalee district, north-eastern Sri Lanka, hasn?t been damaged since it is not on the coast.

?But one toddler died. His mother had taken him to the local hospital because he was ill. The hospital was destroyed, killing doctors, nurses and patients,? Ubaidullah sighs.

He runs an NGO, Kinniya Vision, in the town, which is now working with survivors in the relief camps. He is also mourning the devastation in his ancestral hometown of Nagapattinam, in south India.

M. Beethala is a pre-school toddlers? teacher in the fishing village of Kuchchaveli, in Trincomalee. Her classroom was swamped by the waves, ruining chairs, tables and toys. She is ready to hold classes for her 60 students in her own front yard, if provided with a tent. But then she remembers that now there are 58, with two tiny tots killed by the tsunami, and she weeps.

Save the Children has begun play therapy in relief camps and affected areas, where people continue to live, as part of its programme. But the teachers, too, will have to be counselled.

 

NORTH-SOUTH DIVIDE

Cleaning up has begun, with the army demolishing and clearing rubble that was once school buildings. But while a marked difference has been made in the south of the country, the work is only just getting started in the north.

An added problem in the north is the separate LTTE and government-controlled areas. Unicef continues to report children going missing from relief camps in Trincomalee, Ampara and Batticaloa, probably taken by the LTTE. Some have returned, but a handful are still unaccounted for.

?I don?t know which is worse, the fighting or the tsunami. Both affect children the same, man-made conflict and natural disaster,? says an NGO official who used to work with children affected by armed conflict in the northern regions of Sri Lanka, as a result of the trouble between government forces and LTTE rebels. Now, that has taken a backseat. The rehabilitation of child soldiers project has all but stopped.

?Parents believe that the children who are missing are still alive. When the district superintendent visits them, they ask what happened to their children. We try to tell mothers that it was not their fault, that the waves were too strong, that they had to save themselves first, but they feel guilty. We now have to work with the parents because if they are not alright, then the children won?t be,? the NGO official signs off.

(Pictures by author)


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