Drawing on horrors of real life

18th July 2008 at 01:00
On Boxing Day, 2004, a tsunami devastated the island of Sri Lanka. As part of dealing with the aftermath, pupils drew pictures of what they had experienced. Jean McLeish reports

On Boxing Day, 2004, a tsunami devastated the island of Sri Lanka. As part of dealing with the aftermath, pupils drew pictures of what they had experienced. Jean McLeish reports

At first glance the colourful paintings seem exuberant and joyful, but a closer look tells a different story.

This is one of the drawings done by children in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami. Seventy pupils at Weligama School were orphaned or lost a parent in the disaster on Boxing Day, 2004.

Aberdeenshire teachers Helen O'Brien and Fran Tomlinson were given eight of their paintings to bring home when they visited the school in Sri Lanka earlier this year.

After the tsunami, their school, Ellon Academy, set up links with Weligama through the family of a Sri Lankan pupil in Ellon, Anudath Samaraweera, 14. The paintings will now form part of an exhibition in the school and its community centre area to raise awareness of school fund-raising activities.

The school's sixth-year Link committee began establishing connections with schools overseas 15 years ago with previous projects in Africa and Kosovo, encouraging children's awareness of events overseas and fund-raising to deliver aid.

But in March this year, the school decided the teachers should visit Weligama in Sri Lanka to assess how ongoing financial help could most effectively be directed and to explore how educational and social ties could be strengthened between the two schools.

Weligama is in one of the areas worst affected by the tsunami and just a few miles from Peraliya, where the Queen of the Sea train was washed away with the loss of over 1,300 lives.

The paintings were done as part of the children's recovery process after the disaster, which claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people in Sri Lanka alone.

"It's what they saw. The paintings were used as therapy after the tsunami for the children. Rather than talk about it and write things down, they used art to express what they'd been through," says Ellon geography teacher Fran Tomlinson.

"We picked them up and you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. It was just so emotive to look at these pictures. I could have cried when I saw some of them, because the pictures just spoke thousands of words, without any words being written down," says Helen O'Brien who teaches music at the Aberdeenshire school. "You saw dead bodies in the sea and hanging out of the windows and the Red Cross and the ambulance and the helicopter and the crying. They were drawing people with tears in their eyes and down their cheeks."

Ellon pupils have already raised thousands of pounds for the school and sponsor 10 students out there. They have sent computer equipment and re- stocked the school library and plan to continue fund-raising for further remedial work.

"Our immediate project we are working on is the toilet block, because when we were over there we saw that they've only just four corrugated iron shelters, two of them without doors - they're just pit toilets," says Helen.

"They have no flushing toilets, they've no hand-wash facilities. I thought, `What better way for us to give something to them that absolutely everybody in the school could benefit from?'"

There are 440 pupils in the Weligama School, which caters for children from primary age through to 16.

"It was amazing to see all the children beautifully turned out. Each and every child was wearing school uniform with not a hair out of place or a bead of sweat on their brow. They were immaculate," says Fran.

"They are a fabulous nation. They are so welcoming, respectful, polite and content. They've got nothing, but they don't seem to be the type of people who would moan about not having very much; they're very content with what they have," adds Helen.

"Weligama was quite badly hit. I think someone explained that, because of the river, it kind of swept round and swept the wave up the river, and loads of people live alongside the river," says Fran.

"In some areas there's really no evidence that anything ever happened. Yet, a few miles down the coast, things are still looking pretty much as they were."

The teachers plan to take a group of Ellon students to Sri Lanka next year, so the pupils can become involved in much-needed work at the school.

One temporary classroom being used as a play area still bears the scars of the past with mangled desks and chairs. The school's allotment is in a poor state and there are only half a dozen or so computers. It's also hoped Ellon pupils could support Sri Lankan students in basic English.

The pupils are as enthusiastic as their teachers and have sent out letters and profiles of themselves for the pupils at Weligama.

"We've been doing presentations to the pupils on our return and they are all fired up," says Helen.

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