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The Most Tragic Lesson

At a School in Sri Lanka, Nature's Grim Math

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page D01

NAVALADI, Sri Lanka -- Classes were supposed to start today after the end-of-the-year holiday at the Namahal Vidyalayam School in what used to be a fishing village on this sliver of sand between the Indian Ocean and a saltwater lagoon. But no class bell is going to ring.

At least 150 of the school's 313 students are dead.


Arulraj, 15, views his school's ledger with uncle Ravichandran. He smiles upon discovering he'd made good grades in November. The December grades were never posted. (Neely Tucker -- The Washington Post)

__ Tsunami in South Asia __

Casualty Map
Track the path of destruction in an animated map and view updated casualty reports.

How to Help Victims

_____ Rebuilding Weligama _____

The Post's Dobbs
writes of his own experiences and efforts to help rebuild a Sri Lanka community.

_____ On the Scene _____

Photo Gallery: Return to School
Photo Gallery: Tsunami Aftermath
Satellite Images: Banda Aceh

'Like a Scene From the Bible'
The Post's Michael Dobbs describes his experience in Sri Lanka.
Transcript: A First Person Account
Video: Dobbs Recounts Experience
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Another 11 are missing.

A 14-year-old student named Sasiharan, who uses one name as is customary here, survived because he was out of town during the tsunami that hit two weeks ago.

His parents were swept out to sea.

"I don't ever want to go back there," he says, playing checkers in a refugee camp in the nearby town of Batticaloa, dozens of his former classmates scampering about. "Anywhere but there."

Amid stories of tsunami orphans and traumatized children in nations across the Indian Ocean, there is a more prosaic reality for parents and school officials in the devastated coastline of the northeastern corner of this island nation -- how to get children back to some semblance of school, and something that might be called normal life.

"I'd really like to keep my same teacher," says Piragasini, a 12-year-old sixth-grader from Navaladi. She survived the tidal wave when neighbors hauled her onto the roof of a house, seconds before she was overtaken by the water. Her older sister died. She and the rest of her family are homeless; their house was swept clean to the foundation. Still, she has another concern:

"If I go to school in a camp, will my teacher be there, too?"

Local school officials have no idea.

Entire villages have been destroyed. Navaladi is something like an impoverished version of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Before the tsunami, only one-lane roads connected the village of one-story brick homes and shanties with the mainland. The entire strip, perhaps three-quarters of a mile wide from ocean to lagoon at its widest, was all sand.

Today, the place is accessible only by a two-mile hike across deserted dunes in 90-degree heat or by four-wheel- drive vehicle A grove of palm trees still stands. Virtually nothing else does for several miles. There are shattered brick and concrete house foundations and exposed circles of concrete that turn out to be wells. There are places where the earth drops off a good six feet beneath the remnants of the roadway.

Dogs and a few cows roam. Call out, "Helllloooo!! Helllloooo!!!" and no one answers. There are bicycles in trees. Remember that scene in "Planet of the Apes," where Charlton Heston gets out of his spaceship and walks forever, and later finds a half-buried sign that says "New York"?

That is what Navaladi looks like.

There were perhaps 5,200 people here two weeks ago.

According to school and town officials making a brief tour of the place Friday in a four-wheel-drive truck, perhaps 1,200 of the villagers have been found alive. Most are in refugee camps or with family members nearby.

"The rest are dead or missing," said Pavalakanthan, the director of education for the school district that includes Navaladi.

If the number of dead proves accurate, it would be more than 10 percent of the entire nation's fatalities. Pavalakanthan and other local officials point out that the orphan problem here would be far worse save for the fact that many of the dead were children.

"Grades 7 through 11 are mostly okay," he said. "Grades 1 through 6 have very few children."

Bearing evidence of that is a 12-year-old student named Vijitha. She is drawing on typing paper handed out by UNICEF in the refugee camp on the run-down grounds of a Methodist college on the mainland, wearing a brown dress and a shy smile.

"The sea took my mother and my younger brother and sister," she says. "They are gone."

The front quarter of the two-story school, about 400 yards from the ocean, has collapsed. School desks -- those uncomfortable hardwood chairs with the writing table set in front, common to schoolchildren the world over -- lie twisted and dangling from the upper floors.

On the concrete floor outside of one classroom, amid the rubble and debris, lies an open ledger. It is soaked and the back pages are being eaten by worms.

Flip a page or two and the document becomes obvious. It is a grade-by-grade enrollment spreadsheet. There is a student's name on the left and, in grids across and to the right, are grades for geography, math, Tamil, English and so on. It is supposed to be highly confidential.

On Friday it was open for anyone to see. One of the few left living to see it was a 10th-grader named Arulraj.

He's 15 years old, with dark brown hair and eyes to match, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He can't help but grin when he sees his name at the top of the list for November 2004. December was never recorded.

"I made good grades," he says.

His uncle Ravichandran is taking care of him this day. Ravichandran's two daughters -- Sangreetha, 17, and Kalaichelvi, 13, both students at the school -- are dead.

His blue house, perhaps 50 yards away, is one of the few left above ground. It has 1 1/2 walls left standing.

"This village is dead," he says, walking over the grounds. "I don't think people are ever coming back here."

The high school's social studies teacher and assistant principal, Selvanayaham, is balding, with wild patches of hair sticking up in the back, dressed in slacks and a dress shirt. He's standing in front of the school. He looks lost. He has come to a destroyed school on a Saturday morning for little reason but to confirm the fact that it is gone.

"I think one-third of my students are dead," he says.

This situation is extreme but not unique in this stretch of coast. School officials said Friday that at least a dozen of the region's 36 schools are completely destroyed, and many of the others are now being used as refugee camps, rendering them useless for classes. Puvirajasingham, the school's principal, says he's trying to set up classes at one refugee camp, but isn't sure when they will start.

About two miles south along the oceanfront, the St. Ignatius Catholic school has been swept clean to its foundations. The only person roaming its grounds on Friday was the principal, Sivalingam. He says 75 of his 340 students are dead. He gives a tour of the rubble.

"This was my office," he says, walking up two steps that lead to a mass of brick. "And here was my desk." Four steps to the right. "The science lab was here." Step, then jump up on the mounds of brick. He comes to some blue tile. "This was the library."

When he wants to give a more complete picture of the school grounds -- four rectangular buildings, two larger and two smaller, surrounded by a boundary wall -- he is reduced to drawing in the sand.

It's unclear how many of the children at these schools are orphans, or how many have been traumatized by family losses.

There is still no master list of refugee camps, much less of the people living there. There are at least 50 such camps in the area, several of which change locations daily. Aid workers are just gaining access to some of the more remote areas and say they are uncertain of what they'll find there.

The Red Cross is sending teams of volunteers to camps each day in an effort to trace missing family members, but the camps shift so often and so many new people come forward that the entire database has yet to take shape.

"The list of the missing actually gets longer each day, not shorter, because we keep coming across new people," says Paddy McGrath, a Red Cross volunteer coordinating the local effort.

In this mass of confusion, Suba Mahalingam, a child protection officer for UNICEF here, reports that her agency has so far identified, in this one part of Sri Lanka, 43 children who have lost both parents, and more than 400 who have lost at least one parent.

But local authorities hasten to point out that communities here are very small, and extended families are large. Even if a child lost both parents, as did Sasiharan, they still have aunts, uncles and neighbors who have known them all their lives.

In the refugee camp in Batticaloa, Sasiharan squats in the early-morning light, sunshine and shadows falling across a stone courtyard. Dirt and sand and mildewed masonry are everywhere. Dozens of barefoot children from Navaladi play games with UNICEF volunteers. There is the pungent odor of cooking fires and pit toilets. Adjust for skin coloration, and it could be any refugee camp the word has seen over the past decade from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Congo.

Asked how many of the hundreds of people living here he knows, Sasiharan looks around and says, "Everybody."

Perhaps that is why the picture here can change so quickly.

For all the devastation of Navaladi, there is another image worth considering: a sandy backyard where giggling children are playing badminton during an afternoon play date. They ask the mom of the house if they can have a glass of water, use the bathroom. Then they dash back outside.

These are several of the Navaladi school kids from the refugee camp, transformed by a change of clothes and a move of less than two miles from the camp to the home of a couple who knew them. Here is Piragasini, the 12-year-old, laughing and waving a badminton racquet.

She is with her friends. She is safe. She is as happy as can be expected, a pretty little girl with pigtails, bouncing up and down in the sand.

She is, despite everything, at home.


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