Kids show resilience in tsunami aftermath

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star" is one of Rangika De Silva's favorite English songs. So when the 5-year-old, whose favorite food is mangoes, sang it perfectly amid the heavy rubble of her former oceanfront home, applause was spontaneous.

Earlier, adults had crowded round Rangika, squatting to hear how she was saved when head-high water engulfed her on Dec. 26. "The sea came and my brother put me in the kotambe tree, far up high where I was safe," she recalls. "He carried me above his head, with his arms, like this," she says, with her palms stretched up.

Children were hit particularly hard by the tsunami that flooded and flattened Southeast Asian coasts. Officials say the current was swifter - and the impact more terrific - than small people could handle.

But as parents come to terms with the calamity, children here are sharing stories of survival. And they're making a common request: It would be wise, they say, to create an early-warninging system - should a tsunami come again.

Few children of any age interviewed this week in south Sri Lanka could define a tsunami or its cause. But having weathered its effects, they were clear they didn't want to repeat the experience.

Askanka Nuwan Pradeep, age 9, for example, did not attend the tsunami relief summit in Jakarta yesterday. But the bright-eyed cricket-lover, who "ran fast" to high ground at a Buddhist temple during the flood, has a message about an early-warning system: "We need to know if a wave is coming; many more people will live. I want to be a doctor; but the tsunami will harm my future if I can't study and I fall behind."

Some stories in the flood's aftermath have been told dozens of times, and some are only now coming out.

Shenan Menuranga, for example, the 5-year-old son of a fisherman in Beruwala, was one of a handful of survivors of a south-bound coastal train that cracked up and flooded when the waters came, one of the worst single tragedies here. Shenan had been running around the compartment where his two sisters and mother were sitting when the second wave hit. They did not make it. "I went up into the bag holder because it was away from the water," says young Shenan, speaking of a narrow luggage rack in the back of each car.

Today, Shenan, who likes karate lessons, sits in his father's arms, wearing a Sacramento Kings T-shirt, a donation. The father, Rangit Leelananda, only discovered several days ago that his son was alive; he returned from the ocean at four in the morning on Dec. 26 and didn't take the train. When hearing the rest of the family perished, Mr. Leelananda assumed the son was gone, too. But Shenan says a lady took him to a village after the water subsided. At the village, Shenan was eventually routed to authorities who eventually put his photo on a TV message board, where the father saw him.

"I thought my family was gone, and now I feel like there is something to live for," says Leelananda. "The boy is going to get a good education, he is going to a good school."

Up and down the coastal highway, some parents tell reporters that the tsunami has powerfully brought their family together - by clarifying how important children are to them in a way they never experienced before.

One father, M.W.M Pradeep, an electrician in the village of Marissa, says the wave came so fast that he instantly found myself picking up his 3-year-old.

"I gave up everything and without thinking I selected the most important thing in my life - my girl," he says. "It made things very clear to me, at that level."

Children here are showing remarkable resilience. Some children run around refugee camps or in the ruins of houses within a mile of the coast, like flocks of birds, playing and laughing. Many experts say that play and laughter is what seems most normal for children, and they advise a healthy dose of play, and a new set of toys or games.

"I play cricket in the afternoon and then I don't think about the tsunami," says Pradeep. "I think about the tsunami when I have free time, and hope it won't come again. But I don't think about it when I'm playing cricket or watching cartoons."

Chamika Madhusan, who plays 50 feet from the water where he has lived all his 11 years, says he forgets Dec. 26 when his friends are around. "I don't want to go swimming or be a fisherman anymore," says Chamika, whose father is now an unemployed driver and whose mother sews. "I'm only afraid of the ocean now when I'm alone."

"I saw big waves come falling over walls and houses," says Gathmini Vihanga Vithanage, a third-grader in Galle, "Tsunami destroyed everything in my house ... school books, toys, and our two pet ducks, love birds, and fish tank. I'm very sad."

An Indian Navy medical team brought a psychologist to Galle who tells reporters that in the days after the tsunami, children were extremely anxious and some did not speak.

Many children also have not been told of parents or family that have perished. Shenan, for example, was told that his mother and two sisters swam away, but will come back someday.

What's unhealthy, most informed adults agree, is allowing kids to run unsupervised for too many days or weeks in environments or landscapes that often look as if they've been carpet-bombed. The school holiday period in which the tsunami hit will end on Jan. 10.

Kingsley Wickramaratne, governor of south Sri Lanka, affirmed this week that tents will be set up near schools that are destroyed, and that children will be required to attend classes starting on Jan. 10, as normal.

Children's advocates are encouraging parents here to reestablish normal routines for their children. "What children mostly need in a traumatic situation such as this is some normalcy," says Unicef chief Carol Bellamy after visiting refugee children in the ethnic Tamil region north of Sri Lanka. "...Being able to play, that's what children like to do. Going to school. That's the best thing."

But there are other reasons to return to school next week. One is that, of 14 young people between 5 and 17 interviewed this week, including two young Buddhist monks, none actually knew what a tsunami was, and only three could say clearly what an earthquake was. There is little idea of how elementary geophysics works, and little understanding of maps and laws of nature. Only two children actually say their parents discussed the tsunami with them. One local father says that it is not customary in Sri Lanka's rural areas for young children to participate in family discussions with elders.

With his back to the ocean, Chamika says he doesn't know why the wave came, "but I would like to learn. I hope they will teach this in school now."

Some teachers interviewed say they didn't know what a tsunami was either, but that curricula will probably adjust. An English teacher in Marissa says she used to have kids write out English language news, but dropped the assignment since kids disliked news. Now, she says, parents and students both have approached her asking that news programs be put back.

The one agreement this week among children is that no one wants to brush up against another tsunami, and that telling coastal citizens ahead of a wave makes good sense. Shenan's cousin, who is in her 20s, says "the Sri Lankan people have no system to warn them of destruction."

Rangika, too, hopes for more warning. "I think the wave could happen again, and it is better if someone would tell us," she says.

But Rangika is not someone who ponders these things for too long. Instead, she treated reporters and dozens of family members to another rendition of "Twinkle, twinkle," her small voice heard around the wreckage: "How I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky...."

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