Tsunami: One month later

One month after an epic tsunami ravaged southern Asia, children and teachers in Indonesia’s worst-hit Aceh province on Wednesday made an emotional return to school, where thousands of desks of classmates and colleagues sat empty.

Alqausar, a six-year-old boy with neatly parted hair and carrying a Power Rangers bag, arrived at school with his mother and wondered where his best friend Andi was. But reality soon dawned on him.

“I don’t think he’s coming,” whispered the boy, one of six in his class of 43 who showed up at a primary school. Of the school’s enrolment of 600, only 260 came on Wednesday.
The others are presumed dead.

Mourners along a road on Sri Lanka’s shattered coastline lit candles and set coloured flags in silent memory of at least 30 957 people who died there on December 26.

“In memory of that day, for the missing and dead in all the countries, we are praying that a tsunami will never return,” said L Chandaransi, head monk at the Ariyakara Viharaya temple near the southern Sri Lankan city of Galle.

Up to 147 000 people are still missing in areas hit by the disaster, and differing government tallies put the death toll between 144 000 and 178 000. But workers continue to find bodies under mud-caked rubble, and the death toll is expected to rise.

Children returning to schools for their first official day of class since the tsunami in Indonesia found buildings filled with mud and debris. Books were soggy and new microscopes were ruined.

English teacher Roslina Ramli—who lost her four children to the tsunami—was the first of 25 teachers to show up.

“There were 75 teachers here before,” she said, wiping tears with a tissue.

In one classroom, workers doing last-minute clean-up found a body on Wednesday while shovelling out thick mud.

The government estimates that 700 to 1 100 schools in the province were destroyed by the tsunami and that 1 750 primary-school teachers are dead or missing. Nearly 180 000 students have no schools to go to, Minister of Welfare Alwi Shihab said.

In Thailand, where at least 5 384 people were killed and more than 3 100 are missing, two residents of the island of Koh Lanta were to mark the anniversary by launching new boats built for them with relief agency donations.

Before heading out to sea at high tide, the front of each boat was to be wrapped in a seven-coloured cloth and flowers, in keeping with regional traditions.

Baby 81

Next week, a judge in Sri Lanka will begin hearing evidence from nine women who each claim that an infant dubbed “Baby 81” is her lost child.

The baby boy was found half-buried in mud hours after last month’s tsunami and is being cared for at a hospital in eastern Sri Lanka, where he was the 81st admission on the day of the disaster.

“I will go through all the evidence and if I am not satisfied, I will order a DNA test,” said Judge MP Mohaideen.

United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) officials in Sri Lanka, meanwhile, said Tamil Tiger rebels, who have been fighting the government for 19 years for an independent homeland, have recruited 40 children since the December 26 tsunami.

Four cases were from tsunami survivor camps, and the others were recruited after the disaster from rebel-controlled villages in the island’s north and east, said Martin Dawyes, a Unicef spokesperson in Colombo. One of the recruits was 13 years old and the others were 17, he said.

The rebels and government signed a ceasefire in February 2002, but the truce is fragile and human rights groups say the insurgents have since recruited more than 3 500 children.

Having raised 1,4-billion Swiss francs (R7-billion) for tsunami relief, the international Red Cross said on Wednesday it is winding down its appeal for tsunami victims because it has raised enough money to continue long-term relief efforts in the region.

The United States military is scaling back its tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia after nearly a month of airlifting food and medicine to devastated parts of Aceh province.

The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which was diverted to Sumatra within four days of the disaster with 17 SH-60 Seahawk helicopters aboard, is preparing to sail home to Everett, Washington, the military officials said.

The UN, Australia and other countries have begun flying their own helicopters.

“Our role was important at first. Now that the other forces are coming in, the need for the helicopters is less important,” said Rear Admiral William Crowder, who commands the Lincoln‘s battle group.

Slow recovery efforts

Behind Wednesday’s commemorations and public grieving was a deepening sense of frustration among some survivors over the slowness of recovery efforts.

“We have not received any assistance yet,” read a banner strung between plastic tents housing survivors in Sri Lanka’s Galle.

The government has promised to rebuild homes destroyed in the tsunami but has banned houses from being built along the beach front. Fishermen have grumbled that they need to live near the water for their livelihood.

“We have enough food and water but we need boats and nets. We don’t want to be beggars,” said fisherman Priyantha Senaviratna (27), who lost his four-year-old daughter to the waves.

“I lost everything to the sea, but I want to get it back through the sea. If the government will give me a boat, I can start my life again,” he said. “I just hear politicians’ promises but I see no action at all.”—Sapa-AP

Tini Tran in Galle, Sri Lanka, Dilip Ganguly in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Teh Eng Koon in Koh Lanta, Thailand, and Hrvoje Hranjski aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln contributed to this report

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