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Volunteers Try to Heal Tsunami's Wounds


Flash Slideshow with Audio Report

The December 26 tsunami left in its trail countless stories of pain and tragedy. Anjana Pasricha recently visited one of India's hardest-hit areas - Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu state, home to the majority of the country's 11,000 tsunami deaths. She reports that on efforts to help the children who are still struggling to cope with the overwhelming losses from the disaster.

A four-year-old boy playfully tugs at a middle-aged man's clothes as they chat. Two young girls play quietly in the sandy compound of his sprawling house by the beach in Nagapattinam. These children came to live with Karibeeran Parmesvaran and his wife after the devastating December 26 tsunami killed their parents.

Mr. Parmesvaran works at an oil company, but was playing on the beach that fateful day with his own daughters, 12 and seven years old, and his five-year-old son. He survived the tsunami by clinging to a tree. But his three children could not battle the killer waves.

The grief is etched in Mr. Parmesvaran's mind.

"Myself, I dug the grave, I placed my elder daughter and younger daughter [inside], when I am taking my son, only then I could remember that I have not even dressed my children," he said. "It is unbearable pain."

When he and his wife looked around, they saw similar scenes everywhere - parents who had lost children, kids separated from their mothers or fathers.

Children reach for tea at an orphanage in Nagappattinam, in the southern Indian town of Tamil Nadu
Within days, the Parmesvarans threw open their doors to poor children who had nowhere to go or whose only surviving parent was unable to take care of them. He says that gave them comfort and enabled the couple to resume a normal life.

"We want to make this house lively, so many children need affection," added Mr. Parmesvaran. "They need affection, we need children, we brought them to my home, now we made [the] lively house."

The couple now takes care of 19 boys and girls between four and 12 years old. The task is not easy. The traumatized children need both physical and psychological care. Mr. Parmesvaran says it is their love for children that helps them through the difficult moments - consoling a grief-stricken child, waking up at midnight to take care of a child bitten by an insect.

"One of the girls, she lost both parents in the tsunami only, she was crying in the morning, she's asking, "Uncle, I want to see my mommy." Where can I show? We have given some comfort," he said. "It is very hard."

The Parmesvarans have established a trust called "Nambikai" or "hands of hope", and want to look after more children, if they can afford it.

They are among a handful of tsunami survivors who are not only coping with their own grief, but are helping some of the most vulnerable in the community do the same.

Many others have not been so fortunate. UNICEF's district coordinator in Nagapattinam, D. Gopinath, says the physical rehabilitation of the community is making progress. But, he says the distress that the tsunami left behind is still strong, especially among women faced with empty homes or children without parents.

"From the government's side they have been funded enough, and their future has been taken care of," he said. "But the one area that has still not been attended to is the psychological area where the kind of stress they have, and the kind of fear they have and psychosis they [have] for the sea or whatever, it has still not gone out."

Volunteer groups in the area agree that providing food or money, and building shelters is the easy part. But healing the psychological wounds is a far more challenging task. Evidence of the stress is everywhere. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the government established an orphanage that cares for one hundred children who lost one or both parents.

As the children play in the compound of the modest building, there are few signs of the tragedy they suffered.

But the motherly looking district official in charge of the orphanage, Surya Kala, says it has been an uphill task to help the children to move beyond the trauma they suffered. She says they fill their days with activities such as yoga, to help them recover.

"They are affected like anything, they will not talk with other inmates also, they kept mum, they will be sitting lonely, no linkages with each other, but slowly only we got success," she said.

Individuals like Mr. Parmesvaran and Ms. Kala are doing their bit to heal the wounds of their community. But experts say the scale of the problem is daunting. Thousands are coping with stress and anxiety - and their sense of loss is only deepening as they get past the initial struggle to survive.

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