Island rebuilds broken lives

14th January 2005 at 00:00
SRI LANKA

The first roll call of Sri Lanka's new school year begins in fits and starts along the country's afflicted coast. It is one of the most important ever, as local authorities have been unable to predict how many of the 300,000 children enrolled in coastal schools before the tsunami struck will attend.

In one primary, Vidyaloka school, in the badly damaged fishing port of Galle, 400 children died out of a total of 1,000. Many orphaned pupils have left to join relatives inland.

"There is no pattern yet of organised exploitation of children, but there is some disturbing anecdotal evidence that all is not as it should be," says Unicef ambassador Martin Bell. "In one case a baby boy was claimed by no fewer than four families."

Only a small minority of schools were functioning this week, despite a gargantuan effort by relief workers, local people and municipal authorities.

The Vidyaloka school was transformed within hours from "a war zone to an almost serviceable building," said Mr Bell, who watched teams with disinfectant work against the clock so that children could return to a "normal life" even as the classroom walls around them were being whitewashed. "It was important for psychological reasons to make the attempt to restart lessons," said Mr Bell, the former BBC correspondent and former independent MP, who visited several schools in the coastal region.

But many schools are still being used to shelter displaced people. Others may never reopen.

Lessons may have to be held outdoors using salvaged equipment and Unicef "school in a box" kits which have just arrived in the country. Some 3,400 of these will be distributed in the coming days, but few schools had them for the start of term.

For children, school at least is a safe environment that can take their mind off the horrors of the previous weeks. Specialist workers have been hurriedly trained by the country's child protection agency to register pupils.

Where schools were back in action, lessons were rudimentary. In one school in Batticaloa new timetables were handed out. They carry Unicef messages warning children of the dangers of landmines swept away from Sri Lankan army outposts on the beach. No one knows where they now are. Unicef has printed one million such timetables.

But even as schools struggled to open, the authorities in most cases did not know how many teachers had survived.

And the parents? "One of the most compelling images was that of parents on the shore, looking out to the sea that had taken their children, as if expecting it to return them, Or, alternatively to take them too," said Mr Bell.

"It isn't only the infrastructure that needs rebuilding, it is the lives of all these people."

Unicef tsunami emergency education appeal: www.unicef.org.uk

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