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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Sri Lanka: Building hope in the aftermath of tragedy

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Dan Thomas
Supendrini Thavabalasingham, 13, lost her mother, two sisters and baby brother in the tsunami.

By Feizal Samath

MULLAITIVU, Sri Lanka, 22 April 2005 – Walking on this desolate beach in northeast Sri Lanka, 13-year-old Supendrini Thavabalasingham tightly grips her father’s hand as they both stare at the sea that shattered their lives.
They are the only two survivors from a family of six that was decimated by the tsunami. Three months later, with the help of UNICEF and its partners, the father and daughter are trying to get their lives back together, hoping to put the tragic events of 26 December 2004 behind them.
“My mother told me I should study well and help my parents when I grow up. Now I need to study well and look after my father,” Supendrini says quietly after picking through the rubble that is left of her family home.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Dan Thomas
Supendrini stands in what remains of her home.

She lost her mother, two sisters aged 10 and five and a brother who would have celebrated his second birthday next month.
For her father Poobalasingham, 40, the loss is hard to bear.

“I lost everything. I am only living for this child,” he says, cuddling Supendrini who looks with concern towards her father as they sit among the ruins of their former home just 100 m from the beach.

Now they are living in a temporary house at a relief camp nearby, where they gently place flowers and pray every morning before a makeshift shrine with photographs of each dead family member.

Thousands of Sri Lankans like Supendrini and her father lost loved ones in the tsunami. At the Unnapulavi transit camp where the Thavabalasinghams live, 500 families have access to clean drinking water through standpipes, while rows of latrines provide better toilet facilities for men, women and children. Separate bathing areas for women and men are available and huge water tanks ensure a regular supply of water.

Soon after the daily prayer ritual, Supendrini sets off to school wearing a clean white uniform provided by UNICEF. She must walk more than two km to the temporary Mullaitivu school where she is a student in grade eight.

© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Dan Thomas
Supendrini and her father Poobalasingham walk on the beach near their former home.

There are three sheds housing several classrooms each. The school, which was near the beach – exposing it to the full force of the tsunami – lost 88 of its 975 students, with 20 still missing. Instead of classrooms, trees shelter a few of the higher-grade classes, like the one in which Sharmila Ganeswaran, 19, learns commerce.
“I want to get a good education so that I can help my family. I want to work in a bank,” she says, acknowledging tearfully that it’s very difficult to concentrate. “I am constantly reminded of my brother and sister [who died] because they too studied in this school.”
Supendrini finds that school gives her time to be with her friends and a chance to learn. As she walks through the doorway after school, her father greets her. 

Poobalasingham wants to get his life on track. “I want to come back. I wish we could return to our former homes. But the government must provide us some facilities,” he says as he picks up a piece of his wife’s sari and hugs his daughter in a moment of sadness.

Since 26 December, UNICEF Sri Lanka has carried out humanitarian relief activities centred on its core commitments for children in emergencies: the provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene; the provision of essential health and nutrition services; the provision of child-learning opportunities; and the protection and psychosocial support of children.




March 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride tells the tragic tale of a family ripped apart by the tsunami.

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