- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

MUDALIYARKUPPAM, India — When 6-year-old Divya came back to school after the Christmas break in a fishing village of Tamil Nadu state, too many things had changed.

The school building had been submerged and ruined by the tsunami, so classes were held on a sandy path in the shade of some banana and papaya trees. Neither she nor any of her classmates had books, and only one girl came dressed in the familiar white-and-blue school uniform.

There was no free lunch that the government previously had provided to all the students. Instead, they had to take a long afternoon recess and walk back to the relief camp for food.

But what upset Divya most of all was that her friend Ramya, 7, was not in class. Divya — who, like most people in the region, uses only one name — learned that Ramya had been dragged away by the sea and that her body was discovered several days later in another village about two miles down the coast.

“She was such a nice girl, but now I will not see her again,” said Divya, her expression a mixture of bewilderment and pain.

As children all along the tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu coast begin returning to classes, they are having to face the grim reality of damaged schools; swept-away books, blackboards and school furniture; and, worst of all, missing friends.

On the sandy patch next to Divya’s elementary-school group in Mudaliyarkuppam sit students from the village high school. Several of them are children of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who fled the island nation’s civil war 15 years ago and were settled by the authorities in special camps along the coast.

Sugandha, 13, never experienced the horrors of war back home — she was born in an Indian refugee camp. But life had been tough for her family even before the tsunami.

While trying to put out a fire in a local temple, her father broke his leg and had to stop work as a casual laborer in the village. The family’s thatched house was attacked by surging waves on Dec. 26, sweeping away Sugandha’s books, toys and school uniform, with all the household goods. The family has been forced to move from the refugee camp to a relief camp.

On her first day in school, there was more bad news for Sugandha. Her friend Kirthika is dead, consumed by the sea, and another classmate, Sudaman, lost his mother and has not come to school. He found his mother’s body lying next to the now-abandoned school building.

But attending school, meeting classmates and talking about the suffering they have undergone and witnessed is helping students deal with the trauma of loss and widespread destruction, teachers said.

“A girl, Soundarya, had stopped talking, but spending some time in school with the other children helped her get over her shock,” said N. Rukmini, an elementary-school teacher.

Soundarya survived the tsunami by clinging to the top of a coconut tree.

On the first day of school in Mudaliyarkuppam, the teachers were expecting to see very few students. But the attendance was encouraging — 74 of the 302 high-school students and 65 of the 207 elementary-school students showed up.

Realizing the therapeutic potential of school, the government in the territory of Pondicherry has decided to reopen its schools on Monday, a week earlier than scheduled.

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