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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

A new school means new hope in tsunami-stricken Hambantota, Sri Lanka

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2006/Mead
Children play outside one of the 35 new schools that UNICEF is helping to build in areas of Sri Lanka affected by the December 2004 tsunami.

By Francis Mead

HAMBANTOTA, Sri Lanka, December 2006 – The wave of destruction that swept through Hambantota – a town known for its fishing industry on Sri Lanka’s south coast – is still visible two years later. On the seafront you can find buildings with smashed walls and exposed brickwork, or the crushed prow of a boat stuck into the earth at a bizarre angle.

In December 2004, the tsunami swept through the back wall of the Zahira Primary School, located less than 300 yards from the shore. Since it was Sunday, the school wasn’t in session. Nevertheless, the school suffered enormously. The principal, five teachers and 98 children died that day.

One of those five teachers was the mother of Fawzana, 10. Today, Fawzana lives with her father and two sisters in a small house near the town centre. Fawzana’s father knows when she is missing her mother because she becomes very silent. “I’m always giving her some work, something to play with, so that she’s not alone for too long,” he says.

Rebuilding for the future

Despite their terrible loss, Fawzana and her family seem to have found a measure of comfort and stability in their daily routine. Fawzana’s father helps cut bread for her breakfast while she sleepily brushes her hair and gets her books ready. Then he drives his daughters and their friends to school.

The Zahira school has been rebuilt. It now has high, protective walls and an effective electrical system, which the old building lacked. In one new room, rows of computers wait for children to start working the keyboards. Zahira, which serves 500 students, is now equipped with modern, separate toilet facilities for girls and boys.

Zahira is one of 35 new schools UNICEF has been helping to build in Sri Lanka following the tsunami. Next door, builders are hard at work on a new secondary school.

In Hambantota, as elsewhere, a school has an importance beyond its bricks and mortar.

“In the aftermath of the disaster, you have to consider the psychological factor,” says English teacher S.M. Risham. “You know when the students get back to school they have the opportunity of sharing their experience. At the same time they can get a valuable education so that they’ll be able to stand on their own feet.”

A new start

Fawzana and her classmates haven’t forgotten the tsunami. She’s still afraid of the sea at times, especially if it’s rough. But she is also beginning to turn her mind to the future. “I want to be a teacher because I want to follow my mother. I want to see other children studying and I want to help them do that in the future.”

Back on the seafront, new fishing boats form a colourful arc, a strong sign that the local fishing industry is being restored. And just as Hambantota’s fishing fleet is a vital economic lifeline, its schools are anchors for the whole community.

For Fawzana personally, the revival of the Zahira school represents a new start and new hope.








December 2006:
UNICEF’s Francis Mead reports on the reconstruction of schools in the tsunami-stricken fishing town of Hambantota, Sri Lanka.
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December 2006:
UNICEF Representative in Sri Lanka Joanna Van Gerpen discusses the agency's contribution to the country’s tsunami recovery and the urgent need for peace.
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