Need for careful rebuilding also applies to young souls

KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka - On the last day of their lives, the friends and playmates of 11-year-old Kirishanthini were at an orphanage overlooking a peaceful lagoon near the sea.

When the water came - "It came very fast and black in color," Kirishanthini recalls - it rose over her head, swept her out of her room and dragged her to a tree. She clung to a branch for a half-hour or more, the dark torrent rushing by and washing her friends and playmates away to their deaths - almost too many to contemplate, 120 children in all.

They were de facto wards of the state in a semi-stateless land, Sri Lanka's war-ravaged northeast, governed by the insurgent Tamil Tigers after a two-decade civil war. They were children of the war orphaned or sent from homes too poor or broken to provide for them. The youngest of them were just infants.

Kirishanthini - an orphan since she was 1, with only the single name her caretakers gave her - can talk a little about that day but not about the fate of her friends.

Some of the bodies have been recovered. But the women who run the orphanage have told the survivors that the other children were sent to the hospital or back to their families; the caretakers haven't figured out how or when to tell the children the truth.

"These children don't know about their friends," says Savarna Thavaraja, 26, deputy director of the Center for Women's Development and Rehabilitation, a local organization that operates five children's homes. "Because if we tell them, they'll become traumatized."

Sri Lanka's northeast is just recovering from nearly 20 years of violent conflict between the Tigers and the government that claimed nearly 100,000 lives. In an area that is home to 2.6 million people, the tsunami caused more than 20,000 deaths with thousands missing; many of the dead are women and children.

Families that lost one or more relatives to the war have lost more - dozens more. Families forced from their homes during the fighting multiple times have fled again or now lost their homes entirely. And after generations of young people suffered from the war, relief workers and counselors now fear for the future of another generation of children and their families.

"This disaster has turned the development clock back by at least one generation," said P.V. Unnikrishnan. a doctor visiting the region for ActionAid International. "But we know from experience that if we move fast ... we might make some dent in the next 10 years' time."

The crisis here is only one indication of the challenges that counselors face in all the nations hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami. The heavy losses of life are difficult enough to bear. But that so many people lost multiple family members, and that so many of those killed were women and children, adds dimensions of suffering that can eclipse those of a long, bloody civil war.

For the Tamils of northeast Sir Lanka, the disaster came as they were emerging from years of strife. The Tigers launched a war against the government in 1983 in response to violent government-inspired attacks that targeted Tamils, an ethnic minority.

But the Tigers' ruthless tactics, including suicide bombings, had earned the group a reputation as among the world's most vicious insurgents and a place on the United States' list of terrorist organizations.

The Tigers gained control of much of northeastern Sri Lanka and set up an authoritarian state within a state. But more than 17,500 of their soldiers had been "martryed," the Tigers say; they say an additional 80,000 Tamil civilians died in the fighting before a cease-fire took hold in early 2002.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the country during the conflict and 800,000 were displaced from their homes, in some cases repeatedly and for months or years at a time. People became attuned to the sounds of battle: When the tsunami came, some villagers along the coast believed the government was attacking with its air force or navy.

Some relief workers say this history of turmoil might make northeast Sri Lanka better able to cope with the effects of the tsunami than the rest of the country. Decades of living with battles, with displacement and the death of young soldiers and civilians, prepared some of the survivors for hardship and grief.

Certainly, people were ready to offer help, as relief agencies have been working here at since the beginning of the cease-fire. But some of those relief workers say that for survivors the new hardships transcend any from the civil war.

"This is different. When you're dealing with war, you sometimes get a warning or you're prepared for it ... or you can move away," said Penny Brune, head of UNICEF's field office here. "This is much worse. They're used to disaster but nothing on this scale."

Brune was talking about the kind of losses that have staggered survivors in India and Indonesia as well as Sri Lanka. She said she knew people here who have lost 26 family members. Or 31. Or 50 - losses that transform minds.

Counselors and relief agencies say it is vital to confront the mental effects.

"In the past, the whole focus has been on the physical in other disasters," said Michael B. Finegan, executive director of the Salisbury, Md.-based Peninsula Mental Health Services, a volunteer in Sri Lanka with Catholic Relief Services. "Though we save them [physically], but they're just empty shells of themselves walking around."

How then to approach children such as Kirishanthini, one of three dozen survivors in a children's home that lost 120 children whom she knew. For now, the other survivors play marbles and board games and badminton, unaware of their missing friends' exact state.

"The fact that they have not broken the news might be a problem. Now the whole population is grieving. Everyone is grieving," said Edmund Reginald, a Tamil with a degree in counseling from Loyola College of Maryland who has been working for years in Kilinochchi as a counselor helping children affected by the war. The Hindu and Catholic staff from his counseling center worked with survivors yesterday at a relief camp in the coastal district of Mullaitivu.

"If you delay this process, everybody in this field would know that's not a healthy approach."

Experts warn that children who do not confront their trauma will later be in danger of dropping out of school or generally withdrawing form society. They suggest helping children talk about what they experience, through drawings or role playing. They also urge that children be put back in school with teachers trained to talk about what has happened.

At least some teachers are being trained here to work with the children, but schools have not yet reopened.

Kirishanthini, wearing a yellow-and-purple dress, smiled yesterday when talking about the future - "I'd like to study and improve my life," to be a teacher, she said - but the smile disappeared when she talked about the wave that dragged her to the tree where she held on for her life, while the waters rushed past.

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