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'We rebuilt our schools before, we will have to do it again'

After the destruction wrought by two decades of civil war, communities in coastal Sri Lanka were beginning to rebuild their lives and homes. Then the tsunami struck. TES reporter Graeme Paton reports on the aftermath

Just over a month ago, 450 children swarmed the corridors of the small Roman Catholic primary school in the heart of Mullaitivu, on Sri Lanka's north-east coast.

Today, the children are gone, the life ripped out of the once vibrant school and Mullaitivu reduced to a ghost town. On December 26 the school buildings, along with almost everything else in this isolated fishing community, were wrecked by monstrous waves that crashed ashore in South Asia. All that remains is the concrete shell of the school chapel.

The schoolyard, a setting for many impromptu lunchtime cricket matches, is buried deep beneath tonnes of rubble. Small, grey plastic chairs and broken wooden desks lie between the piles of jagged concrete blocks. Textbooks, discoloured and wrinkled by salt water, and scraps of yellowed paper flutter by, carried by the sea wind.

As I tread carefully over what's left of the Mullaitivu Roman Catholic Tamil mixed school, I spot a photograph of one of the children lying amidst the ruins. It is not known if she is among the 4,000 dead in the town and surrounding province. In all, 163 of the 3,547 schools on Sri Lanka's coastline were destroyed or damaged by the tsunami. More than 77,000 children and 3,194 teachers were left without a school to go at the start of January.

But in Mullaitivu, and the neighbouring northern province of Jaffna, the pain of the past 34 days is nothing new.

For some 20 years, the two districts were in the frontline of a bloody war between government forces and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels. The fighting, which claimed almost 60,000 lives across the country, reduced most of Mullaitivu's 75-year-old Catholic school to rubble. When the Sri Lankan government took control of the town in 1990, almost the entire population fled and the school was abandoned. Many moved into welfare camps, including those set up in the town of Pudikudirippu, 12 miles away, where lessons continued in tents and abandoned buildings under the tutelage of the few teachers who could be gathered together.

Now, more than two years after the last serious clashes of the conflict, thousands are back under the same white canvas tents. T Gurukularajah, the district's zonal director of education since 1997, remembers the barren years. "Most of the schools were destroyed in the war and many pupils and their parents died. They were distressing times. In the 1990s children were displaced - many moved four or five miles away - and any kind of formal education system was difficult to maintain."

It was not only schools in the north that were affected. Cash was diverted from education budgets to fund the war effort; many of Sri Lanka's universities were slimmed down, and families who could afford it increasingly sought an education overseas for their sons and daughters.

But, in recent years, the worst-hit districts were being slowly transformed. Most of the population of Mullaitivu returned in 1998, two years after the Tigers retook the town, and a ceasefire in 2002 offered more hope. Since then bridges leading into the town have been rebuilt, a metaphor for the relative prosperity witnessed over the past two years.

Thousands of pounds of Tamil Tiger and government money, along with aid from Unicef, was invested in schools and health systems. Booster classes were set up for children displaced by the war, and normal classes started earlier and finished later to give pupils the chance to catch up. At the Mullaitivu Roman Catholic Tamil mixed school two new classroom blocks were built and a science lab was being planned. But, on Boxing Day 2004, two years' hard work and a cautious optimism about the future were erased in minutes.

Along with representatives from the local Unicef office, I accompany Mr Gurukularajah, a former teacher, as he surveys the remains of the school he helped rebuild. A disconsolate look is etched on his face; the look of a man who feels his efforts are almost futile. "I have seen the damage bombing has done to these schools, but I could not believe my eyes when I came here after the tsunami. It was hard to remain here even for just a few minutes.

"I doubt that money will be available again quickly; this is a poor area, it was already far behind the rest of the country, and any new money will have to be distributed to all affected areas of Sri Lanka. It may be 2010 before this school, and the others destroyed by the tsunami, start to be rebuilt, but it could take much longer."

Mr Gurukularajah's office, a relatively plush new HQ, had only just been built a few hundred yards from the coast and was due to be officially opened this week. It was washed away, too. "I am the only zonal director to be affected this badly. I do not even have a telephone." He shrugs his shoulders.

Phone or not, the first grim task for the education director and his small team, currently based in what looks like an old farmhouse a few miles from the devastation, is attempting to list the names of pupils and teachers who have died. All registers and school logs in the affected areas have been lost and there is nowhere yet arranged for all the province's 3,535 school-less pupils to be educated. At the Mullaitivu Roman Catholic school, no one knows how many pupils lost their lives, although the school is no stranger to death. On the side of the remaining school chapel building, poignantly, the names of 39 ex-students who died fighting for the Tamil Tigers between 1989 and 2001 are clearly visible in red paint on a wall.

Beneath, someone has added "Tsunami 261204".

A few hundred yards from the school is the Senthalair centre, an orphanage for 120 children. Most lost their fathers in the war and were left here as their mothers sought work or retraining elsewhere. The orphanage, less than 100 metres from the seafront, was all but wiped out by the giant waves; all that remains is the roofless shells of two single-storey buildings. Ninety children, many of whom attended the local school, were killed. In the rubble, the sad remnants of the children's lives are still visible: school bags, exercise books, toys and tatty clothes ruined by the seawater.

The remaining children have been moved several miles inland to a temporary shelter in the Tigers' stronghold of Kilinochchi, but the trauma of the experience is plain to see. As I enter the small compound, hastily constructed with help from Unicef, one small boy sits alone, hugging a donated red stuffed toy, on some empty upturned artillery shell casings, now ringing one of the trees as a sort of small makeshift wall.

Five-year-old Thasan, I am told by a volunteer, has not spoken since the tsunami struck, killing most of his friends. He has not seen his mother since before Christmas; she was working some 10 miles south when the disaster happened and is said to be recovering in a local hospital.

Selvarasa Selvarani, 41, the wife of a Tamil soldier killed in the war, had also left her four daughters in the orphanage as she had found work elsewhere. She managed to return hours after the tsunami struck, but two of her children had been lost. Selvarasa found the body of one daughter in the rubble three days after the tragedy, but the other is still missing.

Hugging her two surviving children, Santhini, 11, and Kumuthini, 13, she says: "We have lost so much in war and the tsunami. There is nothing left; all I have is my daughters."

But the hardship is not limited to a small strip around the coast.

Elsewhere in the district, schools unaffected by the waves are also unable to reopen yet, although the government target was for all children to return to classes by the end of January. In this area alone, 17 schools are being used to house displaced families. Around 240 schools nationwide have been similarly commandeered.

At Mulliyawalai Vidyamanda college, which lies between the towns of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, Kumarasamy Nagaratnam, 55, stands in a classroom surrounded by the few meagre possessions she was able to salvage from the wreck of her home. Mrs Nagaratnam's husband was killed in the war, stabbed in the back, she says, by a government soldier as she and her family tried to flee the army's advance into Mullaitivu.

She now lives in the school, alongside 360 other families, with her two teenage sons and granddaughters, Mathusa, eight, and two-year-old Jithusa.

The two young children were staying with her when the waves struck, killing their parents, including Mrs Nagaratnam's daughter. "The tsunami was so loud, we thought we were being bombed again by the army," she says. "Our homes are gone, we moved away during the war and we are moving away again now. We will never go back to our homes in Mullaitivu."

Conditions are cramped, with up to 10 people sleeping on mats on the floor of a small classroom. All the signs of school life have been removed; the only reminders of its normal use are the blackboards still hanging on the wall and the odd desk being used to pile clothes. Mulliyawalai Vidyamanda college should be handed back to local pupils soon; a huge transit camp is being built by Unicef a few miles away for the 1,200 people housed here.

But elsewhere it is not known how long families will have to live like this; some aid workers say it could be a year before everyone is moved from the school buildings. Until then, classes for the remaining children will probably take place in tents on the school fields.

Aid has not been slow to get into the north of the country. Unlike the south, charities have been stationed in provinces such as Mullaitivu and government-held Jaffna since the war broke out in the late 1970s. Despite fears of disease in the wake of the disaster, hardly anyone in this area has fallen seriously ill with cholera, typhoid, or dysentery. Unicef has agreed to help affected pupils by giving them school uniforms, and standard government textbooks are being reprinted. Trauma counselling is also high on the agenda; at least two teachers in each affected school will be trained to spot the signs of emotional scarring.

More than 250 pupils from one school in Galle, the Sujatha College, are believed to have died in the tsunami. Unicef say counselling will also be available to teachers at such schools to deal with the trauma. Manel Perera, who has taught at the school for four years, says: "Two girls, two of my best students, were killed. Teachers have to be seen to be strong in front of students, but most of the teachers here have lost at least one student, it is very hard for some of us to deal with emotionally."

But in this area in particular, rebuilding will be a slow affair.

Landmines, many shifted by the floods, are spread across the region, and movement into Tamil-controlled areas is heavily restricted. Unlike the rest of the country, access for journalists is limited and movement is possible only at the invitation of aid agencies.

Last week schools were also placed on high alert after three children displaced by the tsunami were allegedly abducted by members of the Tamil Tigers as part of a child recruitment drive. According to Unicef, one 15-year-old girl was picked up from a refugee camp in the Batticaloa area, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, and two other girls, aged 11 and 12, were abducted from camps in Ampara further down the coast. Another seven children have been snatched in non-coastal areas in recent weeks. In the face of so many destroyed schools, lost pupils and dead colleagues, Mr Gurukularajah has to remain optimistic. "We rebuilt our schools before, we will have to do it again," he says. "Education for these people is too important, it is the way to a better life." But, surveying the wreck of the Mullaitivu Roman Catholic Tamil mixed school, it is difficult to see life here ever returning to normality.

Tsunami appeal

Unicef was able to respond immediately in all the tsunami-affected countries by providing water tanks, vaccines, school supplies and tents.

The long-term work to rebuild children's lives is just beginning: help is still needed to rehabilitate schools and health services, and provide trauma counselling, child registration and family reunification services.

Unicef is grateful to donors and schools for their support. For more information on Unicef 's work, fundraising ideas and resources for schools visit and click on "TESAppeal" at the bottom. Phone donations can be made by calling 08457 312 312.

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