'All the teachers are gone'

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Schools across Asia are struggling to cope with trauma, grief and devastation in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

Andaman Islands, India

Hari Krishna was back in school on Monday, confused as ever in his chemistry class, but grateful for any place to learn at all.

The tsunami on December 26 swept away his old school on the remote island of Hut Bay, in India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, killing his teachers and some of his classmates.

Now the 16-year-old is studying alongside other refugees in a camp far from home. "It feels like the first day of school - all new faces, new teachers," Hari said.

Schools have re-opened on the islands which lie off India's south-west coast, after the tsunami swamped coastlines in southern Asia.

On Monday, India's official death toll was 9,479, with 5,681 others missing and feared dead.

More than 800 have been buried or cremated on the islands.

"My head spins every time I think of that sight. There were so many bodies - men, women, cows, dogs," said Hari, whose family lost its home, but survived. "I don't even know how many of my classmates died - who could count? And all the teachers are gone."

Only a few concrete poles remain of his school, and he is concerned because all his academic records have been lost.

"Now there's no proof of who I am and which school I studied in," Hari said. "My examination card, my educational certificates, books, everything is gone."

At the refugee camps where Hari and others are staying in Port Blair, the islands' capital, dozens of makeshift classrooms have opened. New books, stationery and uniforms were handed out.

Hari is among tens of thousands of children displaced by the disaster.

Worldwide, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has estimated that more than a third of the 150,000 tsunami deaths are children, because they were less able to hold on to trees and buildings to survive the force of the waves.

Medical teams are battling to stave off outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in schools packed with homeless families from fishing villages on the battered Indian coast.

For survivors, beside the immediate issue of food and water, psychological trauma will also be a major concern, and counselling needs to be provided, aid groups said.

Sushil Singh, principal of a Port Blair high school, one of many schools being used as a relief camp, said the children living in the shelter are all scared. "Often they imagine there are tremors and run out of the building in the night. We are trying to put them at ease with sports like football and cricket," he said.

During lunchbreak, Hari watched silently as students from his old school did what most Indian boys love best: they played cricket with a broken chair for a wicket and its arm rest for a bat.

In a break from playing, the fifth and sixth graders huddled around Hari on the steps and fondly recalled the teachers in their old school, muttering the names of those they believe have died, since none has appeared at the refugee centre.

"I miss home. I feel like crying all the time," said Tejeshwar Rao, 12. "My parents used to say, 'We are working hard to earn money so that you may go to school.' But where's the school?"

Over a megaphone, a relief camp official called that it was time for lunch, but no one moved.

"We don't want to eat," said S. Lover, also 12.

"When we put a piece of food in our mouths, we can see only the dead bodies in our mind. Our friends are all gone - we just want to throw up."

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