Tsunami's Cruelest Toll: Sons and Daughters Lost

by Davis Rohde

SORANPATTU, Sri Lanka, Jan. 5 - Mary Jansia, 26, thought the safest place for her 3-year-old daughter was on her shoulders. Thanaranjani, 28, swears that she never let go of her 4-year-old daughter. Bamini, 29, said she left her 6-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son alone for only five minutes.

Unicef officials estimate that of the 30,000 people killed by the tsunamis in Sri Lanka, at least 10,000 were children. At the same time, Sri Lankan officials say the tsunamis created only about 200 orphans. Martin Dawes, a Unicef spokesman, said he believed that the number of children who had died would rise.

If the same ratio holds true across Southern Asia, as many as 50,000 children could have died on Dec. 26. Surviving them are tens of thousands of distraught parents struggling to come to grips with their grief and guilt, tormented by their failure to do what parents are supposed to do: protect their children. "I feel that I should have died with the kids," said Thanaranjani, whose 4-year-old daughter was snatched out of her arms by the waves. "People blame me. They said I could have saved at least one." Her older daughter died as well.

Parents say they know there was nothing they could have done to fight off waves that ripped brick buildings off their foundations, but they are still haunted by the belief that somehow they should have made a different split-second decision that would have saved their children.

"Is there anyone in the world who is more attached to them than I am?" Ms. Thanaranjani asked, her bloodshot eyes welling. "I would not let them die."

Mourning parents said they have found an unexpected source of solace: one another. Mothers who lost children say they are comforted by conversations with mothers enduring the same loss. A community, of sorts, has formed.

Shanmuganathan, a 33-year-old woman whose 4-year-old son died while visiting his great aunt, said she and other bereaved mothers spend hours talking about their children.

Mallikadevi, the boy's grandmother, said the sense of kinship of parents in her refugee camp was a balm for the bereaved.

"The situation is better here because we can talk to each other," she said. "When we go back it's going to be terrible. We are going to be alone."

Dr. Athula Sumathipala, a Sri Lankan psychiatrist heading a government effort to help survivors deal with psychological trauma, said the rich Sri Lankan tradition of mourning, involving religious ceremonies, extended families and many ways to express grief, would first be allowed to take its course.

"I don't think anyone can do anything to expedite their grief," he said. "Beyond letting them express their grief, to cry and talk."

Nancy Lindborg, president of the aid group Mercy Corps, based in Portland, Ore., said addressing psychological trauma should be part of long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts.

"This is a long-term issue that will continue to surface for months, or even longer, as people come to grips with the magnitude of what they've suffered," she said in a telephone interview.

Here on Sri Lanka's northeastern coast, some parents are haunted by innocent decisions. Ms. Bamini chose to run a five-minute errand. Seconds before she returned to her house, a massive wave engulfed it, drowning her 6-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son, as she watched helplessly.

Ms. Jansia, a small, birdlike woman, placed her 3-year-old on her shoulders when the water reached her waist. She then hoisted her 4-year-old daughter onto a low-lying roof. When a second wave roared ashore, it knocked her younger daughter off Ms. Jansia's shoulders and into the churning water. Only she and the older girl survived.

Ms. Thanaranjani appears to struggle more than the other women. She was alone with her two daughters in the family's small oceanfront home when the tsunami struck. Her husband, a 34-year-old fisherman named Prabakaran Uthayakumar, was a few miles inland working a part-time construction job.

She heard what she thought was an explosion outside, and assumed Sri Lanka's dormant civil war between the government and ethnic Tamil rebels had reignited. Her older daughter, 7-year-old Kinthusha, told her it was something else.

Seeing the wave, Ms. Thanaranjani pushed Kinthusha out the door, scooped up her younger daughter, Janitha, and shouted, "Run! Run!"

The family only made it a few strides. Just behind their house, the wave washed away Kinthusha, who had been clinging to her mother's sari. It then pinned Ms. Thanaranjani and Janitha between a neighbor's barbed wire fence and beams from the family's collapsed home.

As the water level rose, Ms. Thanaranjani struggled to breathe, she said, but clung to her young daughter. Eventually, as the water continued to rise, the young mother blacked out.

"I had the younger one in my arms," she swears. "Until I lost consciousness."

After the waves receded, her husband found his two daughters first, lifeless and buried under sand and chunks of houses and boats. He then found his half-buried wife, who was throwing up salt water, and rushed to a hospital.

A strong, broad-shouldered woman with a round face and expressive eyes, Ms. Thanaranjani now moves listlessly around a small refugee camp.

Other parents mourn in their own ways. Ms. Jansia, who was able to save one of her daughters, focuses her thoughts and energy on her. Ms. Bamini, who left her two children alone, cannot speak when asked to describe her loss. Instead, her eyes tear and she waves her hand in front of her heart in small, frantic circles.

Ms. Thanaranjani's husband, Mr. Uthayakumar, a small, wiry man with a thick mane of black hair and piercing eyes, does his best to push aside emotion, and, it seems, memories. He focuses his energy on how to rebuild the family home. Dwelling on the loss, he says, will cause "psychological effects."

"This is not the time to give up," he said. "We have to fight."

But when asked, he speaks lovingly of his two "equally mischievous" girls. Kinthusha loved jewelry and hoped to become a teacher, he said. She planned to use her salary to buy jewelry for her mother. Janitha had just begun to talk.

When pressed, his anguish emerged. "If I had been at home at that moment," he said. "I could have saved the children."

The New York Times

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Posted January 7, 2005