Child Victims of Tsunami Still Struggling to Recover

One year ago, a huge earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia, triggering the tsunami that left an estimated 220,000 people dead across South Asia. Philip Reeves went back to Sri Lanka and reports on the long-term effects of the tragedy on children who survived.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the tsunami that took the lives of an estimated 220,000 across South Asia. Tomorrow there will be official ceremonies in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. Today, loved ones prayed at mass graves and laid wreaths on beaches. One of the most tragic aspects of the tsunami was its effect on children. In Sri Lanka alone, some 15,000 children died; thousands lost one or both parents and many were left with deep emotional scars. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

Ms. YASMIN HAQUE (UNICEF): It's a lazy Sunday morning and people are going about their routine at home and suddenly they start seeing the waves come in.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Even now, one year later, the events on the morning of the 26th of December seem surreal, a catastrophe on a deceptively quiet and sunny day, a catastrophe that literally came out of the blue.

Ms. HAQUE: First it was a smaller wave, which made people pause and think and then the bigger waves hit and then as everyone started to run away from the waves, that was when the panic really started. And for children, at that point, it was, you know, `What's going on?'

REEVES: That's Yasmin Haque of the UN's children's agency, UNICEF. She's putting it mildly. It's hard to imagine the confusion and terror of thousands of children as they were swept up by giant waves from the Indian Ocean. Most of the kids couldn't swim or lacked the physical strength to cling on to something. When the waters receded, another multitude of children found themselves without a home.

Ms. HAQUE: Then events, in a way took over, the huge displacement, people moving into schools, mosques, temples, churches, wherever there was space.

(Soundbite of children playing)

REEVES: This is a scene you wouldn't have found a year ago in the villages along Sri Lanka's devastated east coast. But Ramashan Dremalashala(ph) says the children haven't forgotten what happened. In fact, she says her children still carry many mental wounds and that affects the adults as well.

Ms. RAMASHAN DREMALASHALA: (Through Translator) Because of the children, we are more scared, not only for us, for them, too. They're also psychologically affected by the rumor--the constant rumors of another tsunami and they're constantly on the look out for a tsunami.

REEVES: Yet there has been much progress in the last year. UNICEF says nine out of 10 children affected by the tsunami in Sri Lanka are back in school, although 100,000 are still living in temporary shelters. Aid agencies are running workshops to help children cope with the terrible images they now carry around in their heads, not least by talking about them. UNICEF's Yasmin Haque remembers one story told to her by a young teen-age boy.

Ms. HAQUE: We were walking around and he came and talked to us and when the second wave came, he got his sister and put her on the back of his bike and started moving away from the house. They were right on the coast. And then the third wave came and he found himself and his sister on a tree, one of the coconut trees and he tied them--he tied themselves to it. After a while, when the next wave came, he doesn't remember anything. He found himself lying 200 meters inland in a football field, and he never found his sister. And he was saying it very mechanically.

REEVES: About 1,000 children in Sri Lanka were orphaned by the tsunami. Victor Nylund, head of child protection for UNICEF in Sri Lanka, says a further 4,000 lost a father or mother, posing difficult problems for the surviving parent.

Mr. VICTOR NYLUND (UNICEF): If it's the father who is not used to taking care of children, now he's having to deal with that and finding ways of taking care of the children. And mothers, of course, need to find gainful employment and be able to take care of their children while also taking care of them in the house. So it's a very difficult situation in Sri Lanka to be a single parent.

REEVES: There are traditions in Sri Lanka's villages which, in a crisis like this, only make it harder for children. Nylund again.

Mr. NYLUND: Traditionally, when people remarry in this country, they don't take the children from the old marriage to the new marriage and hence a lot of institutionalized children who have parents but they have entered into new marriages.

REEVES: Changing such attitudes is one of the tasks facing the international aid agencies. Yasmin Haque says there are plenty of others.

Ms. HAQUE: Constructing houses, constructing schools, bringing in supplies, looking at water systems. And while that is going on, it's also maintaining people who are in transition, the 100,000 children who are still not in their own house. The tsunami response is not going to be over for another two to three years, that's for sure.

REEVES: It may take longer because now a new worry's emerged: There are predictions the Sri Lankan civil war put on ice by a cease-fire could flare up again and that militants fighting for a Tamil homeland in the island's north are ready to resume hostilities with the government. That would be a dismal development for this tropical island and especially for the children of the tsunami.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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